New farm project in Grand Rapids, Mich. seeks to provide employment for refugees

Bethany Christian Services works to partner with Holland Home to create a unique farm.

In 2012, Aaron Russo, a refugee employment and job development specialist for Bethany Christian Services, had an idea. After months of struggling to find employment for a significant number of Burmese and Nepalese refugees, it occurred to him that he needed to build on their existing skills. Back in their home countries, these refugees were subsistence farmers, and attempts to mold them into line workers in a factory did not utilize their previous life experiences. Russo thought that since Bethany already operates several successful community gardens, starting a new larger farm for these refugees to plant, harvest and sell their produce at a local farmers market, CSA, or to area restaurants, just might work.

He contacted me as a Michigan State University Extension educator focused on community food systems, with the hope that I could help him find some property in southern Grand Rapids, Mich. or Kentwood, Mich. that Bethany could farm. This location was selected because the refugees need to use public transportation, bicycles or walk to work from their apartment homes in this area. I connected Russo with my friend Jay Hoekstra, a retired senior planner with Grand Valley Metro Council who now operates his own consulting business. Hoekstra used his GIS expertise to locate ten acres of lawn at Holland Home, a non-profit retirement community. Russo followed up on this possibility and soon the Chief Operating Officer and other leadership at Holland Home were meeting with Russo about getting this project off the ground.

“Holland Home has been wonderful to work with. We are still working through the proper channels for approval of this project, but it seems likely that they will allow us to develop our refugee farm project here. Even the residents are extremely supportive of the idea,” says Russo.

Russo says they are using the New Roots for Refugees project based in Kansas City, Kan. as a model for their project. Russo believes there is no other project like this in Michigan. Once the farm is tilled, which will likely be later this fall at the earliest, Bethany hopes to grow fruits and vegetables that their refugee clients grew in their home countries, some of which will be new products for the Grand Rapids metro area. A guide to some of these Asian vegetables can be found on the New Roots for Refugees site. They are also planning on constructing a hoop house for season extension soon after the farm is approved.

The long-term goal of the project would be for clients to gain the experience they need with Bethany to be able to access capital to purchase or lease their own farms and create their own farm businesses so they can become self-sustaining. In this respect, the Bethany farm would be an incubator farm for these refugees, providing not only land, but professional development and business training.

Funding for this project is provided by the U.S. Department of Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement and private contributors through Bethany Christian Services. Russo has already applied for grant funds from the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program. MSU Extension has written a letter of support for this project and will hold a seat on the project’s Advisory Board. If successful, this will be the first grant of its kind awarded in Michigan.

For more information on this project or to provide your support, please contact Aaron Russo at 616 965-8060 or

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