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How to Grow a Farmer

How to grow a FarmerHugh Joseph is raising the next generation of Massachusetts farmers. They just happen to have roots in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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Standing on his borrowed acre of farmland in Dracut, Mass., Visoth Kim is focused on the just-picked green-and-yellow-striped Asian cucumber in his hand. With a paring knife, he carefully peels off strips of the fuzzy skin, cuts a chunk of the cool jade flesh and brings it to his mouth. He tastes something profound in its melony sweetness. "The whole world, if it makes more food, will be at peace," proposes the soft-spoken Kim, who fled Cambodia and its Communist regime in 1981. "I have peace in my mind when I come here," he says of the farm. "The work is hard, but in my mind, it's peaceful."

Whether to make a better world or just a better life for himself, Kim is devoted to farming. He spends most days at White Gate Farm, growing long beans, bitter melons, purple taro, pumpkin tips, pickling spice and other produce from his homeland that most Americans would not recognize.

As carefully as Kim watches over his crops, his own progress is nurtured by a different group of caretakers: the staff at the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (NESFP). Their goal, simply put, is to train immigrants like Kim to grow and sell crops commercially.

Hugh Joseph, N84, N94, a Friedman School research associate, started the NESFP in 1998 as part of the school's Agriculture, Food and Environment Program. With a handful of staff and the help of Friedman School students, his program now cultivates about 50 farmers who hail from Laos, Cambodia, Liberia, Ghana and Cameroon. This fall, the new class added farmers from Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Nigeria. The project has also had farmers from Latin America.

In a way, history is on their side, Joseph points out. "American farms were settled by waves of immigrants over two centuries," he says. Germans, Finns, Portuguese, Italians and Greeks were among the first to plow the untapped acres of land.

Today, many of the project's farmers are political refugees. For some, farming was the only life they knew before they came to the United States. Their English is usually minimal, as is their education, which limits their chances of finding jobs in other fields. Working the land, they can continue an important part of their personal or cultural history instead of depending solely on low-paying factory jobs or welfare.

The project helps immigrants in another way. Because the farmers grow crops from their homelands—such as Asian cucumber, water spinach and amaranth—they feed the culinary needs of other immigrants, who might otherwise be unable to find the exotic vegetables that are their dietary staples.

Ensuring the survival of family farms

For people who support local agriculture, finding new farmers is essential for the survival of Massachusetts farms. The average farmer is age 55, and as today's farmers retire, many find their children are not interested in taking over the family business.

John Ogonowski, a Dracut farmer, saw that the next generation of farmers could be among the large Cambodian population that had settled in nearby Lowell, Mass. History will know Ogonowski as the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, one of the hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But for many Boston-area immigrants, he also will be remembered as the first farmer to open his land, White Gate Farm, to the NESFP.

"It was a population, Cambodians, that he felt a connection to because he had been a pilot in the Vietnam War," Joseph says. Ogonowski often said that his own ancestors were Polish immigrants who had been helped by Yankee farmers when they arrived here and that he was returning the goodwill.

Inspired by Ogonowski, five farms in Dracut, Sutton and Bolton have loaned more than 50 acres of land to the project. While helping the fledgling farmers, the landowners are keeping their unused fields viable. Jim Richardson, whose family owns Richardson's Dairy in Dracut, remembers the hard job it was clearing the second-growth maples and birches out of their field 25 years ago. Since starting his own farm in New Hampshire, he hasn't had time to keep up the Dracut land. Rather than have the land sit idle and grow back to puckabrush, his family decided to turn it over to the NESFP. "We put too much work into that to watch it slowly melt back into woods again," he says.

"It's not farmland without farmers."

— Hugh Joseph

His mother, Armeda Richardson, 91, is unfazed by the group of West Africans raising crops in the field behind her ice cream store. "At this point in my life, I'm not going to be planting," she says cheerfully. "They might as well use it."

Joseph hopes the Richardsons will apply to the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program, which uses state and federal funds to protect plots like theirs from development and designate them as farmland indefinitely. "It would be less likely for the state to say 'We want to preserve this' if we weren't farming it," Joseph says, echoing his usual motto: "It's not farmland without farmers."

Most farmers in Massachusetts, even ones who have farmed here for generations, have other sources of income to make ends meet—they teach, plow snow or design websites during the winter, or they have a spouse who can bring in some cash. NESFP farmers are no exception. Rechhat Proum works 40 hours a week as a laminator at the Teradyne factory in Nashua, N.H. He spends his days off, and sometimes two or three hours before his shift starts, at White Gate Farm. On one Tuesday afternoon, he already had planted 400 seedlings and still had to clean his greenhouse before ending his 12-hour work day.

"I don't know why I like it," says the perpetually smiling Proum, who came to Massachusetts from Cambodia in 1985. "My friends say, 'You work so hard for no money, no income, why you work?' I don't know. But I like it. I like fresh air. I like the birds maybe. I like to produce for myself, by myself. I like making something by myself."

Getting the NESFP off the ground proved as intractable as the New England weather. Joseph recalls being a little naïve his first season: "There is a magic that happens when you see someone get on the land and suddenly a month or two later there is this fabulous crop of really esoteric vegetables. And you think these households, these families, really know how to farm. And it's just great." He continues: "It took a while to understand that that was only a piece of what it really takes to have a successful farm business."

Besides arranging for plowing, harrowing, rock removal and irrigation, they had to put in wells, bring in electricity and provide equipment, tools, storage, greenhouses, refrigeration and portable toilets. And then there is adjusting to New England's temperate, or some would say temperamental climate. Many had the experience of planting something too early and having the frost kill it or watching crops never mature in the short growing season.

Moreover, the first three years consisted of two extremely wet years straddling a drought year. Many who participated the first year dropped out. "One year they replanted about four or five times and lost it all and gave up," Joseph recalls.

How to Grow a Farmer

A farmer holds an Asian pumpkin at a farmers market in Lowell.

Now all the prospective farmers go through an intensive 18-week training during the winter led by project coordinator Jennifer Hashley, G05. Friedman students, mainly from the Agriculture, Food and Environment and Food Policy and Applied Nutrition programs, helped develop the curriculum, which covers everything from crop planning to soil stewardship to risk management. Students also have worked on fund-raising, outreach, finding farmland and their own research projects and directed studies. One student, noticing that the USDA reports on the average yield of corn but not pea tendrils, has been helping the project determine the yields of some less well-known crops.

The program now requires all its farmers to have at least a conversational proficiency in English. Yet the language and literacy barriers still exist and make teaching the complexities of agriculture a challenge. Pesticide management, one of the most important subjects covered, is one of the trickiest, partly because of literacy issues. "In the Third World, pesticide mismanagement is epidemic," Joseph says. "It kills thousands of people because the risks are not properly conveyed by the manufacturers." Getting the farmers to properly document their farm work can also be a struggle. "To be eligible for the federal assistance that is there for small farmers, you have to have several years of farm records to show what you grew," Joseph says.

More often, the language gap is just another thing to work around. "Sometimes a person will say they understand, but they don't really understand; then it is interesting," says Suliman V. Kamara, the NESFP farm and marketing coordinator. "Sometimes if they are tired of you, and they have to do their work, and you are talking, they just say, 'Mmhm, mhmm, OK, OK.' "

More than once, the farmers have done fine following their own guidance. In the beginning, Joseph was concerned when he saw farmers planting peas, a spring crop, in the fall. He later learned that they didn't want the peas, only the pea tips, a common stir-fry ingredient. "In fact, they were getting a double benefit: a viable cash crop that can be raised on land being fallowed," he said, explaining that the unharvested pea plants and pea pods make an excellent cover crop, replenishing the soil for the next season.

For the most part, the farmers have taken eagerly to the new farming technologies made available to them, like the plastic row cover that cuts down on weeds and the weeding that goes with them. Visoth Kim returned to Cambodia this winter to share some of his American farming experience. He spent two months in a poor, rural area showing the farmers, who earn about $2 a day, how to make compost and irrigate the soil.

"This year, everything I do, all comes [out] well."

— Visoth Kim

Kim, who began farming with the project in 1999, was ready to purchase his own farm until illness made him scale back his dream. Hounded by his children to give up the labor-intensive work, he intended to plant less this season. "I wanted to reduce," he said, looking out at the bumper crop of Asian cucumbers. He gave a sheepish smile, as if to apologize for his embarrassingly green thumb. "This year, everything I do, all comes [out] well."

The farmers get a lot of support from the NESFP. The project rents them land (an acre or two apiece), helps them plow it and loans them equipment, all at subsidized rates. The ultimate success of the program will depend on whether the farmers can make it to the next step, moving from one acre to working several acres independently. Some have gone on to purchase their own farms, and Joseph hopes the project's Independent Farmer Assistance Initiative, begun this year, will prompt more farmers to make the transition.

Selling is harder than growing

As tricky as growing the food can be, selling it is even more complex. The project trains its participants in marketing skills, including pricing, promotion, customer relations and display. Even so, adapting to the American marketplace was a challenge even for the NESFP staff. In its early days, the project encouraged the farmers to sell to markets in Chinatown and to Asian restaurants, but the farmers could get only pennies a bunch.

"If you go into these stores, you'll see that $1 is the magic price," Joseph said. "It's very hard for farmers to sell something in their own communities at a fair price."

How to Grow a Farmer

Bitter melon

Now the farmers are selling at farmer's markets in upscale towns like Newton, Lexington and Arlington, where they can charge substantially more for their Chinese broccoli and cilantro. When Vang Mi Yang, a Hmong farmer who works an acre and a half in Lancaster, started selling at a farmer's market in Brookline, she could fetch three times the price she was getting from Asian restaurants. "She was pulling in $700 to $800 a week with just six or eight items," Joseph boasts.

On Tuesday afternoons, the NESFP's new marketing coop sets up its table at the Lexington farmers' market. While the other stands lay out fresh but typical New England harvest fare, like blueberries, tomatoes and apples, customers linger over the NESFP's colorful pumpkin blossoms. "It's beautiful," one customer gushes. "When you walk by, you just have to come and see it."

"What do you do with potato greens?" asks another potential customer, eager to bring something home to experiment with in the kitchen. Another fingers a bunch of vibrant green and purple amaranth. "Do you cook it?" she asks.

A third customer interrupts. "Do you have baby bok choy this week?" she queries hopefully. "I grilled it last time, and it was one of the best things I ever had."

Away from the customers, Hugh Joseph looks critically at a hefty bunch of greens. "Next week the pea tendrils should be half this size," he says, explaining that Asians and Africans eat large servings of vegetables and tend to package accordingly. Try as they might, the staff have trouble convincing the farmers to make smaller bundles for American appetites.

"It's a gradual process because it's a mindset," Joseph says. "They think, 'Why would anybody buy two little sprigs of this?' "


Profile written by Julie Flaherty

Julie Flaherty is the editor of Tufts Nutrition - the magazine of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. The complete version of this story first appeared in the Fall 2005 issue. It ran online on Jan. 16, 2006.

Photos by Steven Vote