Long furrows stretch out across the flat expanse of tilled ground at Transplanting Traditions Community Farm. Poking up from the earth are familiar plants like lettuce and onion, as well as naked stalks of lemongrass. The Farm is a project of the Orange County Partnership for Young Children (OCPYC ) that works to adapt refugee farmers from Burma to farming in North Carolina.
Kelly Owensby, the Project Manager, met with me on a windy Friday morning. Already a handful of participants were at work in the fields. More would be arriving for a meeting. The farm currently  has thirty-one families using the land and participating in workshops.
Kelly graduated from UNC with a degree in Cultural Studies. She then worked on local farms for five years, took sustainable ag classes at Chatham County Community College (CCCC), and tried a solo farming gig after finishing the PLANT at Breeze farm incubator program. She helped her partner, George O’Neal, start Lil’ Farm. In 2009, Kelly began working for OCPYC at their community garden in Carrboro. When OCPYC got a grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to work with refugees in an agricultural setting, and land became available from the Triangle Land Conservancy, they began Transplanting Traditions Farm with Kelly as the manager. All the participants at Transplanting Traditions Farm are Karen refugees from Burma, and all were farmers in Burma. “They really want to be able to keep farming,” Kelly says. “It is a big part of their culture.”
Taking the PLANT class helped Kelly understand the importance of a farm incubator program for beginners. An incubator can provide knowledge, infrastructure support, and connections, as well as land to farm and tools to share. While the Transplanting Traditions Farm participants have skills as farmers, they need to learn about the North Carolina climate and crops, and the tricks to sustainable growing here, like using cover crops and compost. “They’re coming from a completely different situation…. Burma is a tropical climate, they grow completely different crops, they had never seen four seasons before, never experienced temperatures below sixty degrees, and then they come to the United States, and it’s really difficult for people to learn how to plant seasonally, how to do succession planting, how to do season extension, which are all crucial to being a successful market farmer.”
In addition to growing the usual North Carolina vegetable and fruits, the group is specializing in southeast Asian tropical vegetables such as snake gourd, loofah, bitter melon, tumeric, galangal, and ginger. “[We grow] probably over 30 vegetables and herbs that I’d never seen before,” Kelly says. “Especially if you come out here in the middle of the summer, it’s just like a tropical paradise.” These plants are what the farmers know best and form an important part of their cuisine and culture. They also provide the farmers with a niche market: other transplants from southeast Asia who enjoy that cuisine, as well as anyone looking to try something new. Kelly describes the picnics they’ve had on the farm as similar to Thai food, but with a definite Burmese twist. The farmers have included the Burmese vegetables in their CSA boxes as an extra, along with recipes for how to use them. “We’ve had some of our customers enjoying them, the more adventuresome people who like to cook. They’re really delicious vegetables, you just have to know how to cook them.”
Marketing is different in the United States as well. The farmers don’t just learn about CSAs and Farmers’ Markets, they participate. Several restaurants have purchased from the farm. The group is starting their own refugee-run farmers’ market, thanks to a grant from Resourceful Communities Conservation Fund. Participants won’t have to commit to selling every week as at a traditional farmers’ market, since that would be difficult for many because of their work schedules. The market will specialize in southeast Asian crops and will accept SNAP (food stamps).
Transplanting Traditions farmers with only one garden row can sell at the new market and to restaurants. Those with three rows can sell at the market, and are also paired with two CSA customers. It may seem inefficient for farmers to pair off with customers, instead of pooling their produce, but the goal is to get them thinking like market farmers, who have to grow a variety of produce and plan ahead to have something in season at all times. The farmer with the most rows, twenty-one, is Tri Sa, who’s been with the program since 2010. In April, 2013, she began selling at the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market. (Kelly went with her to set up her table with pea shoots, green onions and garlic, and lettuce, as well as some extra transplants from the greenhouse. “They say you sell more if your table looks full,” I heard Kelly explaining as she piled on more heads of lettuce.) Hopefully, in the next few years, Tri Sa will acquire some land and begin farming on her own.
As ten o’clock nears, Mr. Pwee, the group’s translator, calls out to those in the fields to gather for a meeting in the high-roofed picnice shelter, which abuts the greenhouse. Kelly stands on a picnic table to explain some new procedures; the farmers now use a credit system to purchase organic fertilizer and transplants from the farm “store.” After using up their credit, they can buy additional products. Shuchi, the CSA Manager, acts as store bookkeeper. She sits at a picnic table, recording which farmers take extra lettuce transplants or haul off bags of fertilizer. Kelly passes out flyers in Burmese that explain the Farm Tour, for those who are new on the farm this year. “It’s going to be cold next week,” she explains, “So we’re not going to palnt our summer plants yet, but we’re moving them out of the greenhouse to ‘harden off.’” Then she splits the crowd into two groups to do some farm cleanup. One group follows Kelly’s assistant, Nicole, to the red shed, where they begin coiling up black irrigation tape. The other group heads with Kelly to the back field.
Later that morning, Kelly, Nicola, Shuchi, and Leah, the summer intern, sit for a meeting. Leah has been taking photos all moring for use on the farm’s website and Facebook page. Nicole discusses the volunteers needed for shifts during the farm tour, and they plan the information table they’ll set up.
Orange County has a large population of Karen refugees; ten percent of all Burmese refugees in North Carolina live in Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Transplanting Traditions Farm is helping them maintain their agricultural roots while transitioning to a new life.
Visit Transplanting Traditions Community Farm on the Farm Tour and online. Watch a video of our visit, below.