After Harvey, Resettled Refugees Who Found Opportunity Farming Rebuild Again

At Plant It Forward Farms, refugees who found work farming on plots of land across the city are now recovering after Harvey. Photos: Leah Binkovitz.

Geraldine Prejean likes to set a scene. So when the dispatcher on the phone asks about what might have led to Prejean’s husband’s collapse that morning, she dives in. “We’re out here at the garden, sugar,” Prejean tells her. “You’ve got to get down here. They’ve got okra, sweet potato, damn near everything.”

Corbin Prejean, meanwhile, is waving her off. Having revived from whatever overcame him while propped up against the bus stop by the fields, he is adamant that he doesn’t want to see any kind of emergency personnel. He’s patiently waited for his wife to get what she came for that morning, and health scare aside, they’re going to get it.

Having walked her husband back to their car parked at the side of the road, Prejean turns to Sarment Louamba. “You better pick my damn okra,” she says. Louamba, understandably, thought perhaps the deal, arranged yesterday when Prejean saw him tending his field on the southwest side of Houston, was off. But Prejean came for okra and Louamba, luckily, still has okra to sell.

***

It’s just past nine and the September sun has already put a day’s work in. A couple weeks after Harvey dumped more than four feet of rain on Houston, the city is still drying out. Catch a snippet of conversation on the sidewalk these days and it’s likely to be about the flooding.

In the two acres of fields next to the Westbury Community Garden in southwest Houston, the signs of Harvey are everywhere. Louamba has been farming for four years now. “I grow every day,” he said, “this is my job.” After Harvey, he’s salvaging the few plants that survived and preparing to replant his field. “It’s very bad,” he said, surveying the damage. He lives just a few minutes away. And during the storm, he was able to drive over to the field. It looked okay. But a few days later, when the sun finally reemerged, he said, “All the plants had died.”

Though Sarment Louamba lost most of his crops after Harvey, he was able to salvage and sell the few that held on.

Without enough produce to sell at farmers markets or to local chefs, his family will have to make do with less until the next harvest. He plans to plant sugar peas, arugula, Chinese leeks, celery, onion, kale and other crops. One of a handful of refugees who earn their living farming plots of land scattered across Houston thanks to Plant It Forward Farms, he is thankful for this morning’s business after Harvey wiped out almost all of his crops.

Born from a partnership with the local Catholic Charities refugee resettlement program, Plant It Forward offers roughly year-long classes to refugees interested in farming. Once the course is completed, they can work a plot of land at no charge in one of our four locations across the city. After the devastation of Harvey, Plant It Forward was able to raise funds to help the farmers replant and membership dues from the community supported agriculture subscription service helped buoy the farmers even when they weren’t able to deliver any produce. But still some fared better than others. And for all of the farmers it was actually the second natural disaster this year, following the two-day freeze in January that also hit crops hard.

“You’ve got to be resilient as a farmer,” said Daniella Lewis, operations manager for Plant It Forward Farms. Even with the volatility of nature, Lewis said, farming has offered income for resettled families, brought fresh produce into more neighborhoods and reclaimed green space within a sprawling city whose concrete cover was criticized after Harvey for worsening flooding. And they’re hoping that drainage improvements will help soften the impact of the inevitable next storm for the farmers.

“Our farms held a lot more water than the typical lawn and certainly a lot more than the typical parking lot,” said Lewis. “Our slogan is a farm in every neighborhood,” said Lewis. “We want to be as ubiquitous as nail salons in strip centers. If we were really a farm in every neighborhood, I do think that we would have some measurable impact on reducing local flooding.”

None of the handful of farmers who work more or less as independent contractors with Plant It Forward Farms suffered any flooding damage in their homes. And some, like Louamba have been able to sell the crops that held on through the storm. But for others, the losses were more severe.

“All of our farmers lost newly planted crops and more vulnerable crops,” explained Lewis.

***

“You see all my squash died. My eggplant died. My sweet potatoes died,” explained Toto Alimasi. His field, just behind Louamba’s, held more water, drowning the roots of most of his crops. With his replanting grant, he is hopeful the earth will be generous again.

Alimasi has been in Houston for five years but farming for only two and a half years. Working nights before coming to Plant It Forward Farms, Alimasi said his life has been better since he started farming. “I felt better coming here,” he said of the farming, a trade he picked up while in a refugee camp in Uganda. “We are a little bit free.”

Replanting grants help farmers get back on their feet after Harvey but the storm was still a blow to their income.

Fatuma Anastasia Rukundo works on her husband’s farm in southwest Houston.

His wife, Fatuma Anastasia Rukundo, helps him in the field. “I like it, but it is hardworking,” she said. “We stay tired every day.”

And now they worry. “After this one month, we don’t know how we will do,” said Alimasi.

This month, Rukundo plans to be one of the new farmers enrolled in the latest training class with Plant It Forward Farms. Lewis said they’re already looking for more land and hoping to expand. In total, 22 refugees were enrolled in the eight-month training program that kicked off Saturday.

“The land sustains you,” said Lewis. And when it doesn’t, she said, “We are something for the farmers to fall back on. There’s not an insurance product we’ve found that our farmers can opt into. We are essential to them to having something stable.”

***

Some of the medics at the scene suggest Prejean’s husband should go in for more tests, but he refuses. Seeing that she has not been deterred from her mission, Louamba heads to his field and fills three small plastic bags with okra.

“I heard you were waiting on your okra,” one of the firefighters says to Prejean. “What you making then?”

“Gumbo, hell.” What else?

The crowd of emergency responders seem to be growing restless the clearer it becomes that her husband is fine, thank you very much. One asks Lewis, who is also there, to tell him more about the Plant It Forward Farms operation.

When Louamba returns with the okra, Prejean reaches for them, her red fingernail polish shining in the sun. Louamba looks at the dollar bills she’s given him and hands a few back. She keeps a couple and puts the rest back in his hand, the negotiations final, and kisses him on the cheek.

“Take your wife to lunch,” she says.

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Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is Senior Editor with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

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