CONTACT: Jim Welsh, (608) 258-9797, firstname.lastname@example.org
Project will improve land security, upgrade infrastructure at Waunakee-area site
Thanks to the efforts of a local conservation group coupled with a generous grant from the Madison Community Foundation (MCF), a group of immigrant farmers are feeling a lot better about the upcoming growing season.
Groundswell Conservancy, which works to protect and enhance open spaces in the Dane County area, is using MCF monies to improve land security for a group of Hmong subsistence and market growers.
Set on 10-acres of productive land in the village of Waunakee, the new “Westport Farm” also brings in the expertise of Community GroundWorks which specializes in urban agriculture and is best known for overseeing Troy Gardens on Madison’s north side.
“We’ve participated in a lot of exciting projects through the years, but I honestly can’t think of any that serve so many purposes and help so many hard-working people as the Westport Farm,” said Jim Welsh, executive director of Groundswell Conservancy. “Many thanks to MCF and Community Groundworks for helping to bring it all together so perfectly.”
The total project costs are budgeted at $38,000, with the Madison Community Foundation providing $19,000. Groundswell and other private donors are covering the rest.
But while the project is immediately providing some badly-needed upgrades to the farm infrastructure — including new storage sheds and a permanent water supply which didn’t exist previously — it goes far beyond that.
Community GroundWorks is working with the growers themselves to assist in developing a leasing and governance system that will allow farmers to make long-term investments in their land. The project also aims to provide technical assistance in areas like soil and plant health, cover cropping, crop rotation, organic certification, composting, season extension, pollinator support and animal husbandry.
Participants have cheered the project, calling it a long overdue effort to assist a displaced population. Most of the Hmong families in Dane County emigrated as refugees starting in the 1970s and came primarily from rural backgrounds with less access to education than other Asian immigrant populations.
“To know that the Hmong growers at Westport Farm will have access to the land for the rest of their lives and are provided culturally appropriate services is unbelievable,” said grower Presley Chang. “It’s about time something like this happens for under-resourced minority communities to connect with nature and soil in Dane County. This is only the beginning; let’s keep it going so we reach everyone.”
Grower Mai Chang echoed those comments, saying the project will only enhance her connections to the fertile fields north of Madison which date back 14 years.
“Every time I’m out at the land tending to the vegetables I’ve grown out of love, I’m so happy,” she said. “I feel this enormous weight lifted from my shoulders. I’m no longer stressed out and I don’t have to worry about anything else.”
Groundswell purchased the property along Bong Road last year from Peg Whiteside, who was retiring after 40 years in the farming business. Whiteside had been renting plots to Hmong gardeners and wanted to make sure they could continue following the conservation sale. She offered the land at a discount to Groundswell with the express purpose of keeping the arrangement intact.
“In the nearly 30 years since I started renting plots to Hmong gardeners, I’ve been impressed with their skill and passion for raising food,” said Whiteside. “Thanks to Groundswell and the remarkable grant donors, I can rest easy knowing these hardworking folks can continue growing healthy food for their families and others long after I’m gone.”
Madison Community Foundation has a track record of funding projects with both Groundswell Conservancy and Community GroundWorks but this one is unique, says Tom Linfield, MCF’s Vice President of Community Impact.
“We are excited to be part of this project, which develops infrastructure, governance, self-determination and long-term land stewardship for a group of local farmers,” he said. “The effort combines environmental stewardship and education with a culturally-inclusive approach to the Hmong community, who may not often be included in local planning efforts yet have a powerful agricultural background and knowledge. This grant enriches not only the county’s environmental sustainability but also recognizes the riches of our increasingly diverse community.”
By all accounts some help is needed. Hmong populations in Wisconsin experience poverty at nearly twice the rate of the state as a whole, with a 3 percent higher unemployment rate among males, 100 percent higher teen birthrate and 68 percent lower family incomes.
In the census tract on the north side of Madison where many of the Hmong growers live, ongoing challenges include language or cultural differences, disconnection, lack of resources and assistance, isolation and other socio-economic obstacles.
Yimmuaj Yang, Gardens Network Manager for Community GroundWorks, has worked with minority farmers, provided direct and technical assistance, created access to resources, and consulted in farm business management. She is excited about ramping things up this spring at Westport Farm.
“In my 10 plus years working with vegetable growers, this is the first project that is addressing the demand for land access and land tenure through culturally appropriate engagement by the user group,” she said. “And it’s happening because the right organizations and people are collaborating together.”
Maeraj Sheikh, Director of Equity and Community Engagement at Community GroundWorks, added that what makes the project so impactful is that it’s led by the Hmong community itself versus a top down approach.
“Restoring connection to the land is a crucial part of healing wounds for refugee populations,” she said. “Community GroundWorks is serving as a trusted advocate to advance the mission of equitable land and food access in order to heal the social fabric of which we are all a part.”
Westport Farm is located between Cherokee Marsh and Westport Prairie, where good land use practices are very important to the health of the surrounding protected areas. A planned hiking trail connecting the two protected areas will pass through the community farm.
Welsh of Groundswell says the project will help show that market and subsistence farming can be a compatible land use within a protected area. He noted that Dane County Parks, the city of Fitchburg and other municipalities have land potentially available for local food production. The only thing missing is the farm management expertise to bring it all together.
“We think the experience of this project can be applied to other properties and with other local food growers,” he said. “Based on inquiries to Groundswell, there is demand for similar community farms but obstacles to creating them. Hopefully this project can act as a template that others can follow.”
About Groundswell Conservancy — Groundswell Conservancy is a nonprofit, community-based organization that protects special places forever through the purchase or acceptance of donations of land or conservation easements. Their vision is a world filled with green spaces where communities thrive. Founded in 1983 as the Dane County Natural Heritage Foundation and later as Natural Heritage Land Trust, Groundswell has protected hundreds of special places forever.
About Madison Community Foundation — The mission of Madison Community Foundation is to enhance the common good through philanthropy. Created in 1942 as Madison Community Trust, MCF helps people do their charitable giving their way, to causes they care about most.
About Community GroundWorks — Community GroundWorks is a nonprofit organization that connects people to nature and local food. Through hands-on education, children and adults learn gardening, urban farming, healthful eating and to care for natural areas. Organized in Madison, Wisconsin in 2001 as The Friends of Troy Gardens, Community GroundWorks serves diverse communities and schools across the region.