U.S. program turns refugees into farmers
DRACUT, Mass. — The bullet wounds show on Rechhat Proum’s back when he bends down to pull lemongrass or water spinach on his farm in peaceful northern Massachusetts. When the 56-year-old Cambodian refugee lifts a pumpkin, the movement of his shirt reveals deep stab wounds on his stomach.
Nearby, Bessie and Samuel Tsimba tend African maize. The Zimbabwean immigrants deflect questions about the country’s violence and instead direct attention to the freshness of their cucumbers. “They’ll taste better than what you’ll get at most supermarkets,” promises Bessie, 43.
Proum and the Tsimbas got their start through a program that has quietly trained about 150 refugees of war, famine and genocide in modern farming to help them integrate into American life. On farms along the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border, the refugees have slowly replaced aging farmers and put back into use land that has been idle for years, the program’s organizers said.
They supply the region’s farmers markets and ethnic stores with beets, cabbage, eggplant, Asian spices and other produce.
“Some were farmers. Some come from a family of farmers,” said Jennifer Hashley, project director of the 12-year-old New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. “What we do is provide them with the means to return to agriculture by figuring out financial resources and developing a production plan.”
The program was launched in 1998 largely with the help of John Ogonowski, the pilot on American Airlines flight 11 to Los Angeles that crashed into the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Ogonowski served as the program’s first mentor farmer and let Cambodian and Hmong refugees use his land to get started.
Proum credited Ogonowski for introducing him to modern irrigation techniques and said Ogonowski wouldn’t accept money from him, only fresh vegetables.
After Sept. 11, Ogonowski’s widow, Peggy, helped create a farm trust as a memorial to her husband. Meanwhile, Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science’s Center for Agriculture, Food and Environment secured $500,000 in grants to expand the program and train more farmers, Hashley said.
Under the program, refugees take a six-week course at Tufts on agriculture and commercial farming. Would-be farmers then enter a three-year transition program in which they farm small plots, typically earning $5,000 to $10,000 a year to help supplement their non-farm incomes.
Bessie Tsimba, of Tyngsboro, a second-year trainee with her husband, said working her plot has introduced her to the basics of farming and allowed her to pick up techniques from other refugees. “You hear all sorts of languages when you’re out here,” said Tsimba, while cutting weeds with a machete. “We pick up new ideas from each other.”
The apprentice farmers also work to find steady, new markets to sell their produce.
“People call me up for orders and I can barely keep up,” said Tsimba, who sells to African churches in northern Massachusetts.
After three years, graduates lease a new plot from the trust set up by Peggy Ogonowski or New Entry helps them find other land.
Visoth Kim, 64, of Lawrence, one of the program’s original farmers, has built a steady business on a couple of acres he leases. A former teacher and survivor of the Khmer Rouge, a regime that slaughtered more than 20 percent of the Cambodian population in the 1970s, Kim sells sweet potatoes, redroot pigweed and tomatoes to Boston-based Tropical Foods and stores in Maine.
“I wake up at 4 every morning and pay close attention to everything I grow,” Kim said. “They like what I give them.”
Lori Deliso, marketing manager for the Lexington Farmers Market in Lexington, Mass., said refugee farmers have introduced new foods to her market that proved popular, even if customers were a little apprehensive at first about buying “exotic” vegetables.
“They’ve been great to work with and they always bring different kinds of ethnic foods,” Deliso said. “They offer wonderful suggestions on recipes and are quick to show us how good everything tastes.”
The program has developed a reputation for teaching about locally grown food and is now attracting American-born would-be farmers, Hashley said. In three years, it has grown from 15 trainees a year to 30 — with more than half American-born.
Amanda Munsie, 34, of Wilmington, said she came from a family of Ohio farmers and wanted to get involved in the locally grown food movement. African and Asian refugees in the New Entry program introduced her to new foods.
“They farm so differently than the way we did back in Ohio,” said Munsie, a trainee who farms next to the Tsimbas. “Now, I want to grow some of (their) vegetables because they looked so colorful and tasty to eat.”
Proum, who recently lost his full-time job at a technology company, said farming his 3-acre lot gives him solace and keeps him busy. If he is idle, his mind drifts to painful memories of the Cambodian-Vietnamese war or losing his friend Ogonowski on Sept. 11, he said.
“I don’t like to think about all of that,” Proum said while looking over his Chinese long beans. “I want to think about these.”