October 19, 2023
NESAWG: Hello Anthony! Welcome! So great to have you with us today!
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself first so that people can get to know you?
Anthony: Yes, thank you! It is great to be here this morning. My name is Anthony Munene. I was born in Kenya and I have been in the United States for more than thirteen years now. I am located in New Hampshire, in a small city called Andover where I own a farm called Two Mountain Farm.
NESAWG: Awesome! We love to have you here. I wanted to see if you would like to share with us a little bit more about your farm - it would be wonderful to spotlight it here - and then if you could maybe share some of your experiences with land access and immigration.
Anthony: I will start with land access. Over the years, I have worked with an organization here in Rhode Island called ORIS (Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success) and all of my life I have worked with small scale farms and black farmers in East Africa and when I came to the United States I joined organizations which had programs working with farmers of color or underserved farmers in the state of New Hampshire and in the state of Maine. One of the main experiences I have had over the years has been around land access because, of course, to be able to grow food appropriate to your culture - ethnic food from where you come from - you need land. Accessing land has been a very big challenge on this journey, and also the resources that you need to be able to farm - which I will talk more about later.
So, land access has been a great challenge given the fact that,as immigrants, we face stiffer barriers to access the land. When you access a farm in a community, you do not know what you are getting yourself into. From the beginning, there are barriers to access the land; there are barriers to access the resources to be able to boost your farm business, there are barriers to access resources offered by the government, there are barriers to access the resources from the banking institutions, and it is all of this combined together.
Beginning with land access. This has been the biggest challenge in my career; it is to access land. I have a lot of stories of the journeys that the groups I have worked with have taken in accessing land - challenges and opportunities. I also have a story of how I managed to acquire my own farm - Two Mountain Farm located in Andover - and the process that we took to be able to afford the 50 acres which is quite a space where we now have established Two Mountain Farm vegetable operations and production on 2 acres of that land. So I want to emphasize again that land access, resources and connecting to the institutions all has been a big challenge for me and for the many underserved farmers that I have worked with over the years.
NESAWG: Thank you so much for sharing this, Anthony. In past conversations with me, you had mentioned about the difficulties to access land for community gardens and urban farming. There was a landowner willing to sell their land to your immigrant farmers of color, yet the neighbors resisted and fought back.
Anthony: Yes, I was actually shocked with the resistance from the white surrounding neighborhood. The landowner of this particular family run farm, was connected to one of the projects I had been working on for a couple of years. When the time came to have a deep conversation with the landowner, the landowner was very passionate about wanting to support the immigrant farmers. After working with the landowner for two years, and after we had developed a close relationship with the landowner, the landowner made it clear that they wanted to see the land continued to be used for agriculture purposes, and that they were willing to do whatever it took for refugee and immigrant farmers to use the land for farming their own food. And that is when the challenging issues started.
There were two processes: There was an initial donation of space to develop a community garden on the land, and then there was the process for developing the land. So initially, it was just a small community garden that the landlord allowed as we developed relationships. Then, after 4 years of gardening, we started to ask “what next?” We have been here for 4 years. We began with 1 acre, then expanded to 3 acres, 4 acres, 5 acres, 6 acres, and then 7 acres. And now we were asking, “What do we do now?”
Along the way we had started to build our relationship with USDA so that we could start tapping into resources offered by USDA, NRCS program - like having a greenhouse so that we could extend the growing season; drilling for water because there was no water; installing electricity ….all of the infrastructure that was needed that comes with developing the land for success. If you don’t own the land, building this infrastructure is a huge barrier because it is very expensive to invest all these funds on land that you have no control over.
However, as soon as we started conversations with the landowner to buy the land, the neighbors immediately started their own conversations to stop the sale of the land because they didn't want immigrants owning the land.
We went ahead and announced the drilling of a well ahead of time. We started by installing a well that was pounded 170 feet deep into the land. When the neighbors saw that construction was moving forward, the neighbors went ahead and contacted the landowner. They did not want immigrants. They did their best to find someone among their own white community to buy the land off from the landowner. They wanted to stop the sale to immigrant farmers from happening; but the landowner was on our side, and he stayed strong. He did not sell the land to his neighbors. The community then tried to stop the development of high tunnels, presenting complaints to the town claiming that immigrants had not pulled a construction permit. They were all strategies to stop all of our work on the land. So these were some of the challenges, even though we were already going through so much. When building our greenhouse, a neighbor started questioning, “ Why are you building a greenhouse?” Then there was a neighbor who challenged the porta potties on the construction site, “ I don’t want to see a porta potty when I come out of my house”. That was the level of resistance. It went down to that level of nastiness. The neighbors also started a Facebook group to monitor and discuss what was happening and what was going on with the land; they used the FB group to organize the search for a white buyer to buy the land; they used the group to publicly accuse us immigrants with the town, to gang up on us, and to stop the sale of the land to us as immigrants and refugees. One neighbor accused us of
Getting USDA funds to drill a well on the farmland and no funds to drill a well on his property. Every step was an issue. Every time a construction truck came to the land - “Oh, now we are going to have all this traffic in our neighborhood”. When the well was being installed, “Oh now they will be draining our water table because they will be pumping water to irrigate their land.” It was these kinds of challenges.
Eventually, the landowner created another FB page to raise support on our group. So it was a FB battle: one side supporting immigrants and refugees buying the land, and the other side with the neighbors fighting against us. In the end, there were people who really supported us, and our organization of immigrants was finally able to buy the land. Once we purchased the land, our farmers were not asked to move to another field. Our organization was a big organization with a lot of farmers from different countries because land access is such an issue. So we were able to buy that site, and then we were also able to access another site through a lease with farmers from other countries. But that second site was a problem because when you are leasing and you don’t own the land, they forcefully move you almost every year. The town moved us saying that they needed the land to build a big parking lot for a school; then we were again forcefully displaced to another location which didn’t last long because they didn’t want to tie up the land with agriculture in case they wanted to sell the land. These barriers really affect, and at some point the community members say, “I don’t want to deal with this. I don’t want to farm any more. Being moved from one spot to another spot, to another spot. And they tell me, “You know, when I left my country and came to the United States, I thought I might have a sense of security whereby if I wanted to farm somewhere, I wouldn't have to move every year. But it ends up that I am being forcefully moved here in the US just as much as when I was a refugee in another country where we kept moving and moving. We are still doing the same here in the US - moving.”
I finally found a lot of land owned by a private high school and negotiated a long term lease with them. I left the organization I was working for with the Board of Directors committing to leasing the land, but without fully signing the lease yet - even though we had already spent $100,000 in developing the land with infrastructure. So you can see the level of how important it is to own the land because after you have land control, you can now go to the government agencies and get some help to install a greenhouse and more. Government agencies want to see that you have control of the land for at least 4 years or more. So if you don’t have a long term lease agreement, you are doomed. It all comes down to land access. There are landowners that have so so much land, and they don’t want to give up control, and they string you along, “Oh next month, next week, next year we will sign an agreement.” I don’t know why they don’t want immigrants controlling the land. I have no idea.
When you are borrowing money for a loan from the bank, before asking you for the business plan, they ask you if you own the land, or if you have an MOU, or if you have a lease agreement.
Sometimes it is easier to sign lease agreements when there are fewer landowners owning the land. It is easier to work with one landowner at a time over institutions. We found one wonderful landowner close to Two Mountain Farm who quickly signed a 4-year lease agreement in two weeks, and then let the neighbors know that when he is ready to sell his farm, he will be selling it to our immigrants and refugees. This landowner has become an ambassador. Having these ambassadors in the community is very important, so we can grow our own food. It is important to find ambassadors whose mission is to help others and who are open. These ambassadors can help farmers navigate through the challenges that come up with accessing land.
I had the help of an ambassador when buying my own Two Mountain Farm. And we are now growing fruits and vegetables and adding animals. We are producing tons and tons of food for our communities, for our ethnic people, for immigrants in this country, producing culturally appropriate food; we are also contributing to the economy and to the larger community.
NESAWG: Thank you for sharing in detail so that everyone can more fully understand the challenges the immigrant communities of color go through, as well as helping everyone gain some motivation to join as an ambassador so we can also celebrate successes on the ground.
However, as important as it is to access land, farming on some lands can be more challenging than others. Can you share your story and experience of land offered for farming next to the prison industrial complex?
Anthony: When working with my immigrant organization, every day I woke up, I was thinking about land access. And then I would think about the development of the land with infrastructure for farming because without those two things people give up. I’d like to talk about our experience with land by the prison industrial complex. We were approached by an institution which hosts a big jail. They were writing a $1M dollar grant and they wanted us to partner with them, so that they could access those grant monies. In return, they were going to give our community some land to farm. This grant required the jail as grant writer to include low income underserved communities and to bring food access to the area because the area was designated as a “food desert”. Now, if you write a $1M dollar grant that includes bringing structures and horses to the complex -and out of that one million dollar, the farmers would only get a piece of land… and worse. It was land that was facing directly to the jail. The windows of the jail were overlooking the land in question. I involved the farmers in these discussions with the jail. The farmers were not interested at all on that piece of land. They asked, “Who is going to be overlooking the land we farm? Who is going to stop by and buy our produce when we set up a farmer’s market on that land?” Our young people of color said: “I would not even dare to go in that direction of the jail. I don’t want to be anywhere near it. We are not farming there.” Other farmers said, “You decide if you want that land and farm it yourself, Anthony. We are not interested nor do we want to waste our time in meetings with the jail.” So you see, even though these institutions have a lot of land, I don’t see how it will benefit our immigrant communities of color who want to stay away from these institutions. There is a history.
NESAWG: Our low-income communities of color are always cornered into challenging sites that come with either physical toxic substances (brownfields, superfund sites) or emotional, mental and spiritual toxic stressors like in the last example you mentioned. I have a follow up question for you regarding credit and seed funding. Would you be able to expand on the avenues for accessing loans for immigrants and refugees and share on the challenges of building credit?
Anthony: I just met with Farm Credit East and we had a discussion about how they could help the underserved farmer. I told them - you know what you could do other than helping with land access? You can help farmers build their credit. I myself came to this country and I didn’t have credit, but the credit union that I used for banking helped me. They had the time and care and asked me: “Anthony, you don’t have credit, would you mind we help you build your credit? They took initiative and the same day they gave me a credit card. It took me 1.5hrs to start establishing a credit history, and since then I have never left that credit union and I have very good credit. How great would it be if we had institutions that helped educate our people arriving new to this country to build their credit. And continue to meet with them once a month or once a quarter. Because without credit who can’t have a car, or land or farmland, or a home. You also need education to build good credit because if you have bad credit you end up paying 25% interest rate on loans. I know of people who have been in this country for 10 years and they don’t know how to go about building their credit because there is no institution out there genuinely and honestly helping our community.
NESAWG: Thank you so much, Anthony! It was such a pleasure to sit down and talk with you today. We will stay in touch. Aquene.
Photo credit: Two Mountain Farm