It’s no secret Aroostook County has a declining population and a number of organizations are working to stem outmigration. But some, like the Maine Community Foundation (MCF) and Northern Maine Community College (NMCC), are also looking to attract new folks to the region.
This past weekend (8/19) the MCF chartered a bus to bring 45 Somali immigrants from the Lewiston region to Aroostook County to explore agricultural opportunities. The group from the Somali Bantu community included men, women and their children, most of whom have been in Maine for multiple years.
“Aroostook County needs more people,” said MCF President and CEO Steven Rowe. “These are farm families from Lewiston and they need more land to farm. There is plenty of land in the County.”
The MCF funded the effort and coordinated with NMCC to house the Somalis and arrange the tour.
Following an informational breakfast (8/19) on local agriculture provided by Richard Brzozowski, Food System Program Administrator for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the group visited the MSAD #1 Educational Farm, and the Amish community in Fort Fairfield. The afternoon included a tour of the Frank McElwain Strawberry Farm in Caribou. A reception and dinner with panel discussion on life in Aroostook County concluded the day’s activities.
“We want to show our guests more than just agriculture,” said NMCC President Tim Crowley. “We want show them what the quality of life is like, what types of housing are available, what the schools are like, where are we located as far as transportation hubs are concerned, which is very important to this group. Hopefully we are planting seeds
for the future that will bring more people to Aroostook County.”
The tour stems from ideas discussed at a conference at NMCC in March of last year. The purpose of that conference was to start a conversation with leaders of area businesses and organizations about being proactive in the face of the continuing workforce decline. Crowley said they are considering ways to welcome anyone who wants to work hard and find a home here, including migrant workers, immigrants, college students from abroad and transplants from other parts of the United States.
Muhidin Libah is the Executive Director of the Somali Bantu Community Association of Maine. The mission of that organization is to assist all immigrants in Maine on housing, employment, literacy and education, health, and safety matters. This includes empowering children and families to achieve lifelong success through personal and social change, by providing them with information about how to connect to a new life in the United States.
“We are so excited and we have been trying to move elsewhere in the state of Maine,” Libah explained during the tour. “This would be a wonderful opportunity for the families and the region.”
Libah stated the Somalis are very hard working and have large families, which would help the population and assist in making Aroostook County more vibrant. Currently, Somalis downstate are growing kale, collard greens, African corn, beets and okra. He added those are the crops that may be in the mix for any Somali farms that take root in Aroostook County.
Rowe also believes if some of the families do migrate to northern Maine it will be good for the local schools, good for the economy and good for the families themselves.
“There are no hard expectations,” added Rowe. “This is just exposing people to a different part of the state and opening their eyes to the possibilities.”