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For the Love of Chard: The First Bantu Harvest in the New World

Winter crops will be planted under the hoop house.

Some of the produce picked was sold to local restaurant, Potager.

To date this year, the Ubuntu Farm has produced approximately 6,500 pounds of organic produce.

Potatoes and tomatoes were the biggest producers.

Earlier this year, Confluence Denver brought you the story of the Somali Bantu refugees and the Ubuntu Urban Farm in Denver's Westwood neighborhood. It was the beginning of a learning experience for the refugees of war-torn Somali who, though farmers by tradition, were not used to farming in a climate anything like Colorado's. Now they've harvested their first full season of crops, providing them to the Bantu, CSA (community-supported agriculture) members and a restaurant.
In their native Somalia, which is much closer to the equator, the Bantu, a peaceful Muslim tribe, grew crops year-round, says Rasulo Rasulo, Executive Director of the Somali Bantu Development Council of Denver and one of the Ubuntu farmers.

"Year round there were different kinds of crops, but mostly you could find tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes and other things -- those are the year-round crops, some people used a small area to grow tobacco," he explains. "We didn't have the snow or that temperature that goes directly down to the bottom. We did have drought, but it was really rare."
 
That climate difference required an education, which the Bantu received from Revision International Farm Manager Alyssa Meier and others with the organization. Revision also spearheaded the process of finding the one-acre plot for the Ubuntu Urban Farm with a number of nonprofits and others in the Denver community. 
 
It was a learning experience for Meier, too. "This is the first time that I have had the opportunity to manage a property this size. That was probably one of the greatest things as well as one of the greatest challenges that I faced this summer," she says. Previously she worked at other farms, like Grant Farms in Fort Collins, but this time she was in charge. "The timing of everything and the coordinating of everybody, picking things at the right time and knowing how to deal with each variety, and probably one of my greatest challenges with this whole group is communication." 
 
"I'm working with three different languages here, English and then the Somali Bantu have a variety of languages, and we also work a lot with the promatoras," Meier explains. The promotoras are part of Revision's Residential Empowerment project, which hires and trains residents within a neighborhood to serve as health and gardening outreach coordinators. As such Meier, the Bantu, promotoras and volunteers were all working together to help make the farm thrive -- and it did. 

A bountiful harvest
 
"To date this year, the Ubuntu Farm has produced approximately 6,500 pounds of organic produce," says Revision Co-Founder and Director of Operations Joseph Teipel. 
 
A lot of that was potatoes, according to Meier. "The tomatoes would be another of our bigger crops," she says. "We had about five different varieties. Off the top of my head we had cherokee purples; valencias, which are this kind of beautiful yellow-orange tomato; moskvich, which is a great heirloom…but kind of standard red tomato; san marzano, an italian stew tomato; black cherry tomatoes; and brandywines," she says. "We had an abundance of cucumbers, an abundance of peppers, specific kinds of pepper and chard," she says. 
 
Some of the crops were new to the Bantu. "What really fascinates me is chard. We harvested and harvested. It's still un-defeatable, it's still there. We're like: ‘What is going with this, What happened?" Rasulo says. He nods to the remaining heads of chard, their green leaves perking up among the dirt and brown refuse of fading plants in late October. "The chard was amazing. If you cut it today, tomorrow it's going to be like, 'Boom! You didn't touch me! Come on.' It's just playing around with you. It was a fantastic crop." 
 
Of produce picked some went back to CSA members, low-income residents of southwest Denver, who paid $22 a week for 10 to 15 pounds of produce. Revision had 33 CSA members this year, according to Teipel. Thirteen of them picked up their weekly produce at Denver Community Church. The Bantu, of course, used the produce as well. 
 
Revision also sold food produced at the farm to Potager, a Capitol Hill Restaurant that's no stranger to local foods. It purchases produce and goods from a score of local farms and purveyors. Potager bought tomatoes, green tomatoes and carrots from the farm, says restaurant owner Teri Rippeto. "This is the first time that they've been selling to restaurants," she says of Revision. She has purchased locally produced food for the restaurant for 16 years.  
 
Planting for the future Winter crops will be planted under the hoop house.
 
While Rasulo says it was a good year for farm it needs to do better. "This year the farm did not produce enough to pay for itself," Teipel says. "However we anticipate increasing our production capacity by at least two or three times next year by utilizing season extension techniques, and better season planning." Revision anticipates the farm will pay for itself within two years as production increases.
 
Though the main growing season is over, Meier and the Bantu are not done with the farm for the year. Meier explains that they'll be planting fall and winter crops in a small hoop house on the site. They'll plant a variety of vegetables including kale, multiple cabbage varieties, spinach, lettuce parsley, cilantro, carrots, beets, onions, garlics and leeks. They will also plant some ground-cover plants like harry vetch and crimson clover. The ground covers will help protect and replenish the soil for future crops and will be used as a sort of green fertilizer, she says. 
 
Next season they plan on planting more of some crops that didn't do so well. The pumpkin crop fell victim to squirrels Rasulo says. "They had their time over there with the pumpkin and watermelon," he says. That's despite spraying the crops with natural deterrents like a mixture of cayenne and other herbs. Rasulo observes that it could have been worse if the squirrels and raccoons ate other crops like tomatoes. Meier adds that they're experimenting with other natural deterrents and next year they hope to plant an abundance of corn, melons and pumpkins. 
 
Looking farther forward, they hope to expand the farm to the full plot. Meier explains that the narrow trough of land between houses actually dog-ears and goes further back out of site. They also plan to plant an orchard and add livestock like chicken and goats to the mix. The goats will be raised "for ritual slaughter and anybody else who wants a goat," says Rasulo. "Otherwise people have to drive as far as Brighton [for a goat]." Goats are sacrificed for the Muslim festival of the sacrifice, Eid al-Adha, and they're also used as sacrifices for other religions. 
 
Revision is also looking to the future. They've helped establish about 200 gardens in the Westwood area and there are plans to expand that to roughly 300 gardens. In addition to the Bantu farm they manage Kepner Middle School Educational Farm just blocks away from the Bantu farm. 
 
"Revision is creating a community-owned food cooperative," explains Teipel. "This will be a for-profit business owned by the family gardeners and the Somali Bantu. The cooperative will aggregate the food grown in the community at a physical food hub…for processing and then distribution. Plans are coming together and Revision recently won a three-year grant from the USDA's Community Food Projects program to help get the cooperative off the ground." 
 
That's not all, Teipel adds. "Revision is in the process of building out an educational kitchen which will serve as a space for community members to not only learn more about cooking, nutrition, and food preservation, but also have the opportunity to receive training on how to teach these subject matters to their fellow community members.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Chris Meehan.

Chris is a Denver-based freelance writer, editor and communications specialist. He covers sustainability, social issues and other topics.
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