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On a late summer evening, a group of Somali women start to trickle down to a small urban farm.
The women live in Horn Towers, a public housing complex in south Minneapolis where the vast majority of residents are Somali. The tall, gray towers south of Lake Street lie in a busy part of the city, near Interstate 35W and the Minneapolis Police Department’s 5th Precinct, a major point of protest and civil unrest in 2020.
But the only sound behind the towers is the chatter of residents, picking fresh okra, tomatoes, and cilantro to supplement their kitchens. For many, the urban farm at Horn Towers is their first time growing their own food since living in Somalia, where many families tend small kitchen gardens and trade vegetables with their neighbors.
Saynab Hilowley said she can’t express how much she loves the food and the feeling of raising her own tomatoes, onions, and mint. The Somali elder and eight-year resident of Horn Towers comes down to the small farm every afternoon or evening in the summer to help water the plants and pick a few herbs or ripe vegetables. Now retired, she considers tending the plants to be a form of happy work.
“It’s been amazing,” Saynab said.
The Horn Towers urban farm is the work of Naima Dhore, a Somali American farmer with a mission to make fresh produce available to her community and to involve more East Africans and other immigrants in growing their own food.
Naima, 38, is a trained organic farmer whose passion for fresh, healthy food began in 2009, after the birth of her first child. What started with raising microgreens in her apartment escalated to planting in community gardens. She became fascinated by farming, and studied organic methods. In 2016, she began farming full time and spent three years leasing land at Big River Farms, a certified organic farm in Marine on St. Croix that works with growers from historically underrepresented backgrounds. She’s put a lot of time into exploring sustainable agriculture, including a trip to Cuba to learn about the island nation’s regenerative farming practices.
Connecting people to produce
In 2020, she began donating fresh produce to Horn Towers. The trio of buildings had a longstanding community garden, and management asked Naima if she would be interested in growing there in 2021. Naima was looking for a new space to farm, and the timing worked out perfectly.
Throughout the spring and summer, she’s been helping the community access produce that was common in East Africa.
“I’m trying to do my part and spread this type of farming in the city,” Naima said.
She’s also become an advocate for fellow immigrant farmers.
In 2020, Naima launched the nonprofit Somali American Farmers Association, responding to messages and requests she received from interested community members. Farming is an overwhelmingly white profession. Of the 68,822 farms in Minnesota, the vast majority are operated by white people, according to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture. Latinos run 583 farms; Asians run 281; and Black farmers run just 48. Access to land and loans for farm equipment pose barriers for many people of color.
“My goal is to get more young people, immigrants, and East Africans into farming,” Naima said.
At Horn Towers, Naima created a fellowship program for residents interested in participating in the urban farm. Most of the 20 participants are Somali, but not all. Naima interviewed participants and paired them based on their farming experience. Some had grown vegetables before; others were complete newcomers. The original plan was to pair youth and elders, but with the continued presence of COVID-19, Naima opted to keep the program for senior citizens only.
Each pair has a raised bed to work with. The groups compare techniques and planting methods. Naima gives advice, but also encourages participants to farm their own way. The group exchanges knowledge, Naima said, and she’s learned from residents in addition to teaching. As the growing season moved along, she taught participants how to identify plant blights, with an eye toward figuring out how to be more successful in the future.
A community space
On just 1/8th of an acre behind Horn Towers, Naima built 28 raised beds that house nearly 100 cultivated varieties (or cultivars) of plants. Residents manage and harvest 10 of the beds, and Naima manages and sells the remaining produce.
Tomato vines bearing cherry, sungold, and heirloom varieties sneak up around rows of corn, kale, and okra, bringing pops of red and orange to rows of green. Beds brim full of hibiscus, mint, and cilantro. Naima is particularly fond of the Swiss chard, with its vibrant purple stems and rich flavor.
She also wants to demonstrate that small spaces can generate a lot of produce. “Our goal is to grow as much as we can,” Naima said.
At Horn Towers, she opted for a no-till growing method. Many gardeners and farmers turn over the soil each year with a garden fork (or on a larger scale, a cultivator), but Naima prefers to let the soil develop beneficial microorganisms from season to season. Instead of using a plastic-y weed barrier, she laid down paper over the planting beds and topped it with compost.
Urban soils can start off rocky and nutrient-poor. Naima’s approach, she said, creates healthier soil for the next growing year.
In the Horn Towers urban farm, she has plenty of supportive farmhands. Residents routinely assist with maintaining the space. As people help, Naima teaches them about crop rotation and other techniques critical to sustainable growing. The goal is for the site to benefit the community for years to come.
Naima is experimenting at Horn Towers, trying to see what thrives. This year, her Mexican corn looks tall, producing quality ears. But the sweet corn common in Minnesota struggled through the hot, dry summer.
“It’s me testing the waters and seeing what works and what doesn’t,” she said.
She’s planted a section of traditional African crops at Horn Towers. Crops like cowpea, peanuts, Ethiopian kale, sorghum, okra, and hibiscus are doing well, Naima said. Sorghum, a grain, is particularly special to the Somali community, she said.
“My goal is to really make sure the community is engaged and they can grow what they want,” Naima said.
At Horn Towers, Naima and the Somali American Farmers Association hope to create a model that can be reproduced throughout the Twin Cities, providing healthy foods to communities in need.
‘Everybody puts labor in and everybody shares’
Halima, a Somali elder who declined to give her last name, said she last grew food in Somalia 27 years ago. This summer marks the first time she’s seen some East African crops since leaving her homeland. She plants tomatoes, pickling cucumber, watermelon, and a number of hot peppers.
The okra, which the group began harvesting in late August, has been her favorite. Having a space at their home to congregate, spend time outside, and exercise is beneficial, she said.
“Everybody puts labor in and everybody shares,” Halima said.
The drought has been difficult this summer, but with help from the residents, the plants have been well watered. Now the harvesting season is in full swing, and several people walk through the urban farm in the early evening, snipping away at the ripe plants with small scissors.
On August 24, elder women stuffed basil, okra, and green beans in brown paper bags, then sat in the shade of a crabapple tree. They laughed and talked as they surveyed their take from the farm. They’d be back the next night. It’s their space.