There were still drops of dew on the stalks of thick, spear-shaped leaves Fabiola Nizigiyimana slashed and tossed into a box one early morning.
“We call them lenga lenga, in our language,” she said, laughing the words. “They are [a] green.”
The 40-year-old single mother of five farms a one-acre plot in Lancaster. She’s one of 232 farmers who share the 40-acre Flats Mentor Farm. Last year, Nizigiyimana helped found a co-op that teaches farmers, many of whom can’t read or write in English or their native tongue, how to turn their plots into a business.
They get help with packaging and selling their goods to local restaurants, ethnic food stores and farmers’ markets, many of them creating budgets and balance sheets for the first time.
Nizigiyimana will be honored for her work Tuesday at a White House ceremony after being selected as one of 15 USDA Champions of Change, who represent the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
Nizigiyimana said she is proud to give something back to the country that welcomed her as a refugee. Her family fled conflict in Burundi just before she was born. They settled and farmed in Rwanda until a war there drove them out in the early 1990s. From there they traveled to a camp in Tanzania for 10 years before finally coming to the U.S. in 2007.
Now Nizigiyimana works at a nursery and for FedEx. She grows and sells enough to keep her children fed and buy a few extra treats.
“This farming help me to take care of my family without food stamps,” she said. “If I get $300 to $500, I can go buy goat and my kids can eat meat.”
Her goal is to farm full time.
“If God’s going to help me, I can open like a store to sell the vegetables, like a small mini-market,” she said. “If I’m going to work hard, I can reach whatever [goal] I want.”
But Nizigiyimana is a long way from being able to support her family through farming. And she’s not alone.
Fifty-two percent of U.S. farmers have another job that is their primary occupation, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.
Farms of all sizes are losing money, and smaller farms that bring in $100,000 or less are losing the most. In Massachusetts, 47 percent of small farmers make less than $2,500 a year.
“We can’t ask farmers to do this work for little or no pay,” said Jennifer Hashley, who runs the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts University.
There are lots of people who want to farm and there’s lots of interest in locally grown foods, but small farmers are going to have to charge more to keep their operations going, Hashley said.
“That’s the only way that we’re going to continue to see any kind of growth or hope or opportunity for a future of agriculture, is if we support it today,” she said.
Maria Moreira, who owns and runs Flats Mentor Farm, has learned that lesson. Moreira keeps the project going almost single-handedly and barely breaks even, but as she looked out over the fields of spinach, amaranth, spider plant and mustard green, she broke into a smile.
“Just look at the colors,” she said. “They’re beautiful. Doesn’t this make you feel like the world is OK?”
Moreira and Nizigiyimana find reasons to be optimistic about the future of farming in the U.S. The market for native foods that help immigrants feel comfortable in their home country is growing, they said. And as the country becomes more diverse, so will the foods grown here and so will the farmers, they said.