by: Merry MacKinnon, With help from New American Agriculture Project, Alexander Velikoretskikh has tools, water and land (a half-acre in an urban neighborhood of Southeast Portland) for farming. Velikoretskikh, who emigrated with his wife and eight children from Russia 15 months ago, hopes to provide his family with fresh vegetables and to sell the surplus at local farmers markets and restaurants.

The offer of land and water at no cost are the incentives a Portland-based nonprofit uses to encourage refugees and immigrants to begin small-scale farming within the Portland metropolitan area.

On a recent Sunday, client Alexander Velikoretskikh dug up carrots and installed an irrigation system on a half-acre lot he farms in Inner Southeast Portland.

'It's a hobby farm,' said Velikoretskikh, glancing around the plot, which faces busy 39th Avenue.

As his children picked flowers, the white-haired father of eight rolled up a long piece of clear plastic, part of the free materials and tools the nonprofit gives to its farmers.

Having emigrated with his family 15 months ago from Russia, where he said he had grown tomatoes, potatoes and carrots, Velikoretskikh figured he'd try growing and selling vegetables here, too, after hearing about New American Agriculture Project (NAAP) through Outer Northeast Portland's Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO). But he's also seeking work as a truck driver.

Administered by Mercy Corps Northwest, the agriculture project encourages refugee and immigrant self-employment within the local organic food economy.

'A lot come to us without any income, and they're receiving welfare,' said Drew Katz, NAAP program coordinator.

With free tools, education, market connections and seedlings, farmers get a jump on selling produce, and in some cases, honey and flowers at farmers markets, congregations and restaurants. Their families often pitch in and help.

Of the 13 families currently enrolled, more than half live east of 82nd Avenue in Portland and in Gresham. Primarily Russian-speaking, they come from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Russia and Ukraine. Others are from Mexico and Laos.

'Some are growing for the sake of entrepreneurship,' Katz said. 'Others want to maintain an attachment to growing food and provide subsistence for themselves.'

One of Katz's roles is to broker connections between property owners willing to lease, contract or donate land and immigrants and refugees, novice or experienced, who wish to farm it.

'We put property owners into a land database and help facilitate,' Katz said.

Ranging from one half to 2 acres, available plots of land are usually within 20 minutes of Portland and relatively small, but farmers may graduate to larger plots of up to 12 acres. None of the current inventory includes land in Outer East County, said Dina Lukyanova, Mercy Corps Northwest's business cultural liaison.

'A lot of our people live east of 82nd Avenue, so we're trying to find land out there,' Lukyanova said.

At the plot assigned to Velikoretskikh, a homeowner next door donated water for the farm, while the neighbor on the hill above the plot provided the land, which is bordered on three sides by single-family, two-story houses. The arrangement works well for the neighbors, according to the homeowner.

'I'd rather have a farm next door than an empty lot or condos,' the homeowner said.

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