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New Roots co-op creating new farmers from community of new Americans

The New Roots Farm Incubator co-op is embarking on a campaign to raise $500,000 to expand into a 60-acre site and help members become independent farmers.

A woman buying produce at a farmers' market.
Simeon Bakunda, center, and Emmanuel Sinzinkayo help a customer at Red River Market in Fargo, North Dakota, on Saturday, July 30, 2022. The two men are growers with the New Roots Farm Incubator, a co-op that helps new Americans get started in agriculture.
Jeff Beach / Agweek
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MOORHEAD, Minn. — Simeon Bakunda reaches down to pluck an African eggplant from the vine, taking a bite out of the crisp vegetable that is native to his homeland in the Congo.

Bakunda is a U.S. citizen now and is one of America’s newest farmers, growing vegetables as part of the New Roots Farm Incubator near Moorhead.

Bakunda and most other members of the co-op are new Americans, using small garden plots and mostly hand labor to grow vegetables and sell them. They are welcoming the chance to expand their small operations, as New Roots is seeking to secure 60 acres of land that it will start using in 2023, helping further the co-op’s goal of creating independent farmers.

“The plan behind the co-op is training farmers,” Bakunda said, with the goal of members someday being able to buy their own land and grow on their own

New Roots, with about 12 members, is part of a larger Community Supported Agriculture organization called PRAIRIE, which stands for Prairie Rose Agricultural Institute for Research, Innovation, and Education.

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Simeon Bakunda samples one of the African eggplants he is growing in his garden plot near Moorhead, Minnesota, on Friday, July 29, 2022. He is one of about 14 growers in the New Roots Farm Incubator.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

The co-op is embarking on a campaign to raise $500,000 to expand into the 60-acre site that will need equipment and other improvements, such as a well.

“Make a gift or learn about making a loan toward the $500,000 goal that will help a hardworking New Roots farmer realize the dream of running a viable agricultural enterprise to support his or her family,” the co-op board said in a statement.

Money can be donated through the West Central Initiative at wcif.org/fund/pra/ .

The expanded site is near the Prairie Rose farm at Felton, Minnesota, where one co-op member has been learning how to use tractors and other farm equipment to grow on a larger scale.

That co-op member is Caliton Ntahompagaze. With the help of a grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, he along with Bakunda are working on growing white sorghum as a grain and for sweet sorghum syrup.

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Verna Kragnes helped found the New Roots Farm Incubator. The co-op is launching a fundraising campaign to expand into a new site.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Ntahompagaze has for three years been filling out a Schedule F as part of his income taxes, making him a professional, bona fide farmer in the eyes of the federal government, which is a significant milestone, said Verna Kragnes, who helped found the co-op and is on the board of directors.

“If you can show a $1,000 of production of some sort and sales in a year, you can qualify as a farmer,” Kragnes said.

After the third year of filing a Schedule F, more help becomes available through the Farm Service Agency, such as crop insurance.

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“Access to a lot of resources through the FSA that are targeted at beginning farmers,” Kragnes said.

Ntahompagaze tells Kragnes he is ready to begin “hatching out” of the New Roots incubator.

“That’s what we’re really excited about with New Roots, is to see in the future more and more farms that have gotten themselves launched and are successfully operating,” Kragnes said.

Bakunda has for two years been filing for a Schedule F and others will do so for the first time after this year.

Bakunda had been working with Growing Together Community Gardens in Fargo for several years but was looking to grow his own vegetables. That opportunity came along when New Roots was created in 2018.

“I’ve been enjoying growing what I want, and being outside and making some income for my family,” Bakunda said.

Bakunda and Ntahompagaze were two of the first growers in the co-op and helped recruit new members from the immigrant community and have grown into leadership roles.

Kragnes said they were familiar with the idea of a co-op in their home countries and bought into the idea.

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“They helped I.D. other people … who shared a passion for wanting to start a farm,” Kragnes said.

Another co-op member who shares that passion is Mohan Dhakal who came to the United States from Bhutan in 2014.

Like the other co-op members, he has a full time job, working as a server in a restaurant, as does his wife, Rupa.

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Mohan Dhakal picks vegetables on July 29, 2022, in his garden plot with the New Roots Farm Incubator near Moorhead, Minnesota.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

He said he devotes 20 to 25 hours a week to his garden area.

“We want to keep ourselves busy,” Mohan Dhakal said.

The success of New Roots has even led it to be named the 2022 Clay County Farm Family of the Year by University of Minnesota Extension.

New Roots members grow vegetables that are familiar to Americans, such as green beans, cucumbers and tomatoes.

But they also have a chance to grow foods that are culturally significant to new Americans, such as the African eggplant and sorghum.

“I was so happy to grow my African eggplant on a large scale,” Bakunda said.

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Verna Kragnes, left, helps Simeon Bakunda pick peas on July 29, 2022, near Moorhead, Minnesota. The peas were some of the produce to be sold the next day at the Red River Market in Fargo.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Co-op members sell through farmers markets in the Fargo-Moorhead area, but also supply ethnic grocery stores.

Bakunda said he enjoys being out in the garden.

“But you have more fun when you take your produce to the market and we see people coming to us, getting the produce we have grown to take home and enjoy,” Bakunda said. “We are so proud to be part of feeding the community.”

Reach Jeff Beach at jbeach@agweek.com or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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