RISE recently received a game-changing, generational gift: 180 acres of farmland in Oswego County, to boost its Syracuse Refugee Agricultural Program incubator farm and some other aspects of its programming and investment.

Leaders of the refugee advocacy group envision the land as an opportunity to implement changes that will provide much-needed development, including utilizing the ample space for greenhouses, irrigation and storage.

Rita Paniagua, who works with RISE through her business, Cross Cultural Consulting, said organization leaders immediately knew it could be a turning point.

“It was a very joyful moment – a celebration,” Paniagua said. “Can you imagine the financial stability this means? Of course this comes with many responsibilities but it is a miracle.”

The Refugee and Immigrant Self-Empowerment organization has long wondered if and how it would ever be able to comprehensively support the needs of New Americans in Central New York. Such a task seemed daunting until recently, when it acquired the donation that could alter its trajectory for years to come.

It is a miracle because of the options it creates for RISE, which strives to promote self-sufficiency through education, employment, social support, and economic independence for the refugee and immigrant communities in Onondaga County.

As they once did, when the property anchored St. Francis farm, these 180 acres will uplift an entire community. Much like their past – where they provided a community hub, a safe place for women who had experienced violence, a free medical clinic for low-income families, a home for unwed mothers, and a knitting cooperative – their future is one of service.

The land will help to provide agricultural resources to refugees and immigrants and expand existing initiatives, said Anna Zoodsma, agricultural programs director at RISE. She said it could foster more opportunities for interested farmers to sell produce at the CNY Regional Market and in a weekly Harvest Share Program throughout the growing season. 

“This land enhances the ability of clients to produce culturally relevant food, in ways that they desire to produce that food, increasing self-sufficiency,” Zoodsma said. “This contributes to economic independence among clients. With this new land, these opportunities are even further expanded.”

RISE is focused on building on what’s currently on the property, a large barn and a house, Zoodsma said. Both structures have living space within them, and the hope is to slowly develop the surrounding area one step at time, Zoodsma said. The first step of that process is to ensure that the land is viable for farming, which is the organization’s primary concern in the current phase. 

RISE recently a gift of 180 acres of farmland in Oswego County, which includes a barn and a house. Photo courtesy of Refugee and Immigrant Self-Empowerment organization.

To do so, the organization is making infrastructure improvements on the property, including installing cold storage, drip irrigation systems, a greenhouse and vegetable wash station, Zoodsma said.

But, Paniagua and Zoodsma said, a critical question hangs in the balance: How should the organization in the long term utilize this gift to make a difference for local refugees and immigrants?

The possibilities for this land are broad, said Ahmed Abdirahman, market manager and farmer for the SyRAP farms. “It will help us (with) a lot of different things,” Abdirahman said. 

Abdirahman primarily grows an African corn that is rare in the U.S. in his larger plot at Matthew 25 Farm in Tully, which partners with RISE and Salt City Harvest farm to allow farmers to acquire 625 feet of farmland to grow food for their family and community. Farmers can increase their growing space, annually, up to an acre, and can sell their crops through the SyRAP market stand at the Central New York Regional Market in Syracuse.

“We used to only have land for farming,” Abdirahman said, “but now farmers — they can raise goat, chicken, a good space, anyone of the farm can have apartments there, we can live there, we can have vacation, field trip for the kids.”

In conversations with RISE leaders before they officially acquired the land, Paniagua recommended that they sell a portion of it to eventually purchase other property and buildings in Syracuse. Zoodsma said the organization is still considering various options and hasn’t made any decisions yet. 

The 180 acres has intensified the vision of the SyRAP project, now composed of three community gardens on the North Side of Syracuse. 

The land itself is reason for excitement, even though it may be too early for a clear vision, Abdirahman said.

“It’s the morning time – ideas are hard right now,” Abdirahman said. “There’s a lot of ideas, but until we start doing, then we can figure it out.”

Paniagua said another idea is for the organization to replicate the goat farm, located in Tully, that it has managed as a pilot program. The plan was for RISE to pass the farm on to the community when it was financially stable and residents had the skills and resources to run the businesses on their own.

RISE could keep and manage this farm, instead of leaving it to the community – but it is important that they develop a larger commitment to agriculture that could benefit local refugees and immigrants, Paniagua said.

The organization wants to maximize the potential of this land while balancing culturally-responsive support for the community of refugees and immigrants with respect for local farmers who rely on the land for food and income.

“Farmers will still have access to land, agricultural education, tools, seeds, and routes to sell produce, among other things,” Zoodsma said. 

Farmers could have more opportunities for training, Abdirahman said, perhaps with  maple syrup or conducting woodwork. RISE could look into obtaining a license for fishing, and begin teaching inexperienced farmers how to use tractors and how to care for the land by themselves, Abdirahman said.

The organization hopes to expand its current gardens, which are situated near many farmers’ homes and allow community members to grow their own food, Zoodsma said. Zoodsma added that the goat farm benefits the entire Central New York community, as anybody can purchase goats for consumption. 

The distance of the new farm creates a challenge with access, Zoodsma said. RISE is considering options such as a passenger van to make transportation more accessible to farmers. 

RISE will strive to alleviate the challenges to increase the number of farmers able to utilize the new land and participate in its growth, Zoodsma said.

RISE is conducting a feasibility analysis to determine how to proceed in the long-term future and determine which uses of the land would be most profitable, Zoodsma said.

“With the new farm, the amount of space available for growing, as well additional opportunities for future expansion have opened up,” she said. “The new property is much larger and has infrastructure for other activities such as a commercial kitchen, barn for goats and chickens, and maple syrup boiling shed, among other things.”

This could mean a future of success for the organization, Zoodsma said.

On the new farm specifically, RISE is assessing its  staffing capacity and other short- and long-term needs, to develop a sustainable strategy and execute it, Zoodsma said.

Paniagua got excited as she listed the many possibilities for RISE, whether it chooses to partition the land to sell or for different purposes. RISE could choose a portion to develop into housing for immigrants and refugees, she said, dreaming of programs for children and young adults in education and farming, that could potentially lead to  employment and different career paths. 

There are opportunities to help generate income from products that could be reinvested in the program as it grows, Paniagua said.

“With 200 acres, there is a lot that they can do,” she said. “Even if they sell 100 acres, they can build a lot of good.”

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Follow Joey Pagano @JoeyFPagano.


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