A Return to the Fields: Immigrant and Refugee Farmers Find Refuge at Big River Farms

Big River Farms Farmer in Training

 My most recent local food discovery commences at the Wilder Forest located in the Marine on St. Croix. From within the forest, one will find a quaint non-profit organization known as the Minnesota Food Association (MFA). During the early 80’s, a development proposal threatened to etch out the City of St. Paul’s Farmers Market. Area residents banded together to find a solution and in 1983, MFA was born with a mission “to build a more sustainable food system.” Another progressively-minded MFA project is Big River Farms - the only area farmer training program to specifically support refugees, immigrants and minority farmers with their goal to become self-sufficient.

"We provide farmers with the skills and knowledge to operate their own viable organic and sustainable vegetable farms, while providing fresh, organic produce to local consumers."

In order to be able to rent a plot, the trainees must also agree to participate in a 10 month long classroom and field training. “We are not teaching gardening, but rather how to grow and market quality produce in order to gain the competitive edge needed in the commercial market,” explained Glen Hill, MFA Executive Director. Farmers begin their training in the winter by learning complex lessons such as Writing a Farm Business Plan and Intro to Organic Farming. Trainees then move out to their individual farm plots for hands-on learning and preparation for sales at local markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and wholesale. “It is important that the farmers learn how to communicate with buyers and how to prepare their vegetables in a way that meets the safety and quality needs of the buyers which is why their participation in our in-house CSA is a critical piece of the training,” said Hill.


"It’s a joy to witness the farmers, many of whom live in small urban area apartments, in their resolve to breathe fresh air, have an open area to work with, and to be able to once again work with the land."

 Aaron Blyth, MFA Farm Manager

Big River Farms and the CSA produce is certified organic. Weekly CSA produce boxes contain a mixture of traditional vegetables such as carrots and broccoli, as well as unique vegetables which may reflect the farmers’ ethnic roots such as daikon radishes or bok choy. Buyers wary about cooking unfamiliar vegetables should not worry as they will receive a weekly newsletter describing the produce as well as preparation ideas. As a supporting community member, you not only have an opportunity to rise up to the challenge to eat healthier and learn about new vegetables, but you are also supporting the development of a healthy, sustainable local food system.
Many of the immigrant farmers who successfully complete their training such as Rodrigo Cala of Cala Farms, May Lee of Mhonpaj’s Garden, and Amy and Prouen Douen of Crazy Boy Farm  go on to realize their dream of having their own farm. "The time at MFA was invaluable! There is no way we would be here without them and can't thank them enough for all their help,” said Amy Douen, Owner of Crazy Boy Farms.
What are your Spring/Summer menu plans? Consider joining the Big River Farms CSA and support neighbors working to bring you a healthy and sustainable local food system. Food boxes can be dropped off at various sites throughout the area.
Contact Aaron Blyth for more information about the CSA: 651-433-3676


Leigh Ann Ahmad was dragged kicking and screaming to the Cities by her husband; having been born and bred in Cleveland, Ohio, she just could not fathom how colder could be better. Now, five years and two kids later, she cannot imagine a better place to play and thrive. She’s a reformed carb-aholic, wannabe writer, social justice advocate, book-club geek, veggie grower and local foods connoisseur. Her last article for SGT was about the 2012 maple syrup season with a recipe for granola bars!