Common Earth Gardens program teaches refugee farmers to become entrepreneurs

Tang Mai Zatau, a refugee farmer from Myanmar, pulled weeds from a bed of garlic plants growing in his plot on the incubator farm, located at 3130 Millers Lane, April 30. Mai Zatau is one of the farmers supported by the Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Common Earth Gardens program. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

Tang Mai Zatau comes from a long line of farmers who worked the land in their native Myanmar to provide food for their families.

As a farmer in Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Common Earth Gardens program, he hopes to do something his ancestors never did — make a livelihood as a farmer.

Common Earth’s Incubator Farm Business Training Program is teaching him the skills he needs to sell his produce.

“It’s very exciting for me,” said Mai Zatau during a recent interview.

He and his family were resettled in the United States in 2014 and have lived in Louisville for close to two years. Mai Zatau and his wife are raising three children, ages 8, 5 and 3.

His wife works full-time while he stays at home with the children, but he hopes to be a full-time farmer, he said. In Myanmar, a Southeast Asian nation, people farm to feed themselves and their families.

“If we didn’t grow it we didn’t eat,” he said.

Farming in Myanmar is hard work, he noted. A large part of his farm was dedicated to growing mustard greens, whose seeds were used to make oil. He and other farmers walked for miles to get water for their plots. He’s been amazed by how easy life as a farmer is in the United States, noting the irrigation system used at the incubator farm as an example.

Many Refugees find that farming in the U.S. is different and not only because of the modern conveniences.

Lawrence Caudle, who serves as assistant director of Common Earth, helps the farmers as they learn to garden in their new homes and embark on a journey to becoming entrepreneurs.

Lawrence Caudle, assistant director of Catholic Charities of Louisville’s Common Earth Gardens program, stood next to a bed of lettuce and broccoli growing on the incubator farm located at 3130 Miller’s Lane, April 30. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

“Many gardeners have the experience already, but the farming techniques might be different in their country. The climate is different,” said Caudle during a recent interview at the incubator farm located on Millers Lane.

The incubator farm sits on two and a half acres divided into 14 plots measuring 120-feet by 30-feet. Each plot is tended by refugees who sell their produce, said Caudle. Common Earth requires a team of at least three individuals working each plot to ensure their success, he said.

Mai Zatau and three other families work the plot they’ve named “Kachin Farms.” They are growing lettuce, garlic, broccoli, mustard greens and tomatoes. Mai Zatau will sell his produce at the Beechmont Open Air Market on West Wellington Avenue starting at the end of May.

Refugee farmers sell their produce primarily at farmers markets, but also through a monthly subscription program, said Caudle.

The Incubator Farm Business Training Program was developed with the Jefferson County Cooperative Extension Service, the public education arm of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, said Caudle.

Common Earth Gardens partners with Bethany Pratt, an agent for horticulture education with the Jefferson County Cooperative Extension Service, to bring this training to refugee farmers.

The three-year program includes education on crop production, planting schedules, marketing, record keeping, financial management, food safety and pesticides, said Pratt, who helped to develop the curriculum.

“The goal is to empower farmers to utilize their resources and knowledge to create an independent farm business,” said Pratt.

Some farmers are looking to make extra money to pay the mortgage on a home or to use for education for their children, she said.

“We support every farmer. We work with them to help them meet their goals. The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service finds this program very impactful and fulfilling of our vision,” said Pratt. “We are proud to be a partner with Common Earth Gardens in helping families build better communities and lives for themselves and their families.”

Common Earth also supports five community gardens, which provide members of the refugee community the opportunity to farm a plot of land as a source of fresh foods for their families. Four are located in Louisville and one is in Georgetown, Ind.

Caudle said these gardens are farmed only as a source of food, but noted there are other inherent benefits.

“It’s rare to find one gardener out there. They get to know other gardeners and socialize. Culturally, it keeps them connected to their roots,” said Caudle.

To learn more about Common Earth Gardens visit https://cclou.org/common-earth-gardens/.

Ruby Thomas
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Ruby Thomas
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