Sudanese Farming Group works to grow culturally relevant crops, get access to land

Two people kneel and two people stand while working in a field.
Members of the Sudanese Farming Group spent their first summer in 2022 growing crops on a half-acre plot in New Hope. In early May, they are planning to begin putting plants in the ground for the 2023 season.
Courtesy of Khalid Elhassen

Have you ever fantasized about quitting your job and starting a farm? For most people, land would be the biggest obstacle. A handful of organizations in Minnesota try to help aspiring farmers climb over that hurdle by providing plots, training and other resources.

Last year, Khalid Elhassan began working outside his full-time engineering job to start a farming collective near the Food Group’s warehouse in New Hope. MPR News Host Emily Bright talked with Khalid Elhassen, founder of the Sudanese Farming Group, about the effort.

The group consists of about 20 to 30 families of Sudanese descent. Many of them have a cultural background in farming but grew up in the city and chose other professions. Now, they’re reconnecting with their traditions.

Elhassen said he has learned a lot in the last year but above all, farming should never be seen as an easy job.

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“It is a lot of hard work. We don’t use any pesticides, everything is organic. We’re very kind to the land, it is an extension of our values and culture but it is not an easy thing. It is investing in the knowledge and you need patience to do it,” he said.

Participants in the group have shared it has been a “transformative” experience. For many kids, it can be a chance to leave the metropolitan area and explore rural Minnesota.

It is early in the growing season and Elhassen says they’ve just started seeding. They’re using the greenhouse to start seedlings and soon, they will plant them.

At some point, they may even have their goods for sale.

Elhassen says his hope is to own a farm and support other farmers of color in Minnesota. He says that type of social support is essential in farming.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

Emily Bright: Here's a question for you. Have you ever fantasized about quitting your job and starting a farm? Well, let's just dwell on that for a minute. For most people, land would be the biggest obstacle. There are a handful of organizations in Minnesota that try to help aspiring farmers climb over that hurdle by providing plots training and other resources. A nonprofit called the Food Group runs one of those incubators.

Last year. Our next guest began working outside of his full-time engineering job to start a farming collective near the Food Group's warehouse in New Hope. Khalid Elhassan is founder of the Sudanese Farming Group, which includes about 20 families. Welcome, Khalid. Thank you for coming on the show.

KHALID ELHASSAN: Yeah, Thank you very much for having me.

Emily Bright: Oh, I'm so glad to hear it. I love this project, so tell me the story behind starting your farming group.

KHALID ELHASSAN: So this is the-- a group of the Sudanese farming group. Here, it's a number-- about 20 or 30 families of Sudanese descent here in the Twin Cities, and we wanted to start-- connect with the land, with our farm.

Many of us are descendants a generation or two away removed from rural communities. Many of us come from a village or farming background, but grew up in the city and have jobs, engineers and doctors and lawyers and whatever different professions, but we realized, now that we have our kids here and they're growing here, they're losing a lot of their connection with their culture and tradition, and their farming, ethics, and way of life. So we wanted to start this group so that we reconnect with our values and culture and tradition.

Emily Bright: And I imagine that that's also reflected in some of the crops that you're growing too.

KHALID ELHASSAN: Yeah, absolutely. Our choice of crops was very strategic. We wanted to choose the crops that we grew up used to. Some of them are like jute mallow. They call them, like-- what is it-- Egyptian spinach, okra, of certain varieties. Even like the cucumbers and the tomatoes that you find here in the stores, these are not the ones we were used to. The taste is slightly different. The look is slightly different.

Very diligently, we looked for the varieties that we're more familiar with back home, and as I'm sure you're aware, there's a lot of culture and tradition that's associated with growing food, preparing food, and consuming food.

Emily Bright: Oh, of course. Yes.

KHALID ELHASSAN: That's right, yeah.

[LAUGHTER]

Emily Bright: Well, how did you-- your group of 20 to 30 families you said, so how do you decide what to plant?

KHALID ELHASSAN: So we come from Sudan. It's a lot of the Eastern culture. We do things in a communal collectivistic way, so we meet and we get together. We don't vote. We do consensus.

So it's also part of the culture of deciding and managing , this and the way even we manage this organization or this effort, it's almost like a flat organization there is like the hierarchy. It's like the president and the Secretary, no. We get together, we decide things, and collectively, we choose the ones that there's a big consensus around, the ones that are culturally relevant to us. There's a lot of involvement from the elders. The things that they want to pass down to us and to the new generation.

Emily Bright: Yeah, absolutely. What kind of farming expertise are the different families bringing to this project?

KHALID ELHASSAN: Many of the farmers don't have, really, firsthand-- like I said, they're descendents from-- their parents and their grandparents were farmers, but many of them are starting to gradually lose the-- I'll call it the technical skills of farming. We're starting to lose it, but the farming ethics and the farming work, the mentality, there's a lot of patience and perseverance and a lot of good values that come from farming communities.

So these are still very well-preserved in our community, but some of us lost the technical skills, and that's why we're very lucky to partner with the Food Group and the Big River Farms so that we reintroduce those technical skills of farming.

Emily Bright: Yeah, my friends who are farmers are some of the best problem solvers I know. That constant adjusting to new variables like weather and soil and insects, and what have you learned from last season that you want to apply to this year?

KHALID ELHASSAN: Oh, we learned a ton of information. I mean, farming is a lot of hard work. There's a lot of tending to the land to the soil and our approach to farming is very, very green very organic we don't use any pesticides, we don't use any fertilizers, everything organic. We don't do any tilling, so we're very gentle, and we're very kind to the land and this is also an extension of our values and of our culture.

But we learned that it's not an easy thing. It's doable it needs a lot of investment in the knowledge and technical and know-how and patience to do this, but it's very doable. I mean, fighting pests, the organic-- the natural way, people have been doing this for thousands of years, right? Chemicals and pesticides are not the normal way, right? When you look around the globe, and these lush green forests and prairies, there isn't any fertilizers or pesticides in those, right? Plants grow very naturally, very rich without any chemicals, and this is what we're learning. The right way to do things. That's sustainable for hundreds of years in the future, right? We don't want to just exploit the land, and then extract all the nutrients from it.

Emily Bright: Well, I can hear the Joy of this work, this project that's in your voice. What have you heard from participants about what they're getting out of this farm?

KHALID ELHASSAN: They love it. I mean, for many of us, a lot of the families here, they're either urban or suburban families and just for their kids just to be out among getting their hands dirty, working the fields, jumping on a tractor, driving a tractor around, I mean, this is life transformative experiences for many of our kids growing in a big Metropolitan area, and I'm sure it would shape their lives for a long time, maybe even for a generation or two.

It's very valuable experience. They love it. A lot of our cultures and traditions are variably passed down by the elders so we do farming community. We get in big groups, and they get to interact with the elders, so there's that generational pass down of values and ethics and traditions, so it's extremely valuable, and everybody loves it.

Emily Bright: Yeah, so what's happening on the farm right now?

KHALID ELHASSAN: So it's early in the growing season, so now, we've just started the seeding-- we're using a greenhouse so that we've just starting the seedlings, and in the next weekend or so we'll probably start seeding actually on the ground, but as of now, we're just preparing for the growing season. Unfortunately, in Minnesota, the growing season is very short.

Emily Bright: Oh, it is.

KHALID ELHASSAN: It's maybe May through October. So we have to make use of greenhouses just to get the seed started.

Emily Bright: Well, I heard a rumor that summer will come at some point, and so if people want to buy your food, how can they?

KHALID ELHASSAN: So the best ways to connect through the Food Group and the Big River Farms organization. We're also going to be some of the local farmers market. Just look for the sign for the Food Group in some of the local farmers market. We also operate out of our farm in New Hope, Minnesota. We are also going to be selling our food directly at our farm there.

Emily Bright: OK, and now before I let you go, because this is an incubator farm, I understand the idea is it's somewhat temporary, kind of a jumping off point for people to start farms independently. What are your hopes for the program?

KHALID ELHASSAN: Yeah, exactly like you said, the idea is this is an incubator just to get us to learn the skills of farming-- reintroduce us back to farming, so we'll probably do it for a couple to three years maybe, and then we'll move on. We'll free up the space for different group to come and do that. Eventually, we'd like to move to our own farm for the Sudanese community.

I mean, obviously, there's a lot of challenges with that. Land is very expensive, and trying to get access to land that within a close commuting distance to a metropolitan area, it's tens of thousands of dollars just for an acre. It's crazy expensive, but that's our ultimate goal. To have our own farm and to be surrounded with other farmers and minorities where we can communicate and socialize and get that social support because you need that as part of farming.

Emily Bright: Absolutely. Well, Khalid, thank you for your time, and I wish you a great growing season.

KHALID ELHASSAN: Absolutely, thank you very much for having me.

Emily Bright: Khalid Elhassan is a founder of the Sudanese Farming Group, a half-acre farm at the food group warehouse in New Hope. All this week we've been talking with people who are trying to make a difference through farmland, and they have been such interesting conversations. You can find all these interviews on our website, mprnews.org.

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