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August 19, 2017

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Somali Families Visit the County

By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, August 30, 2017


   A group of Somali Bantu families from Lewiston recently visited Aroostook County to explore agriculture opportunities for their small- to mid- size farming operations.  The Somali Bantu tribe was not originally from Somalia.  They were transplanted from other parts of Africa into Somalia in the 19th century but remain ethically, culturally and  physically distinct from native Somalians.  

   This group was invited to tour central Aroostook County by the Maine Community Foundation and Northern Maine Community College as part of an effort to shore up Aroostook County's out-migration of youth, many of whom seem to leave the County after graduating High School, along with an aging workforce that is retiring and leaving the workplace altogether.

   Last Fall, Northern Maine Community College (NMCC) worked with the Maine Community Foundation (MCF) to make presentations on the demographics of the region.  “It's pretty clear that if we don't not only work hard to keep people - particularly young people - here, and also to bring people to the region, it will be difficult to maintain a workforce,” said Tim Crowley, President of NMCC in Presque Isle.  “Right now about twenty seven percent of our workforce is in the 18-44 year old age group and that's too small to grow.  We know that we need to bring people to the region and retain as many as we can.” 

   NMCC and MCF have worked over the past year to identify potential groups that could visit the area to see if they had any interest in relocating.  “It's really about exposure to Aroostook County, the good things that are going on here.  The Somali Bantu group is interested in agriculture, they have some small family farms in the Lewiston-Auburn area.  So we thought it would be good to bring them up and expose them to the agriculture and the education that's here as well,” said Crowley.

Over the past five to ten years, NMCC has been developing new course offerings to remain relevant to the area.  “I think we've had to shift to adjust to the needs of the area.  The new programs that we've developed in the last five years including medical assisting and moon power technology.  We've had expansion in our diesel hydraulics program and programs in the electrical area.  But the economy is shifting in Aroostook County and the biggest challenge to that is going to have the right people available to do the work. So we need to reach out to other parts of the state and other parts of the world to bring people here.  We've shifted our programming pretty significantly and we'll continue to work hard to bring more people to our college and to the community.”

   The Somali Bantu guests toured the MSAD #1 School Farm on State Street in Presque Isle to see the technologies and manufacturing processes Presque Isle High School students have available to them.  Afterwards, the group were guests of the Amish community in Fort Fairfield as they toured the Noah Yoder farm.  Finally, they ended up at the McElwain farm in Caribou to round out their trip.

The tour was organized by the MCF, with headquarters in Ellsworth.  MCF is looking for creative ways to deal with the problems of out-migration and an aging workforce in Aroostook County.

   “We know that Aroostook County has been losing population and it's a farming community.  So we have a number of people - Somali Bantu farm families - in Lewiston that are looking for more land.  They've been limited in the acreage that they can lease,” said Steven Rowe, President and CEO of MCF.  “So, we thought it would be a good idea to bring some families up to look at the opportunities in Aroostook County, to look at agricultural opportunities and other opportunities.  There are a lot of children with the group and they value education greatly.  It was just an idea to have people come up to look at the area to see if something might come of it in terms of folks wanting to relocate.”

   The Somali Bantu are not looking for migrant jobs, as offered by some commercial farming operations in the area and populated by typically Hispanics.  Rather, they are seeking land to expand their own farming operations that encompass subsistence farming for their own family's use as well as small to medium commercial operations.   “They would like the opportunity to grow the business and to farm more land,” explained Rowe.

   Muhidin Libh, a spokesman for the Somali Bantu group explains how in Somalia there are two different communities.  “One community deals with animals and they move around and the other community, which happens to be our community, stick in one place and they do vegetable production.  So, we do a lot of different kinds of vegetables starting from the greens like kale and corn all the way to banana, mango and orange.” 

   Libh says the families in Lewiston produce various vegetables and herbs on a small scale such as potatoes, African corn, beans, and greens such as collard, kale, swiss chard spinach an okra. “We initially started to increase our food production because almost all the people we serve are low income, they depend on food stamps.  So we started as [decreasing] our food stamps but now people are producing more than they can consume and what we're doing is start a farmer's market and turn into business farming.”

   Steven Rowe says the overall tour of central Aroostook County was very positive.  “They've been welcomed and I just want to applaud the folks that organized it up here.  The families that came up here have been welcomed and I think it's gone very well.”



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