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Immigrants find new path to agriculture through land access program
Expansion of Feed Iowa First program will give more farmers a chance at building their life from the ground up
CEDAR RAPIDS — When Jonathan Sabokwigura came to Cedar Rapids seven years ago, there were little to no opportunities for the immigrant to farm full time.
The Burundi immigrant wasn’t short on passion or the right background to get into the field. His entire family in Africa farmed beans, corn, sweet potatoes, cassava, onions, cabbage, Swiss chard and amaranths.
“My whole family, it’s what we’ve been doing for life, it’s what we did in refugee camps,” he said. “My dad did it to get my school tuition. We did it for many years, even the generations before us.”
But farming is a little bit different in Iowa, where the average farm size is 360 acres and dedicated mostly to corn and soybeans. And even if you know how to farm here, the barriers can be insurmountable for those without generational advantages.
It’s a contrast to the climate he grew up in, where produce can be grown year-round with access to water.
“The new way of farming takes knowledge and machinery,” said Sabokwigura. “The systems, the seasons. If you’re not quick, you’ll lose everything by fall.”
Even then, it takes land, and land takes a lot of money. Farmland in Linn County can be pricey to rent or buy — upward of $400 an acre for a growing season to rent, or $11,000 an acre to buy, said Emmaly Renshaw, executive director for Feed Iowa First.
With the recent expansion of Feed Iowa First’s Equitable Land Access program first started in 2021, soon more farmers like Sabokwigura will be able to access land to eventually become full-time farmers. Over the course of three years, the program helps build farmers with the resources and support to navigate a complex agricultural system.
“The goal is to set them up for success,” said Renshaw. “There’s not a lot of support for farming for them. We are the largest program in Cedar Rapids offering this opportunity to connect to land and equipment.”
The Equitable Land Access program was started in 2021 after diverse communities of refugees and immigrants started to face significant challenges to access culturally relevant produce. After the pandemic started, access to that produce through drives to Minneapolis or Chicago were sharply curtailed.
Access to city gardens in Cedar Rapids were great for personal use, but water access wasn’t guaranteed, and produce grown there couldn’t be sold at markets.
“The farmer response was ‘we know how to grow these things, so we can grow them here,’ ” Renshaw said.
This year, the program is expanding by adding 11 new acres in a partnership sponsored by Frontier Co-op. With land on a 20-year lease from Linn County Conservation, they’ve secured the longevity they need to farm vegetables.
Linn County Conservation originally purchased the land as part of a 17-acre tract for a trail intersection and had no other plans for it.
By getting more security than the typical lease of one to five years, they’re able to justify larger costs like an agriculture well — about $50,000 to build — and appropriate mid-size farm equipment that has to be specially ordered from around the world.
Greenhouses, another big barrier to growing culturally relevant foods from other hotter parts of the world, are difficult to access for immigrants. Immigrants from across Africa have started to learn what crops grow here: Liberian bitter ball, white eggplants, water greens, okra and amaranth.
In the last year, the program has introduced 11 new crops to Linn County. Amaranth required special permission to grow, as it’s usually illegal in Iowa.
If you go
Produce from farmers like the ones participating in the Equitable Land Program can be purchased at NewBo City Market, 1100 Third St. SE in Cedar Rapids, from 5 to 7 p.m. every Thursday and from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday.
With an affordable startup deposit and a sliding scale cost paid at the end of the season, the program gives guaranteed access to water, irrigation on timers, which allows farmers to work their full-time jobs as they build up their farm business, and up to $500 for seed purchases and $500 for marketing materials.
All together, the program hopes to build a sustainable path to agriculture for anyone with a passion to get into the field — setting them up for success with a limited liability company, an understanding of quarterly taxes, trial and error to figure out what crops grow well in Iowa, and the foundation of a successful business. By the end of three years, the goal is to make farmers self-sufficient to apply for federally subsidized farm loans and go out on their own.
“The families who participate in this program face a variety of problems that can’t be wholly addressed by any one organization,” said Alicia Simmons, sustainability manager for Frontier Co-op. “My favorite part of the whole program is the vast number of partnerships it holds.”
With a majority of farmland in Iowa owned by people over 65 who are starting to retire, Renshaw said Feed Iowa First is also starting to advocate for owners to sell their land to farm programs or for rentals to smaller farmers.
As Sabokwigura continues to deliver orders for DoorDash, the new program is a small start that gives him the confidence he can one day return to his roots.
“It’s helped me to know that it’s possible to be a farmer. I’m getting confident that one day I will be a farmer,” he said. “Nobody can succeed without the support of the community.”
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