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Banking on KC – Meredith Walrafen of Roots for Refugees

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Meredith Walrafen the program manager for New Roots For Refugees. Welcome Meredith.

Meredith Walrafen:

Hi Kelly. Thanks so much for having me.

Kelly Scanlon:

New Roots For Refugees, that's a program that's administered through Cultivate KC and Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. Tell us about that program.

Meredith Walrafen:

The program's run in partnership, like you said, between Catholic Charities and Cultivate KC. We've been working together for over 12 years on the New Roots program. It's a four year farm training program where refugee families who were farmers in their home country get the opportunity to start and build a farm business from scratch here in the Kansas City Metro Area.

Kelly Scanlon:

Why is a program like this so important to new refugees to this area?

Meredith Walrafen:

That's a great question. I think a lot of families come to the United States with a variety of skills. Oftentimes those skills maybe aren't valued by our workforce, for whatever reason. Sometimes that's because folks don't have the language skills to be able to transfer into that kind of job here. Sometimes it's because of a certification issue or an education barrier that people aren't able to overcome.

Meredith Walrafen:

A lot of folks that we work with have family members who work in meat packing or work in factory jobs. Typically, then there’s a, the other person in the family… stays home and takes care of children, and this program really provides an opportunity for a supplemental source of income to those families. In addition to potentially low paying factory jobs, we provide the opportunity for them to provide supplemental income to their family.

Meredith Walrafen:

We've seen graduate farmers who have come out of this program who have sold upwards of $26,000 in a season. If you think about the significance of that number compared to a potential, like a low thirties paying job at a meat packing plant or somewhere else, that's a significant contribution to a family's income. That doesn't even account for the amount of food that the farmers are able to eat, that they're producing themselves and the saved costs on having to purchase those foods as well.

Kelly Scanlon:

I know that there is a lot of training that goes into that. As you said, it's a four year program. What all does that entail? What's it include?

Meredith Walrafen:

Our program is designed to remove really those initial barriers to start a small business, especially a small farming business. We work really hard to address those challenges, including economic mobility, language is a really big factor, networking and then access to education and support. We begin training in the winter months with English classes that are targeted towards basic conversation and farm vocabulary.

Meredith Walrafen:

Then after that, typically in February, we start a series of farm classes, where we focus on adapting the farmer's existing ag skills to being successful in the climate here. The folks that we're working with are already really talented farmers, they're very skilled in agriculture. What we're really trying to do is just help them put those skills to use here in a climate that oftentimes is very different, and in a setting where our food culture is very different as well.

Meredith Walrafen:

We also teach classes on marketing channels in the United States, and then also a variety of classes about record keeping and just the basics of what it means to own a business in the United States, since that experience can be different in different countries as well.

Kelly Scanlon:

How many program participants are usually involved in each year's cohort?

Meredith Walrafen:

I work with around 16 families on average each year, and that's just folks that are actively in our training program. Within each of those families, there can be between one and five people involved. We might be working with a lot of different individuals, but typically, 16 independent businesses, helping them adopt their skills and be successful.

Kelly Scanlon:

Now, are they creating their businesses while they're still in the program? Is that the idea, that by the time they get out of the program, the business is launched and they are actively running it? Or is it you go through four years and then you start the business?

Meredith Walrafen:

I would say it's a little bit of both. From the get-go, we help people sign up for their own sales tax accounts, so they're liable for their own taxes and so they're registered independently. They do sell under the New Roots For Refugees name for the four years that they're in the training program. Then when they graduate after their fourth season, we helped them come up with a farm name and a logo, which they can then transition to using independent our program.

Meredith Walrafen:

We call it a stair-step model to self-sufficiency, where we provide pretty heavy financial and staff assistance in the first year. Then we slowly decrease that over the four years that they're in the program so that by the time they are ready to graduate, they have a sense of what the true costs are going to be of maintaining their own business on their own.

Meredith Walrafen:

In addition to our formal class series, we also provide a lot of training over the summer months as well. We have a farmer trainer on Cultivate Kansas City's side of the team that's regularly with farmers for what we call field walks. That's just an opportunity for farmers to engage one-on-one with our program staff who are skilled farmers and to ask questions. Sometimes that question is what is this bug? Or sometimes that question is what bug ate this hole in this leaf? There's lots of questions around what's going on in their fields.

Meredith Walrafen:

Then that also just provides an opportunity just to slow down and take the time to check in about how things are going in the middle of the summer, because with all of our sales channels and all of the work that it takes to farm and people's lives off of the farm as well, there's a lot going on. We just really like to have those scheduled times with an interpreter available, where farmers have the opportunity to slow down and pause and ask questions and check in with our staff.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned that this is a twelve-year-old program. Why did it get started to begin with? Whose vision was it? Why did they see the need for this, the inspiration behind it?

Meredith Walrafen:

The vision really was cast initially by a group of refugee women themselves in, I believe, 2006 or 2007. Prior to my time joining the program, there were a group of Somali-Bantu women who had been resettled in the United States, and they were part of a women's group that Catholic Charities was running. They were expressing feelings of isolation, oftentimes just because of the nature of family structures, the men in the family end up being the ones that come to cultural orientation classes and get employed and have more interaction and integration within the community.

Meredith Walrafen:

Oftentimes, women end up being slightly more isolated at home, caring for children. These women were in this group and said we farmed in our home country and we really want to be able to grow food here. We started with a small community garden and then realized not too long after that, that there was much more potential, that the folks we were working with were highly skilled farmers and that there was a significant potential for them to generate income for their families in addition to generating food for their families.

Kelly Scanlon:

How big are the plots that they farm? Tell us about that setup.

Meredith Walrafen:

We currently have a nine acre training farm called Juniper Gardens Training Farm. It's in downtown Kansas City, Kansas at about First and Richmond Avenue. It is divided into quarter acre plots, and then we have some shared infrastructure as well on the site, so all farmers have access to a greenhouse. They have access to our washing and packing facilities, and then each farmer's responsible for their own quarter acre plot, where they start all the seeds, do all the weeding watering, harvesting, packing for that space.

Kelly Scanlon:

I know that the program has expansion plans, and one of those is a new site. Tell us about that.

Meredith Walrafen:

We are very excited about this. We have signed a lease on a 50 acre parcel of land at 90th and Parallel Parkway. It's just south of Providence Medical Center, and we are in the process of planning to move to that new site and expand the New Roots program. We found over the 12 years of running the program that we've reached certain points of saturation in some respects.

Meredith Walrafen:

We're lucky in Kansas City to have a wide variety of farmer's markets, but because of our model of setting individual farmers out of market and then turning them out of the program, we are starting to saturate those spaces. Each year we're having to look further out into the Metro area to find new marketing opportunities for folks. We've determined that if we were able to diversify the types of things that we grow and sell, and then also diversify our marketing channels a little bit more, that we can provide higher levels of success and also just continue to generate more farmers in the Kansas City area.

Kelly Scanlon:

You go out to existing farmer's markets. You don't have a place on site where these products are sold. Is that correct?

Meredith Walrafen:

We don't currently, we have in the past done pop-up markets at our farm sites, but yes, we go to existing markets. We have a model that we created a few years ago out of this need or this problem of saturation, where we are partnering with local places of worship, initially connecting with local parishes as they're... Obviously, we have an inherent connection there as charities. We've been partnering with parishes and then other places of worship to go and set up a booth weekly over the course of the summer.

Meredith Walrafen:

We have, I believe, six farmers who actively sell at a market that's essentially a private market for that place of worship. Some of those markets are open to other folks coming in. It provides a great benefit and convenience to the customers and then provides just a new marketing opportunity for our farmers.

Kelly Scanlon:

Sure, and an opportunity for new relationships to form there too, as they go out after they graduate and open their businesses, they're on their own. What are some of the products that are being farmed?

Meredith Walrafen:

Yeah, we grow a pretty wide variety. You could classify us as a diversified vegetable producer. Our growing season runs from about April until October. We grow lettuce, lots of spring greens, lettuce, spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, kale, collard greens, scallions, lots of other things in the allium family, garlic and onions.

Meredith Walrafen:

Once it gets later into the summer, we have a lot of your typical summer favorites. We have summer squash and zucchini and peppers, tomatoes, and cherry tomatoes, eggplants, lots of different varieties. One of the things that I really love about this program is that we don't prescribe a certain mix of crops to any of our farmers. We certainly do production planning with them to help strategize about what things might work best in some of their sales channels, but farmers have full jurisdiction over their own space.

Meredith Walrafen:

They are able to grow whatever they like in addition to the things that we're assisting them with growing. A lot of folks end up growing vegetables that are native to their cuisine and to their culture. I think that's a really important aspect of this program, because I'm a big believer in the value of food tied to the sense of home and sense of community, and so giving people the freedom to recreate that sense of home and community here in Kansas City when they've gone through a lot of transition, I think is really important.

Kelly Scanlon:

What kind of outcomes have you seen? You've probably got stats as to the number of graduates that have gone through the program. New businesses started, those kinds of things, which I'm very curious to hear about, but you probably also have some outcomes that are intangible as well. I'd love to hear about those too.

Meredith Walrafen:

I feel like sometimes the intangible ones are even better than the tangible ones.

Kelly Scanlon:

Exactly.

Meredith Walrafen:

We've had over 30 farmers graduate from our program in the 12 years we've been running it. 24 of those families still operate an active farm business today.

Kelly Scanlon:

That's great.

Meredith Walrafen:

We've helped to generate over $1.2 million in revenue for those refugee families that we've served over the lifetime of the program, and be frank, that's probably a low estimate because that's just what's been reported to us. A lot of our graduate farmers as they become more independent, no longer report their sales to us. It depends on the family. Those are those really tangible outcomes that we've seen.

Meredith Walrafen:

So many more benefits to this program, like you mentioned, I think that value of food and the centrality that it plays in our lives. I think about any time in my life that I've ever joined with my family or my friends to celebrate or to mourn or to come together, we're almost always around the table. That experience, I feel like, is not unique to Americans. That's an experience that feels really universal to me.

Meredith Walrafen:

The opportunities for people to be able to come together around food is to navigate across barriers of language or culture by having that access to food. It's just really powerful in my opinion.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, that really is interesting, because in some ways, the fact that many of them grow food from their own culture that makes them feel more at home here. But you also get on the other side of the spectrum, you get a mingling of cultures, because as they work together, they experience each other's food as well. Then when they sell it as a larger community, we all do too.

Meredith Walrafen:

Yeah, absolutely. It's been really fun to see the relationships that have grown out of this program as well, both between farmers of different cultures and between communities of people who might not interact otherwise. We've seen friendships and relationships grow out of farmer's market interactions or out of CSA relationships. Lots of community built around this program and I think that's equally as important as the income generation aspect of this program.

Kelly Scanlon:

Do you have any favorite stories?

Meredith Walrafen:

Yeah, I can think of two off the top of my head. One is a farmer that participated in our program. She joined probably five or six years ago. When she started, she was clearly very determined, but really nervous about her English skills and shy to a certain extent. She didn't have a driver's license. She was taking the bus to the farm, and over the four years that she was in the program, we have seen her absolutely just become a shining model for what success looks like for this program.

Meredith Walrafen:

She got her driver's license. She takes her stuff to the Independence Farmer's Market on her own every weekend. After our help initially setting up a CSA farm share subscription at a local Black and Veatch office, we saw her maintain that after graduation for several years. She just has become such a success. She's so confident, and it's been really fun to see those entrepreneurial skills really shine through.

Meredith Walrafen:

Another example is a family that we've worked with who lives over on the Missouri side. They've always been a family that has provided lots of cooked food. They've got some kind of food at the farm to share. They have two children who are just the warmest and the smartest kids. They graduated, I believe, in 2017, and we realized not too long after they graduated, they came into the office and brought some food and had a business card for a new restaurant that they had actually started.

Meredith Walrafen:

It was really wonderful to see that not only had they like seen their dream through of graduating from the New Roots program and they sell it the city market during the weekends, but then they also have opened and been really successfully running this restaurant called Sone Ze Ya. It's over in the historic Northeast on the Missouri side on St. John Avenue.

Meredith Walrafen:

It's a wonderful little spot where they sell traditional Burmese food. It's delicious. I would highly recommend it. It's really amazing to see the growth over the time that they were in the program. Then to see that also blossom not only into one, but into two businesses that are really integrated with each other as well.

Kelly Scanlon:

It sounds like a lot of the graduates keep in touch with you. Do you have a formal outreach that you do after graduation to continue to assist them or to continue to provide resources and support if they need it?

Meredith Walrafen:

That's a great question. We don't currently have a formal system. That's something we've been thinking about a lot recently, is now that we've gotten to this point where we have such a high number of graduates, we've been talking a lot as a staff about how can we continue to support these folks and how can we help them not just maintain, but grow their businesses if they have bigger goals. We've been working on that.

Meredith Walrafen:

We're really excited. We just received the Kauffman Heartland Challenge grant and are planning to do a lot of engagement with our graduate network and other small business entrepreneurs in the Kansas City area, and see if we can identify what barriers those folks have had to continued business growth, whether that be lending or just more language barriers. Then see how we can help people move forward in the future, because there's so much potential there in both in larger farming operations and in spin off other business opportunities that folks might want to pursue that are tangential to the farming operations.

Kelly Scanlon:

Or our listeners who are interested in the program. Are there ways for them to engage?

Meredith Walrafen:

Yes, lots of ways. The easiest way is really just to buy our produce, so we sell it over 16 farmer's markets across the Metro area. Those locations can all be found on our website, newrootforrefugees.org. We also have a farm share subscription program where customers can commit to a certain number of weeks and then pick up their produce from one of four public locations around the Metro area.

Meredith Walrafen:

We do offer private deliveries for our farm share program to any location if you can sign up at least 10 customers. Then lastly, we have a wholesale program where we sell to restaurants and to some grocery stores around the area. You should ask your favorite restaurant if they source from New Roots For Refugees, and maybe we can get our foot in the door. We're always looking to expand our wholesale connections and to move more produce and to get more healthy, locally grown stuff out to the Kansas City community.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, you just issued the challenge to the community. Are there any volunteer opportunities?

Meredith Walrafen:

There are. We rely pretty heavily on volunteers to help us with different areas of our programming. Right now, we're looking for folks who could help us out in the winter months. We're looking for people with teaching experience and preferably English teaching experience, if they've got it, to help do one-on-one tutoring with our farmers and help them practice their English skills while the farm is shut down during the winter.

Meredith Walrafen:

We also utilize volunteers in the summer to help us transport farmers to and from markets, and then also to administer our farm share program, helping essentially moving produce around the Kansas City area and then helping get it out to our customers. Lots of ways to engage, and you can find all that information on our website.

Kelly Scanlon:

It certainly sounds like it, and your website is...

Meredith Walrafen:

Newrootsforrefugees.org.

Kelly Scanlon:

Newrootsforrefugees.org, Meredith, thanks for being with us on this episode of Banking on KC, and for all that you're doing through the New Roots For Refugees program, we really appreciate it.

Meredith Walrafen:

Absolutely.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you, Meredith Walrafen, for visiting with us this week to share the important work of New Roots For Refugees. Starting over, moving to an unfamiliar place and putting down new roots is never easy, but it can be the start of a much better life.

Joe Close:

Thanks to New Roots For Refugees, over the past decade, refugee farmers have had a resource to help them leverage the skills they already have and adapt them for a new beginning. The training and network support that New Roots For Refugees provides empowers these farmers and their families as they make a new home in Kansas City.

Joe Close:

At Country Club Bank, we're committed to providing Kansas Citians with the assistance that you need to embrace new beginnings, showcase your talents and abilities, and successfully start new ventures. For those transitional times in your life, we're here for you. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.