This African farmer serves the mid-Atlantic community by growing native plants.
The tables at the Florencia Farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, broke out in conversation and laughter among the mostly African immigrants, attending a September community event to highlight and taste some of their favorite native foods.
“Look around this farm at all of the happy people,” said John Manirakiza, farmer of Florencia Farms in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. “This is why it is worth the 18-hour workdays with little profit. To see all these people smile and share in the love of African food here in America brings me the most joy a man can have. I am indeed rich.”
Manirakiza grows mostly cultural, African ethnic vegetables that traditional American grocery stores or farmers markets typically do not carry. This is how Manirakiza connects with his Burundian culture and with the African community in the greater Washington, D.C., region.
Manirakiza recalls his mother introducing him to planting as a young boy growing up in Burundi.
“My mother had a little plot of land where we planted certain vegetables,” Manirakiza said. “I went with my mother to the farm kicking and screaming. I wanted to play football with the other children instead. In Burundi, families are not democracies, so I did not get a vote. This was when my mother literally planted a seed in me.”
He immigrated to South Africa in 1995 after the assassination of the country’s president led to civil war. A student at the time, Manirakiza fled the conflict and stayed in South Africa for three years. He then applied for a visa and resettled in the United States with a host family in Alexandria, Virginia. He has lived in the District/Virginia/Maryland area ever since and now manages his farm in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
The East African diet is heavily plant-based, with a diversified set of vegetables, many of which, such as certain types of kale, malabar spinach, sweet potatoes and greens, Manirakiza grows. One of the challenges, according to Manirakiza, is to adopt the crops to the mid-Atlantic climate. He received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine if African-native crops could grow effectively in his area.
“Half of the crops didn’t make it, but half did,” he said.
In fact, hibiscus grew in his greenhouse when the temperature was over 100 degrees and did so without the use of water. He is still researching how it was possible to grow without water.
Manirakiza uses regenerative farming practices, including no-till, to grow most of his crops and he credits this for his success.
“It is crucial for me to use no-till practices for growing my crops because I don’t disturb the soil and it stays healthy,” he said.
Manirakiza does not advertise extensively but does post occasionally on some social media channels, and most people find his products through word of mouth from members of the area’s African community.
He sells products occasionally to local farmers markets and donates products and supplies to local food pantries and NGOs for the underprivileged.
“Many of the food pantries I donate to have never seen fresh produce, so I am providing a unique service to them,” Manirakiza said. “The people are so excited about receiving fresh kale and other vegetables, which they have never eaten before.”
Another challenge to the immediate community he serves is that Prince George’s County has one of the worst food insecurity situations in Maryland, according to Manirakiza. The closest grocery store to his farm is seven miles away, and that technically defines the area as a food desert — an urban area without a food outlet within a one-mile radius.
“It hurts me tremendously to see people go hungry and not have access to the fresh food we all need to be healthy,” he said. “My goal is to obtain more resources to give back to the community and feed as many people as possible.”
Manirakiza also gives back to the community by providing opportunities for school children, including internships for students to work on his farm. The interns not only provide necessary labor for the farm, but also helps them to learn about different crops and farming techniques.
“When working on the farm, the students learn not only where food comes from, but the importance of natural resources stewardship,” Manirakiza said. “Most of the students become aware of new career paths and opportunities, hence we all gain a level of satisfaction in knowing these efforts will be sustained by future generations. Plus, we all have fun, too.”
Manirakiza has begun to build an ecosystem to increase capacity, but needs more labor, logistics for a better supply chain to hold and better technology and transportation from the farm to distribution points. To get by, he even works small, part-time jobs, including driving for Uber and language interpretation.
Despite all the challenges, Manirakiza is hopeful and is as determined as ever to continue growing his plants and serving the community.
“The future is so bright,” he said. “I used to be an office worker at a 9-to-5 job daydreaming to be somewhere else, but I don’t feel that way on the farm. I wouldn’t trade this in for anything in the world.”
And when Manirakiza sees the smiles and hears the laughter of the community when they consume his vegetables, that only reconfirms his optimism.
“To see the community happy and healthy from the food I produce is priceless — the reason I do what I do,” he said. “With that, I feel as if I am changing the world.”
Brought to you by the Brighter Future Fund — a partnership between American Farmland Trust and Tillamook. This article was written by Michael Shulman and published on AGDAILY on behalf of American Farmland Trust.
John Manirakiza is a recipient of the 2022 Brighter Future Fund Award, which provides grants to farmers across the country to assist in successfully improving resilience, enhancing farm viability and accessing land. American Farmland Trust, in partnership with Tillamook, awarded farmers, including Manirakiza, grants of $5,000 to BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and/or women farmers nationwide. Manirakiza used his award winnings to purchase a freezer to store crops and storage unit for farm tools and other miscellaneous farm supplies. With these additional resources, Manirakiza will be able to serve more consumers and potentially increase his farm revenue.