Growing food helped Prosper Hezumuryano and Rosata Niyonzima nourish themselves in their home country of Burundi and then feed their expanding family during 12 years at a refugee camp in Tanzania.
Now they cultivate an acre in Clark County and two more on Sauvie Island, collectively known as Happiness Family Farm, named for the couple’s daughter. The bounty feeds not only their family, but others around the metro area who buy the farm’s produce at markets and online.
On a recent August afternoon, Niyonzima bent over as she efficiently worked her Sauvie Island crops. A volunteer later appeared, and Niyonzima showed her how to tenderly care for rows of rainbow chard, lacinato kale, collard greens and amaranth. Nearby, chubby yellow summer squash tumbled from vines and tall corn stalks stooped under the weight of their plentiful yield. Chickens clucked, sprinklers whirred and the wind blew through the fields.
In 2007, when the family moved to Beaverton, Ore., from a refugee camp in Tanzania, their future was uncertain. Niyonzima and Hezumuryano both worked full time in minimum-wage jobs, but it was hard to pay for housing and food for their eight children.
When they moved from Beaverton to North Portland’s New Columbia neighborhood, they met Eca-Etabo Wasongolo, a community organizer at Village Gardens, who was also a refugee from Central Africa. Wasongolo asked them to join Seeds of Harmony garden. They grew vegetables for their family on a 12-by-12-foot plot.
“The farm started because things were expensive here and my parents knew how to farm. My parents grew up farming. It was nothing new to them,” said Japhety Ngabireyimana, Niyonzima and Hezumuryano’s son.
Wasongolo worked for decades as a community organizer in Central Africa assisting refugees before he moved to the United States. Based on his experience and training, he knew how to develop community partnerships to help meet the needs of his clients. Through his contacts, he found these experienced, hardworking farmers a couple of acres to farm on Sauvie Island four years ago and then another acre in Clark County two years ago.
Niyonzima’s family had found a site near Red Truck Farm in Ridgefield a couple of years ago. Wasongolo knew Red Truck’s owner, Amber Baker, because she previously worked at Village Gardens. He contacted her to ask about the land. Baker investigated and determined that the land wasn’t good for farming. Through her network in Clark County, Baker found that Quackenbush Farm was moving and the land they rented was available. The Happiness Family Farm greenhouse on Sauvie Island was already full of plant starts ready to go.
“Social networks are huge,” Baker said. “We have a lot of resources when we think about who’s in our community. It’s good to help others tap into that.”
Ngabireyimana has been helping his family’s farm tap into those social networks online. In late September, he will begin his sophomore year at Portland State University, where he is studying marketing. His freshman year of instruction helped him create the farm’s marketing plan, which yielded more customers and volunteers.
In addition to selling produce at farmers markets in Portland, Happiness Family Farm’s vegetables are also available through Masa (masafresh.com), an online grocery service that delivers in Vancouver.
Because the farm offers vegetables like amaranth, red beans and small cream-colored African eggplant not commonly found in the Pacific Northwest, Ngabireyimana created videos for the farm’s Instagram site showing how to cook them.
In a short Instagram video, he demonstrates his mother’s recipe for amaranth. He soaks the greens in water for a few minutes, drains them and cuts off the stems. Then he sautees the greens with onions, green pepper and tomatoes. He sprinkles salt, pepper and minced garlic over the mixture, adds water, and cooks the vegetables until they’re wilted.
“I love the taste of amaranth. It’s one of the best things Mom taught me to cook,” Ngabireyimana said.
In addition to holding down a job at Target and attending college classes, Ngabireyimana helps his parents with social media, marketing, translating, harvesting and transplanting for the farm. He intends to continue this work so the business can grow even after his parents can no longer run it.
“After seeing the hard work of my parents,” he said, “seeing it die out would break my heart.”