Planting Exotic Crops for the Sake of the Local Economy

Immigrants to St. Louis are capitalizing on urban gardens, and helping to revitalize the city.

Ammar Awad / Reuters

In a city best known for deep-fried ravioli and butter cake, you might not expect bitter eggplant—dubbed “pumpkin on a stick,” for how it looks on the stem—to be a runaway hit.

Yet bitter eggplant, common to cuisine in parts of Africa, Asia, and Brazil, has become one of the most popular crops at two urban farms in St. Louis, bringing in $6 to $7 per pound. Used in a soup or a sauce, it is a favorite among the locale's most recent arrivals, refugees from such strife-torn lands as Burundi, Myanmar, and Nepal. For the past few years, refugee farmers have raised the exotic crop, and many others, through a program run by the International Institute of St. Louis, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants adapt to life in a city whose heyday has long passed.

“We provide them the opportunity to be growing produce that you can't really find in this part of the world,” says Blake Hamilton, a program manager at the institute. “We have folks who maybe made their living as farmers previously and other folks who maybe had a garden nearby their house. ... It really kind of runs the gamut.”

St. Louis has been a destination for refugees for decades, absorbing thousands of Bosnians in the 1990s as well as a spectrum of newcomers from dozens of other countries. The idea for the urban farm began with refugees from the central African nation of Burundi who had been resettled in the city's North Side, which is known more for shootings and boarded-up buildings than for agriculture. Joel Walker, the institute's global farms coordinator, recalls that the immigrants “came to us and said, ‘We would like to have a place to farm, because that's what we do—it's in our blood.’”

The project started with a community garden in 2008, down the street from apartments housing dozens of Burundian families, and has expanded twice—last year, to almost an acre. In 2010, the institute used private and public funding to open a second farm, of a similar size, in the Botanical Heights neighborhood on the city's South Side. The institute leases the parcels from the city for $1 per year, and grants from the federal Agriculture Department and Monsanto have helped cover operating costs.

Besides Burundis, the program has drawn refugees and other immigrants from elsewhere in Africa (Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Tanzania), Asia (Myanmar, Nepal), and Latin America (Honduras, Mexico). These urban farms have served as a stabilizing presence in neighborhoods devastated by the decades-long decline in manufacturing. In Botanical Heights, the farm was part of an effort to rebuild the neighborhood spearheaded by the Garden District Commission, a community group. The plot on the North Side is in a rough neighborhood, but once the immigrants moved in, Walker reports, business owners saw the area “come up dramatically, and they're encouraging more settlement.”

Last year, the program enrolled 31 refugees and their families who plant food for their own dinner tables and for sale. They’ve cultivated everything from bitter eggplant and roselle—a hibiscus plant popular in Myanmar—to sweet corn and hot peppers. The South Side farm, which also teaches agricultural techniques and strategic approaches to sales, is already generating revenue. Last year, three of those families sold two tons of crops, all told, earning $11,000.

While the profits aren't huge, the entrepreneurial program offers refugees who may speak little or no English a chance to learn how to operate in the local economy. “They're interacting with small-business owners and grocery stores,” said the institute's Hamilton. “They are really responding to the vendors' needs when the vendors say they need this vegetable or that fruit.”

By helping them to assimilate, the program benefits both the refugees and the city as a whole. The refugees need a home, clearly—and St. Louis needs people. The city's population has dropped by almost half since 1970, to below a third of a million; its percentage of foreign-born residents, less than 7 percent, is barely half the national average. A 2012 report by Jack Strauss, an economics professor at Saint Louis University, found that if the local influx of immigrants had rivaled those of other metropolitan areas, the city's income would have grown by another 4 to 7 percent during the preceding decade.

“Places that have been losing population see refugees as a resource,” explains Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. “They often see these groups as a way to add to their population, labor force, and communities in ways that combat the population loss they've had over time.”

Mang Zam, a 38-year-old refugee from Myanmar, wants to help his adopted city thrive. He was resettled in St. Louis in 2009 with his wife and two young children after fleeing religious persecution in Myanmar, then spending more than a decade in Malaysia without legal status. Zam and his wife both work full-time as housekeepers at a hospital, but they earn just $36,000 a year between them. “We're working [at the hospital] for about eight hours," he says, "so we have some free time to work for another job.”

Growing up in a city of 21,000 on the western border of Myanmar, farming was part of everyday life. The carpenters and masons in Zam's family raised crops in their spare time on a modest plot of land. When he heard about the program in St. Louis, he decided to try it. "I just feel like it's a kind of part-time job," he says. "If I do not have this, I would just stay home."

Last year, Zam earned $4,000 selling his crops to local grocers, restaurants, and friends, nearly enough to cover a year's mortgage. During the growing season, Zam spends roughly three hours a day working his tenth of an acre. He brings along his two children, ages 6 and 7, passing along a cultural tradition. “They may learn from me,” he reflects. “On the other hand, I hope they know farming is not easy.”

Or consider the hopes of Thomas Havyarimana, 39, who fled a civil war in Burundi in 1996 and arrived in St. Louis after years in a refugee camp in Tanzania. He wants to grow more bitter melons, beans, tomatoes, and corn, to provide some income now that he's studying to become a nurse. The North Farm, however, allots farmers only enough space for their personal consumption. “We want to earn money,” he says, but "we don't have enough space to farm." With these immigrants' ambitions in mind, the International Institute of St. Louis is searching for city land to start a third urban farm.