New growth: Farming opportunities expand to refugees

Local not-for-profit inspiring new gardeners, farmers in Iowa

(from left) Theo Bampamirubusa and Angelina Theopoie, both of Cedar Rapids, plant white eggplants in a plot of land off
(from left) Theo Bampamirubusa and Angelina Theopoie, both of Cedar Rapids, plant white eggplants in a plot of land off 16th Avenue SW in Cedar Rapids on Monday, May 29, 2017. Feed Iowa First facilitated the project by finding the land, getting the seeds and minerals as well as providing the tilling. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A new group of farmers and gardeners hope to coax food out of Eastern Iowa soil, and they’re using the help of a local not-for-profit to do it.

While studying for a bachelor’s degree in agronomy in 2011, Sonia Kendrick founded Feed Iowa First in hopes of staving off food insecurity — defined as not having access to enough affordable, nutritious food — in Linn County and growing local food. Two or three times a week, Kendrick loads up a bus and delivers the fresh produce she grows to lower-income neighborhoods in Cedar Rapids and around Linn County.

Three years ago, Kendrick expanded her services, devoting a few acres along the west end of Williams Boulevard in Cedar Rapids for refugees.

Now, Kendrick is helping refugees grow their own food to supplement their diets, and she’s hoping to cultivate the next crop of Linn County farmers. But, as with most entrepreneurs, she’s needed help.


On a Friday morning in June, Jean Jacque Bizimana and Ledekunda Haffizimana were standing barefoot in the hot soil of Haffizimana’s garden, the small section Kendrick allotted them on the land off Williams Boulevard SW.

Bizimana and Haffizimana were tearing out the plants that had started as seedlings earlier that spring. The seedlings had gotten too much sun and too little rain.

“We try to clean again and grow back,” Bizimana said, using a dirt-streaked hand to push back his white baseball cap with a rhinestone-encrusted cross on the side. “We do the best we can. Sonia helps us.”


A few pounds of dry pinto beans in a plastic bag wait on the edge of the plot to be dropped into the soil. They’re hoping to regrow onions, tomatoes, corn, beans, peanuts and rhubarb with seeds and seedlings Kendrick provided.

Bizimana and Haffizimana are refugees from Burundi who left their home because they believed their lives were in danger because of ongoing conflicts, Bizimana said.

“The fighting pushed (me) out,” Haffizimana said, with Bizimana translating. “You’re Hutu, you’re Tutsi, so they hate you and try to kill you. I don’t know my tribe because my mama never (told) me.”

Bizimana left his home country for refugee camps in Kenya and Nairobi.

“Because I’m gay, the people try to kill me there,” Bizimana said.

He first settled in San Diego, but later moved to Cedar Rapids to be close to a friend. However, Bizimana said his apartment was burglarized a few months ago, and his immigration papers were stolen so he isn’t able to work.

Haffizimana, whom he calls “Ma,” has taken Bizimana into her family.

Growing their own food is second nature to most African immigrants, Bizimana said. Everyone had a garden, and the surplus was sold in town to buy clothes and other goods. Now, the food Haffizimana grows helps her feed her husband, eight children and Bizimana.

“If you have corn and you have onions, you don’t have to go to market and buy something,” Bizimana said.

That’s the point, Kendrick said.

Kendrick knows from experience that many food pantries provide processed foods, sustainable on a shelf but not for a nutritious diet. It’s her hope that Linn County could become less dependent on large chain supermarkets and shipped-in produce. And it’s her hope that fruits and vegetable push processed foods out of their spot on dinner plates.

“I know what it’s like to be impoverished and want to eat healthy food and feel like I don’t have the money,” she said. “Last year when I was driving the bus, we’d have little kids get on the bus and they would just grab zucchini and take a bite. They don’t know what it is, but they’re hungry.


“We have a lot of malnourishment. People are filling themselves with fillers but they’re still hungry because they’re not actually eating (nutrients).”

While studying for her master’s degree in sustainable food systems at Green Mountain College in Vermont, Kendrick studied how many vegetable farmers it would take to make Linn County an independent fruit and vegetable market. According to her calculations, it would take 253 vegetable farmers with 40 acres each.

“The move toward the future isn’t going to be perfect, but if you wait for the perfection to happen you’re never going to do anything,” Kendrick said. “The ultimate goal is that Linn County feeds itself. The reality is we’re going to have to help out.”

But Kendrick is only able to help refugees because she received her own help.


Most Iowa farmers have inherited knowledge, equipment and land from at least one or two generations before them. Local farmers have offered advice, equipment and time, and Kendrick said she’s still seeking to expand the support network.

Kendrick started Feed Iowa First on a half-acre of land. With help from donors, she’s expanded to about 25 acres of vegetable farms spread across Linn County.

She acquired the land now used for refugee gardens through a partnership with Cedar Rapids’ New Disciples Church, which recognized the growing number of refugees moving to Linn County.

Families are allowed about a one-third acre plot as long as they are responsible for tending the plants and weigh the amount of food they produce so Kendrick can track Feed Iowa First progress. Kendrick also provides the about 25 families — mostly all African and Guatemalan refugees — who have a plot with many seeds and seedlings.

In the past year, she had to order a new kind of seed — white eggplant, a favorite of many African refugees. Cargill Inc. allows Kendrick to rent a shed for only $1 a year in which to grow and store seedlings.


The gardeners and Kendrick have learned from each other, she said. They can grow sweet potatoes better than she, but she’s got them beat on transplanting seedlings into soil and growing corn, a skill in most Iowans’ wheelhouse.

“Everyone who donated to Feed Iowa First ... supported me to have the economic possibility to learn how to become a farmer ... (so) I could pass that forward,” she said.

And now Kendrick has set her sites on helping refugees become farmers as the average age of farmers in Iowa increases to 57, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Theo Bampamirubusa, a refugee from Burundi, has proved himself a farmer, Kendrick said.

You could say farming is in Bampamirubusa’s blood. He grew corn, coffee and beans on his family’s farm in Burundi. Though he has a full-time job at Whirlpool in Amana, Bampamirubusa has toiled away on Feed Iowa First farms on nights and weekends to help Kendrick since 2012.

Last year, Kendrick helped Bampamirubusa secure a few acres outside Cedar Rapids on which to grow his own white eggplant and tomatoes to sell at local farmers markets.

“She said, ‘Theo, I approve, you can be a farmer,’” he recalled. “She helps me for everything, (but) she can’t help me find funding.”

However, Kendrick was able to give Bampamirubusa the phone number of a farmer who could lend him a hand in preparing his soil.

“I called him. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to come help you,’” Bampamirubusa said.


In May, he planted about 1,200 seedlings by hand. And though he now has a truck of his own — something Bampamirubusa said every farmer needs — he still has to get used to Iowa’s growing season, shorter with more rain than the climate in Burundi.

Bampamirubusa has other goals, too. He said he’s working with Kendrick to learn how to control weeds, and he wants to go to college to learn how to be a mechanic. He knows farmers have to be handy.

“You can’t be farmer if you don’t know how to fix cars and your tools,” he said. “It’s going to be hard. Some people can’t do it. I must have Sonia to help me.”

Kendrick said she’s hoping Bampamirubusa starts his own farm so that she can take on more proteges.

“We need a new generation of farmers. We’re going to have different places to get people who want to do the work,” Kendrick said. “They might not have land, they might have language barriers. “Anybody that’s willing to do that work, we need to get them on the land.”

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