For many immigrants, finding food from home is a struggle. This Va. farmer is working to change that.
Some studies have shown that people in immigrant communities may be more likely to face food insecurity, particularly in urban areas. They often can’t access, or afford, fresh, healthy vegetables. And the types of foods they grew up eating usually can’t be purchased in grocery stores.
“There is such a need for farmers like myself that cater to immigrant populations,” said Patience Fielding, who was born in Cameroon, in central Africa. She now has her own small farm that specializes in vegetables indigenous to Africa. “America is such a country of immigrants— it’s a melting pot of cultures. We are rich because of the various cultures and foods that we bring with us as immigrants.”
Fielding didn’t plan on becoming a farmer. She first became a French teacher, then got her doctorate in education and spent years traveling the world as an educational consultant. But during the pandemic, she had an epiphany. “We saw the food shortages and how people flocked to the stores to stock up. And I said to myself, ‘this cannot be sustainable. How can I step in and be part of a solution?’”
Fielding recalled her grandmother in Cameroon. “She never ate anything frozen. She did not have a refrigerator. There were no leftovers. So everyday she cooked fresh produce.”
She was inspired by those memories when she began looking for land to start her own farm. She and her family were living in Washington D.C. at the time, and after a year searching, they found 10 acres in Beaverdam, about 40 minutes north of Richmond.
Neighbors offered their help leveling and preparing the land for her farm. As a thank you, Fielding and her husband prepared a neighborhood dinner. “And it was just such a beautiful, intercultural moment,” Fielding said. “And I thought, wow, we could do this. We could use our food to build relationships. We could use our food to get to know one another. We could use the food to build community. And this is what I’m hoping to do.”
Fielding named her farm, Esther Manor. She specializes in growing vegetables indigenous to Africa. “Food is such a part of your culture and identity. Sometimes you just crave a certain food because it helps with your mood,” Fielding said.
Fielding grows Amaranth, a leafy vegetable that’s eaten in Africa and in southeast Asia. She says many people cook it sautéed in tomatoes and oil. She also grows bitter leaf, which is often used in soups and stews and is rich in vitamins. And the most popular food she grows is Njama Njama.
“In Cameroon, we have people who eat Njama Njama every day. This is one of the produce that people really request.”
People from immigrant communities in D.C., New York, and across the country heard about her farm. She says the demand is way beyond what she can provide.
Fielding is about to wrap up her first season as a farmer— she’ll spend much of the next month harvesting an African variety of pumpkin that she grew from seeds a friend gave her. And she’s preparing a community dinner at her farm for the end of October with African cuisine and music.
Researchers at Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture recently visited Fielding’s farm and are exploring ways they can help expand this work to other areas across Virginia.