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Burundi couple living in New Columbia community grows organic and African produce, sells at local markets

Rosata Niyonzima thought she'd never farm again when she left Burundi 10 years ago for a new life in the United States.

Now, the immigrant from East Africa is an entrepreneurial organic farmer living her own version of the American dream with her husband, Prosper Hezumuryano, and their seven children, ages 4 to 20.

This year, the couple launched their own organic farm business called HFF, which stands for happiness family farm. Their produce — including hard-to-find African vegetables — has been available at the New Columbia Farmers Market since that North Portland service opened in 2013. This year's harvest also will be featured at the St. Johns Farmers Market and the Village Market, a healthy corner grocery store also serving folks in New Columbia.

New Columbia is the state's largest complex of public and affordable housing, with more than 3,000 residents, 95 percent of them living at or below the federal poverty level.

The local farmers market, like the corner grocery, were designed to address the lack of healthy food options in the low-income community and surrounding area.

The farmers market, where Niyonzima's produce is sold, serves as a business incubator for residents. It allows emerging farmers and vendors to explore starting a business without the financial risks associated with high vendor fees or purchasing infrastructure like tents and tables, said Kris Soebroto, Village Gardens program director. Village Gardens, a service of Janus Youth Programs, helps residents of low-income neighborhoods get access to garden plots.

"Rosata is definitely the most successful farmer who has gone through our Market Gardener Program, and is really focused on her business development," Soebroto said.

Other New Columbia vendors and farmers are interested in launching their own businesses but are in the early stages of business development, she added.

The farmers market allows the New Columbia community to support a neighborhood-scale food system. Last year's market season circulated almost $12,000 directly into the neighborhood, she says.

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Rosata Niyonzima with her produce at the Village Gardens Farmers Market.None of that was on Niyonzima's radar when her family moved to the United States from Burundi, a landlocked nation between Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In 2010, when they moved from their Beaverton apartment to New Columbia, even gardening seemed out of reach. They'd assumed they would never work with soil again because becoming property owners was unlikely here.

"We never expected to farm again," Niyonzima said with help from translator Eca-Etabo Wasongolo, a community organizer for Village Gardens.

When the family was given a small plot to garden, "it was like manna from heaven to have the land," Niyonzima said.

Before long, their plot was brimming with vegetables that the family consumed. In 2012, they asked for a second plot but got something even better: They were selected as one of four New Columbia families to take part in Village Garden's new Market Gardener Program.

A local resident had donated a quarter-acre of land on Sauvie Island to farm, and another benefactor later donated more land. The bounty was to be sold at a new farmers market in New Columbia, with the farmers keeping all profits.

Each of the four families selected had immigrated to Portland after leaving behind farms in their home country. They all dreamed of farming again.

Now, Niyonzima and her family have a quarter-acre to farm.

Crops range from the usual — kale, tomatoes, peas, chard and beans — to TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Mbonga bujungu is one of the popular African vegetables that Rosata Niyonzima sells at her produce booth at the Village Gardens Farmers Market.African produce that is hard to find locally, such as amaranth, African eggplant, and mbonga bujungu, or MB veggies for short.

The farm's rare offerings appeal to Portland's growing African community, and shoppers come from across the metro area to New Columbia's market to buy produce.

Traditional African dishes made from the vegetables provide comfort and remind immigrants of home, feeding their body, mind and soul.

In addition to helping sustain the African culture locally, profits from the HFF farm allow the family to live more comfortably. They can repair their car when it breaks down and buy new shoes for a child when needed.

Hezumaryano continues to work at a burlap bag manufacturer in Beaverton, but Niyonzima recently quit her job at a food processing plant to devote herself full time to the family business.

"It has allowed me to be so proud," she said through the translator. "I can sell my produce and farm and feed my family."

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