Nurturing a new crop of farmers
Thanks to the efforts of a pilot killed on Sept. 11, Cambodian immigrants are getting the opportunity to become farmers
Although Peggy Ogonowski lives on White Gate Farm, she doesn't consider herself a farmer. Still, she has become very attached to the rural scenery surrounding her home not only for its beauty but for its meaning in her life.Skip to next paragraph
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Sometimes she sits, looking out at the cultivated fields, drinking in the pastoral vista from a large Adirondack chair in her backyard. "Who needs to go to the beach?" she asks.
What brought her to this idyllic spot was her husband's love of farming, a love he shared with a group of immigrant Cambodian farmers he assisted before his death on 9/11.
The story of John Ogonowski was known even before that day, partly as the result of a National Public Radio interview a few weeks before about his mentoring efforts. His story, how- ever, came to much greater attention after the plane he was piloting, American Airlines Flight 11, was hijacked by terrorists and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.
"It's very hard to go from living an anonymous life to having people interested in your life," says Mrs. Ogonowski, a former American Airlines flight attendant. Sitting at her spacious kitchen table, she pours water from a pitcher for a visitor and adds, "I recognize why the interest is there, so we'll just hope that it furthers John's work."
The work she's referring to has nothing to do with flying and everything to do with farming. Ogonowski was a major supporter of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, which helps disadvantaged Cambodian immigrants become commercial farmers. He was also a founding member of the Dracut Land Trust, established four years ago to protect local farmland from development.
"Dracut is a sleepy town waking up," Ogonowski says. "It's very close to Boston [which is 30 miles south], and all of a sudden developers are saying, 'We could do Dracut next,' and a lot of beautiful land is [being developed]. John and a group of concerned citizens were very interested in trying to save some of this land."
Of special concern to Ogonowski, whose family has farmed in the area for about 100 years, was a 350-acre development and golf course being built near his property and across the street from his parents' home.
The land once belonged to a cousin, who sold it to the developer. Even before Ogonowski's death, the trust was working to raise the money to buy 33 acres of the land in hopes of retaining some of the town's agricultural character by leaving it as open space or converting it to farmland.
The price $760,000 is considered fair given the current real estate climate. But even with a surge of post-9/11 contributions made in Ogonowski's memory, the trust is well short of the amount needed for the purchase.
Peggy Ogonowski supported her husband's decisions to lend large sums of money to the trust, but as a working mother, she concentrated her efforts on her job and raising their three daughters. Now that her husband is no longer here to personally champion the cause, she has started to get involved with the trust and is gratified by the political backing it has received.
As the result of lobbying efforts by US Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Marty Meehan, both Democrats of Massachusetts, the Dracut Land Trust is expected to receive the money to buy the desired parcel. The amount has been authorized in the preservation provision of the latest federal farm bill. Once the appropriation is approved, it will pave the way to turning the land into a living memorial to Ogonowski.