Progress report for FNE20-958
Liberation Farms’ Somali Bantu farmers are the leading experts in the production of African flint corn, a staple in Somalia but a novelty in Maine. Many of our farmers grow flint corn for their personal consumption, and often grind this corn into a meal to make traditional Somali dishes. One of our commercial market accounts, Torilleria Pachanga, processes our corn into popular tortillas, sold in over 30 locations around Maine.
Liberation Farms provides new American farmers access to culturally-appropriate resources for sustainable food production for their families and communities through farming, an integral piece of both Somali Bantu and Maine cultural heritage. This program has seen incredible growth from 20 to 137 farmers over 5 years, a testament to the ambition of the Bantu communities in Lewiston and Auburn, ME, and the imperative of familiar outlets for work and cultural practice for refugee communities around the state.
With this growth, SBCA is exploring untapped commercial markets by which to provide more farmers with opportunities for economic and food security. We plan to explore the potential for a value-added African flint cornmeal in Maine’s farmers markets and in Maine’s local, food-based businesses, where current research shows there is increasing market potential. We will advertise this work and our mission through the Portland public school system, where we have an existing and dedicated relationship, through our existing commercial market accounts, and by leveraging our relationships with parties in Maine dedicated to the revival of Maine grains in our food system.
This project seeks to determine if unfamiliar varieties of value-added products, particularly African flint cornmeal, has a market in Maine. We will compare customer perceptions to conventional cornmeal, and their reaction to our chemical-free, local, more nutritious product. With this information, we will evaluate the product’s potential in farmers markets, local businesses, and our Somali Bantu community throughout Maine. We aim to answer the following questions: What is the familiarity with flint corn in Maine’s agricultural heritage? How much are farmers market, wholesale, and Somali Bantu customers willing to pay for the product? With what frequency do these parties predict using this product?
If this project is successful, we will have the capacity to invite more farmers to access our programs, resulting in increased food and economic security in Somali Bantu communities in Maine, and more Maine-grown products into Maine businesses, farmers markets, and food pantries. Consequently, this growth will stimulate an economic boost in the economically depressed areas of Lewiston and Auburn. Additionally, this product would not only promote Liberation Farms, but also the products of other Maine farmers who aspire to reintroduce traditional Maine crops into commercial markets, food systems, and the food consciousness of Maine’s residents and customers.
Brought to Somalia in the 19th century by slave traders, Bantus endured centuries of oppression in the horn of Africa as enslaved agricultural laborers. During Somalia’s civil war, many Bantu, facing violence, evacuated to camps in Kenya. Our founder and executive director, Muhidin Libah, grew up in a Kenyan refugee camp before moving to the United States and enrolling in college in New York. In 1999, the U.S. government began resettling Somali Bantu refugees around the country. In the early 2000s, Somali Bantu arrived in Lewiston. Today, there are over 6,000 Somalis in Lewiston and Auburn, over 3,000 of which are Bantu.
For many decades Lewiston suffered a decline in the manufacturing industries that were once its economic base. Although this trend bottomed out in the 1980s, the most recent U.S. Census still reported harrowing results. Over 23% of people in Lewiston are living at or below the federal poverty level. Downtown Lewiston is home to three “extreme poverty census tracts”, which are among the poorest in the nation. The poverty level in these areas reaches as high as 67%. In 2017, 96% of children in the city’s school system were eligible for free/reduced meals. Further, in the most recent update of Household Food Security in the US (2015), Maine ranked third in the nation for people experiencing very low food security. In this context, the Somali Bantu are the poorest community in the poorest city in one of the poorest states.
Additionally, our community has experienced notable health consequences as we have immigrated to the U.S. The transition from Somali food to an American diet often leads to diet-related illnesses including obesity, diabetes, and heart diseases. The stress of adjusting to new cultures, in conjunction with the inability to access familiar foods, puts our community at a distinct disadvantage in Maine. On top of these barriers, families in our community are unable able to provide their family with nutritious, affordable foods using SNAP and WIC benefits alone. All of the farmers participating in Liberation Farms struggle with food insecurity and 100% use SNAP benefits to help feed their families. We aim to combat these alarming trends with exclusively sustainable farming practices that provide economic opportunities, healthy and culturally appropriate food, and the ability to practice essential cultural traditions. We source our seeds locally, distribute our food locally, use human power to grow our produce, and we have never used chemical fertilizers or herbicides.
Our program is accessible to anyone who wants to participate and our commercial sales prioritize that communities struggling with food insecurity have access to our high-quality produce. The program actively addresses issues of hunger and accessibility in Cumberland County through its Farm-to-Pantry participation, and bolsters the local food economy with our institutional relationships and farmer’s market participation.
We participate in ‘farm to charitable food system’ work including our contract with Good Shepherd’s Mainers Feeding Mainers. Further, we engage in ‘farm to low-income consumer’ markets by selling at farmers markets that accept SNAP, WIC, and Maine Harvest Bucks.
In 2014 the Liberation Farm program supported 20 farmers. As of September 2019, the program now boasts 137 farmers who grow and distribute fresh, local produce to help build healthy communities. Our program participants report that 12-24 people typically eat produce from their 1/10 acre plot, most of whom are children. This success is a testament to the imperative need that it serves within the Bantu community. According to SBCA Executive Director, Muhidin Libah, “There is no shortage of new Mainers looking for a way into farming.”
In addition to increasing food security and access to culturally appropriate and familiar foods for our family farmers, the expansion of Liberation Farms’ corn production into value-added cornmeal would allow for more Maine-grown produce in local food pantries, farmer’s markets, and local businesses. This increase of local produce means that these parties and our farmers are cutting down on the carbon footprint of transportation and packaging of produce that may not be grown without chemical assistance. With additional income and influence in commercial markets in Maine, this expansion would also extend the farming program’s ability to sustain and provide a safe place to connect with land, gather as a community, and preserve cultural traditions for more farmers than those who currently participate, which is critical to the collective health of our community as we adapt to our lives in Maine. Farmers consistently report that our program improves their physical, mental, social, and emotional well-being.
The Somali Bantu community in Lewiston and Auburn has enthusiastically expressed interest in value-added African flint cornmeal. To capitalize on this potential, we will survey our family farmers and other Somali Bantu community members to develop a more concrete picture of this interest. Survey questions will include: What price would you pay for cornmeal milled by SBCA from African flint corn grown by community members? If you had access to this cornmeal, in how many meals a week would you use this product? In what size bags would you like to see this product packaged in (1 lb, 5 lb, 10 lb, etc.)? How many people in your community would likely be interested in this product? If this product is more appealing to you than conventional alternatives, how so? How many people are you typically feeding and how long will 1 lb of cornmeal last for your family?
Further, current market research on the subject suggests that this product is likely to be in demand among Maine’s local food-based businesses as Maine’s agricultural heritage and local food sourcing becomes a priority for business owners and their customers. Expanding upon and leveraging our existing relationships in this sector, we feel confident that this avenue is a secure outlet for this cornmeal product. If awarded this grant, we would prioritize our existing commercial account with Tortillera Panchanga, a dedicated supporter and market account for Liberation Farms’ current corn production. If this venture and expansion is successful, we would secondarily advertise the new cornmeal product to our existing commercial relationships managed by our Markets Manager, Kristina Kalolo to gauge interest and help us spread the word.
In addition, we would like to sell our African Flint cornmeal at Maine farmers markets to test it’s viability in this setting. We plan to conduct a taste comparison presentation for farmers market customers, comparing conventional cornmeal and our African flint cornmeal products in the form of a traditional Somali corn patty. We will ask customers to taste both, one made with conventional cornmeal purchased at walmart (the most common retailer for our community’s cornmeal supply), and another made with our chemical-free, local, nutritious, and more flavorful cornmeal. We will ask customers to sample these two products and record their reactions to the differing tastes and consistencies of the corn patties. This interactive comparison would be most opeable during the beginning season farmers markets that we will attend in Yarmouth and Norway, ME throughout the month of June, when fresh produce is still limited.
Through these 8-10 markets that we plan to attend in June, our farmers will conduct this comparison to first, raise awareness about and draw attention to our farming operation and our new product, and secondly, to share what this cornmeal product can be used for, how it supports our mission, and to determine what cost, compared to the typical average of $1.80-$2.50 per pound of cornmeal in conventional grocery stores, customers are willing to pay for African flint cornmeal. Ultimately, we hope to use this information to develop a fair and marketable price to expand our production into more markets and commercial institutions in Maine.
Maine Grains will work with us to make cornmeal from our African flint corn. (see letter of Commitment). Aa form of packaging is required to safely sell and transport this cornmeal product. To effectively market our product, we would like to purchase food-safe bags for cornmeal that use an environmentally responsible material, have our printed logo, and an airtight seal. Ideally, we would be able to provide 1 lb and 5 lb bags to our farmers market customers, and larger wholesale bags to our market accounts. Without knowledge about how much cornmeal we will likely produce in the coming seasons, it is difficult to say the cost of this variable. However, we plan to research retail bags with these requirements to find the most affordable and responsible option.
We will measure success of this project by tracking the amount of flint cornmeal produced, the total flint cornmeal sales, and the income generated for farmers through the flint cornmeal enterprise. We will also measure the success of this project through the strength and the resiliency of our relationships with partners supporting the flint corn enterprise – this could include communication through meetings/calls/emails, invitations and attendance at grain conferences, and opportunities for information and resource sharing.
Thus far, this grant has allowed us to survey members within our own community and in our larger Maine community to gather initial data about whether an unfamiliar corn meal would be well-received in Maine’s commercial market. We asked the following questions: What price would you pay for cornmeal milled by SBCA from African flint corn grown by community members? If you had access to this cornmeal, in how many meals a week would you use this product? In what size bags would you like to see this product packaged in (1 lb, 5 lb, 10 lb, etc.)? How many people in your community would likely be interested in this product? If this product is more appealing to you than conventional alternatives, how so? How many people are you typically feeding and how long will 1 lb of cornmeal last for your family?
We received strong support through this process and decided to move forward with marketing our corn throughout 2020. We spend some of this grant’s resources funding the communication process with a few potential markets, and have since developed strong and consistent relationships with additional market accounts who are selling our flint corn in different forms – Maine Grains processes our corn into cornmeal for retail sale at grocery stores and online, Night Moves Bakery processes our corn into meal to incorporate into their specialty breads, and Songbird Farm distributes our corn in their seasonal CSA. We sold out of over 6,000 pounds of corn immediately, indicating wonderful success for our farmers and our larger corn project. This additional income, over $6,500, for our farmers has been critical, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of our farmers are out of work, and are turning to farming with SBCA to support their economic and food security.
The resulting cornmeal products have also seen incredible popularity in grocery stores, in CSA’s, in tortillas, and in bread, suggesting that Mainer’s are interested in supporting local heritage grain products! Our market accounts are praising our corn and often come back to us with the message that they “cannot keep our products on the shelves”. Due to this success, we have invested in more corn seeds and additional infrastructure for drying corn, and we have recruited more farmers to join our corn coalition next season. The success has fueled a lot of energy for our corn project with in our community, which is a wonderful way for us, Somali Bantu folks, to honor our cultural heritage in Maine.
We sought to determine if African flint cornmeal had a profitable place in Maine’s local food economy. We surveyed community members to gauge interest, reached out to potential market accounts, developed relationships with these accounts, sold over 6,000 pounds of corn for our farmers, and provided essential economic security and an avenue to celebrate our Somali Bantu traditions. The resulting cornmeal products have seen incredible popularity, suggesting that Mainer’s are interested in supporting local heritage grain products! Due to this success, we have invested in more corn seeds and additional infrastructure for drying corn next season, and we have recruited more farmers to join our corn coalition next season. The success has fueled a lot of energy for our corn project with in our community, which is a wonderful way for us, Somali Bantu folks, to honor our cultural heritage in Maine. We anticipate these changes will bring at least $7,000 of additional income to our corn farmers next season, and will help to promote SBCA as a valuable resource for new Mainers in need of fiscal support and a connection to their agriculture roots.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
We have hosted multiple demonstrations and workshop days to help our farmers become familiar with the quality control that our market accounts require. In particular, we have hosted food safety and handling workshops, demonstrations about how to efficiently de-cob and winnow (clean) our corn, and drying workshops.
Mark Fulford, co-founder of Adaptive Ag and a heritage grain farmer, has been integral to this process. He has helped us to develop a corn drying system that works for our farmers and market account holders, been an invaluable corn drying, cleaning, and packaging consultant, and continues to be a constant resource whenever hiccups in our processing arise.
We have also facilitated a campaign to make sure that our farmers can also afford this food that they are growing. We have purchased an old coffee grinder and held a workshop on how to operate it so that farmers can keep any amount of corn they would like to, and process it into cornmeal at our office in downtown Lewiston for free.
Key areas of increased knowledge and skills include food safe handling, cleaning, and packaging of our corn, and knowledge development for corn processing machines. This grant has allowed our farmers to attend workshops to safely handle food to the standard of our market accounts, and to access to unfamiliar tools that help to make processing our corn more efficient. These tools include a grinder for our farmers to process their personal corn into meal for the food security of their families, hand-crank de-cobber machines to help speed up the process of taking kernels off of corn cobs, and a winnower to help speed up the cleaning process of the corn kernels. All of these machines required knowledge building so that they can be used safely.
Not only has this cornmeal provided our farmers with critical income and food security, many of our farmers have also noted that they feel a heightened sense of pride in their corn as a result of this project. They see it as a piece of themselves, their culture, and their original home in Somalia. This pride has enlivened our community and energized younger generations of Somali Bantu community members, boosting their interest in corn, agriculture, and Somali Bantu culture.
We have been able to establish 3 new markets, and are looking to expand in 2021. We saw increased yield, and an increase in the quality of our corn throughout this project.
Our study’s approach was community-centric, which was key to the success of this project. Without the enthusiasm and existing knowledge of our farmers and Somali Bantu community members, we would have not had the expertise or momentum to grow corn of as high a quality and yield as we did. Further, without community energy and pride, our market accounts would likely be less interested in this project.
We certainty answered our initial question: Is African flint cornmeal a viable commercial product in Maine? Yes! We plan to continue drawing on our generations of corn farming experience to make this program a cultural and economic success. There is more work to be done in two key areas: recruiting more farmers to participate in our program, and establishing our product in farmers markets. This year, our market account demand was too large for our yield. We need more farmers to meet this demand, and then our product will be able to accompany us to farmers markets, as well, which would be a wonderful way to communicate to shoppers about our culture and our pride in our corn.
One change we will make moving forward, is a return to the greenhouse drying method. This season we experimented with a solar bubble drying system, and outdoor system that holds corn in a large plastic tube to optimize the sun’s energy for drying out the grain. While we were hopeful this system would help to speed up our process, we found that it was not impermeable to moisture, and much of our grain got wet while after a period of intense weather, setting us back 2-4 weeks. To combat this, we pivoted to investing in drying tables that could accommodate more corn, and we moved this wet product into our greenhouse where it was able to dry to appropriate levels for cleaning and packaging. Many grain farmers in Maine may benefit from this finding. Solar bubbles may not be able to stand up to Maine weather! We have found that they are not quite as hardy as Maine’s people.