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UIX: Scott Townley, Alison Morgan cultivate Hope










Alison Morgan, project coordinator for Hope Farms, along with farm manager Scott Townley, help refugees learn and grow marketable skills at the Southeastern Grand Rapids farm plot.
It may be winter in West Michigan, but there's a five-acre farm in Southeast Grand Rapids where hope is grown and harvested year round with the help of some local talent.
 
The creation of former project coordinator Aaron Russo, Bethany Christian ServicesHope Farms is a place where refugees from many countries are able to put their agricultural knowledge to use while resettling in Grand Rapids. They can learn and hone their marketable skills in a comfortable and nurturing environment, building a career that will help support them and their families here in the United States.
 
According to Russo, “The goal of the project is to build on the strong agricultural background many refugees bring with them to the U.S., and to help these refugees in using their skills to generate supplemental food and income, and to become self-sufficient. Refugee farmers will gain the skills necessary to support their families in a way that is culturally rich and meaningful to them.”
 
While Russo has moved on to other work, Alison Morgan now operates as project coordinator. With Scott Townley working with Morgan as farm manager, Hope Farms is coming into full bloom.
 
“Hope Farms had been a dream of Aaron Russo's for several years," Morgan says. "Like many of us working in refugee employment, he saw the need for meaningful employment for those who came to the U.S. with extensive agricultural experience.”
 
After studying social work at Cornerstone University, Morgan was hired at Bethany Christian Services in their refugee services program. Prior to working with Hope Farms, she had been working in refugee employment with Bethany for six years.
 
“The transition into Aaron's position has gone smoothly for the most part, with some expected bumps along the way. Having Scott Townley and Cori Eagan, the employment program supervisor, both staying on with the project has helped tremendously with the transition,” Morgan says.
 
Townley received his bachelor’s degree in international development from Calvin College. He later spent time overseas studying community-based developments and the faculty of agriculture. During the summers between school years, Townley worked at an organic farm in Ada and volunteered with Bethany’s refugee program in their resettlement process.
 
“This past summer I spent a lot of time helping the farmers develop the market and working on its overall management,” Townley says. “Usually I’m driving produce and farmers around, or harvesting and planting. This off season [my work is] more curriculum based. I’m figuring out what things we do or don’t need to teach.”
 
Alongside the curriculum, the employment specialists at Bethany often have weekly contact with their refugee clients. That, paired with assisting them to enroll in ESL, job training, and interview preparation, helps to set the refugees up for success as they begin employment. It’s hoped that Hope Farms clients learn enough to support their families through their own farming ventures within three years.
 
This is the second winter for Hope Farms. Last winter, while the project didn’t even have a plot of land, Townley and team handled the farm planning and fundraising.
 
“This year will be our first year of off-season curriculum,” Townley says. “We’ll be teaching classes on planning and financial literacy. We’ll also be recruiting and planning the planting for the growing season, along with some market development.”
 
There hasn’t been time to collect reliable feedback from client surveys yet, but Townley says he’s found that the farmers have benefitted the most from technical lessons in timing, spacing, and other areas of efficiency.
 
“None of them had ever used a hoop house before,” Townley said. “We did some greenhouse growing for seedlings, too, as none of them had done that before in the spring. We walked them through the process. Normally, they’d plant a seed right in the ground where they wanted it. We showed them how to grow in stages with transplanting. I got a lot of positive feedback on that.”
 
Townley says he enjoys working with clients in the field the most. It’s there he’s able to form close bonds with his fellow workers and pass on knowledge, although it’s always sad when someone moves on.
 
“I learn from them as well as teach them,” Townley says. “That’s where the most camaraderie and knowledge sharing goes on—the most joy and the most heartache of the growing space.”
 
Back at the office, Morgan helps keep the project running through fundraising efforts and marketing.
 
“The story of Hope Farms is unique and compelling; it can't help but draw people in,” Morgan says. “We love the opportunity to share our story and the beautiful stories of each of the farmers' journeys in getting here."
 
Hope Farms’ current operating budget is around $15,000. Being in its early stages, much of that still includes the project’s start-up costs, Morgan says. 
 
A few fundraisers are held every year to raise money for Hope Farms. An open house fundraising event this past fall gave those interested an opportunity to see the farm and enjoy a meal prepared by the farmers. If the delicious spread wasn’t enough, Hope Farms truly delivers when it comes to reliable numbers.
 
“Our Refugee Employment Program has one of the best employment percentages in the country, despite the fact that Michigan still has a struggling economy,” Morgan says. “And refugees are some of the hardest working people in our country. After all the struggles and challenges they have been through in order to get here, they are grateful for the opportunity to work here and they take their jobs very seriously. We've seen companies transformed by the hiring of refugees in their workforce.”
 
For more information about Bethany Christian Services’ Hope Farms Agricultural Project, visit http://www.bethany.org/grandrapids/hope-farms
 
Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com. 
 
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