In May 2017, like so many soon-to-be college graduates, Naima Dhore was getting ready to celebrate the milestone with family. A ceremony significant in almost any student’s eyes, graduation meant even more for Dhore, a Somali immigrant. Her undergraduate degree was not just a personal achievement — it was her family’s dream.
Everything changed three days before graduation. Dhore’s husband, a business owner and resident of Minnesota for 22 years, was detained by immigration officials. Dhore received her diploma without him by her side, unclear on his fate and unsure of her family’s future. A few months later, they learned that he would be deported to Somalia.
“My husband was my biggest supporter, and I woke up every morning knowing that he was cheering me on,” remembers Dhore. “So I kept on.”
In the year and a half that followed, Dhore worked full time, supported their two young children, and started graduate school. She also took steps toward creating a farmers association. “My children were watching my actions. They needed to know the importance of hard work and never giving up, no matter how challenging life is,” Dhore says.
Her interest in farming was set in motion after her first baby was born. As she was getting ready to start feeding him solid food, she was surprised by the limited options at her local grocery store.
“Growing up in Somalia, everything was fresh,” says Dhore. That was not the case at her grocery store in south Minneapolis, where even baby food was processed and packaged.
Dhore started wondering if there was any produce that she could grow in her small apartment. She did a Google search and stumbled upon micro-greens — edible seedlings of vegetable greens. Traditionally used as garnish on restaurant dishes, micro-greens have become popular as a healthy, sustainable way for those without access to land or garden space to grow their own produce.
Her curiosity grew as quickly as the baby kale and arugula in her microgreen garden. In 2016, she enrolled her family in a training program for first-time farmers at Big River Farms. The goal was for her family to learn about producing their own food, but Dhore found herself asking more questions. “When I went to the farmers market, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. When I went back to my own community, I didn’t see any green space,” Dhore says.
She realized that she probably was not the only parent who could not find fresh produce to feed her children. Worse was the fact that when fruits and vegetables were available at local grocery stores, they failed to meet cultural needs and dietary specifications. Western produce was not useful in preparing traditional East African dishes.
“It is not the food that is meant for us as a community,” explains Dhore. “We need a lot of mental and spiritual healing through food that we are familiar with.”
Dhore became a certified organic farmer, began growing produce that she knew her community loved, and sold it at farmers markets. The reaction was: “Where can I get more?”
For this growing physical and psychological hunger, Dhore has begun exploring the possibility of purchasing land.
“I have been very vocal about the challenges for BIPOC farmers like myself and the issue around land access,” Dhore says. Unlike many white counterparts, farmers of color usually cannot expect to inherit land ownership or receive capital from a family member. Even applying for a loan through the USDA Farm Service Agency, which sets aside a portion of funding for minority and women farmers, has been a difficult process.
“This system is not designed for us,” Dhore says. “Not only is it outdated, but it was never meant for Black farmers or immigrant farmers.” Dhore started considering what an infrastructure designed by and for Black immigrant farmers might look like.
In summer 2020, Dhore launched Somali American Farmers Association (SAFA), a nonprofit organization that supports East African immigrant families in Minnesota by providing regenerative farm training and education about the importance of locally grown, organic produce.
“There are only 39 Black farmers listed in the state of Minnesota, but we have a lot of folks who are interested in farming and actually hold a great deal of knowledge,” she says. “Often all they need is help in getting their paperwork together or advice about navigating the system.”
Dhore is also tackling white-, Western-centered agriculture from the inside out, becoming one of the inaugural members of the Emerging Farmers’ Working Group at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. She has brought to the table not only her experiences of barriers but also her insights about practices such as regenerative farming.
“These practices have been deeply rooted in our culture for such a long time,” Dhore explains. What may strike a Minnesota farmer as new and innovative is actually a method that has been used by centuries of African farmers who “think about the ecosystem as a whole and don’t just take what [they] want.”
Of particular interest to Dhore is seed saving, the practice of preserving reproductive material from plants so that they can be grown from year to year without the loss of biodiversity or native variety. She plans to “go home [to Somalia] so I can preserve seeds in their natural state, and [return with] knowledge about how we used to eat, how we used to heal through plant medicine.”
With her husband returned to the U.S. and her full family by her side, Dhore graduated from Metropolitan State University in December 2020 with a master of science in individual studies, focusing on youth development and urban farming. She says, “I plan to implement an intergenerational fellowship program where I will have youth and elders come together and engage in urban farming in a way that makes sense for us culturally.”
More than anything, Dhore says, her path has humbled her. She recalls one day that she spent painstakingly planting onions by hand, only to return to find every plant damaged or uprooted by hail. “Alhamdulillah,” she remembers thinking, “This is just nature teaching me that things are given to us and things are taken from us.”
For Dhore, spending time with earth under her feet and between her fingers is a reminder that the world is bigger than us.