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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

At least part of the land would be used by the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, which is funded largely by the US Department of Agriculture and sponsored and administered by Tufts University's Agriculture, Food, and Environment Program. It helps immigrants with farming backgrounds to begin farming in Massachusetts and other New England states.

Mr. Ogonowski was approached by organizers of the project, who were looking for land readily accessible to city-dwelling immigrant growers. That's difficult to find near Boston, where land is often too expensive to be used for commercial farming. Ogonowski, whose family immigrated from Poland, was pleased to have the project use part of his property as the first all-commercial "mentor farm."

The project's goals include:

• Reenergizing the region's agriculture through diversified operation and ownership.

• Developing greater economic self- reliance among the disadvantaged.

• Expanding production of ethnic foods.

"We're trying to give immigrants an opportunity to become regular farmers," says Hugh Joseph, who supervises the program.

"Most of our growers are fairly low or moderate income, and in some cases on government-support programs," he says. "Some have decent jobs and live all right, but some are unemployed." Whatever their situations, they want to farm, either to make a living or to supplement their income.

This desire made them kindred spirits of Ogonowski, who went far beyond renting them part of his land, which is 15 minutes from Lowell, where there's a large Cambodian population.

Mr. Joseph says that Ogonowski sometimes didn't even collect the rents specified in the program. Besides providing contracted services such as plowing and fertilizing, he ordered materials, set up a greenhouse, excavated a pond, and shared his expertise and advice about growing conditions and practices.

Through hand signals and simple demonstrations, he was able to overcome the language barrier and communicate with the farmers, who often speak little or no English.

To help facilitate communication, the project hired Sophyroth Sun, a young Cambodian who, until recently, served as an interpreter and helped during training sessions on topics such as recordkeeping and seed selection.

Mr. Sun says Ogonowski always had an "open gate" policy. "He always wanted more Cambodian-American farmers on his property."

The night before Ogonowski's last flight, he dropped by the Cambodian farmers' plots to talk with them. He told them he was sorry to have to miss their fall harvest festival on Sept. 11, when he was scheduled to captain a Los Angeles-bound flight out of Boston's Logan Airport.

When Mr. Sun relayed the news of Ogonowski's death to the growers the next day, "they all broke down in tears," he says, adding, "I feel like John is still with us today."

It was Ogonowski's career as a pilot that enabled him to devote part of his time to farming, his wife says. "Because of his seniority he worked 12 days a month," she explains. "He'd do back-to-back trips, working four days, then have eight days off."

Although Mrs. Ogonowski is now actively involved in the farmland trust, the day-to-day operation of White Gate Farm has fallen to her brother-in-law, Jim Ogonowski.

But maybe a fascination with farming will be passed along to John Ogonowski's three daughters (ages 17, 15, and 12). The girls' interest in farming is minimal so far, their mother admits. Mostly, it has been limited to picking fruit for the family's use and to give to friends.

"But they're young," she says. "We'll see how that develops."

New careers grow on preserved farmland

Farming is not the most alluring of careers for native-born Americans anymore, but it still appeals to immigrants such as Nil Por, a former Cambodian Army commander who came to the United States in 1981.

When he left his homeland to escape the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, he had more than 40 years of farming experience. Today, standing on farmland in Dracut, Mass., with an interpreter at his side, he speaks about the "wonderful journey" that has brought him to this place and the opportunity it provides.

The land he farms is part of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project in Dracut, Mass.

The project has targeted Cambodian-Americans, since an estimated 30,000 live in nearby Lowell, making it the second-largest Cambodian community in the US, after Los Angeles.

Because the trainees rent rather than own the land, the farm needs to be within easy commuting distance for farmers who are often moonlighting evenings and weekends.

Take Em Chak, for example, who has a full-time job and also farms on seven-tenths of an acre.

Learning how to grow water spinach in the US has been mostly a hobby so far. But he'd like to farm full time if he can find land by water.

"Right now these farmers have fairly small plots, maybe anything from half an acre up to five acres," says Hugh Joseph, the program's administrator. "That's only big enough to supplement their livelihoods, but the intention is to help those who are good at farming and really like it to find and move onto larger plots of land."

This year the farmer trainees paid $200 for each acre rented, a fee that may jump to $300 next year. Their plots are plowed and fertilized for them, they receive training and technical assistance, and they benefit from the sharing of resources and equipment. They also get advice about coping with often-unfamiliar growing cycles, pests, markets, and business practices.

A small staff, including a bilingual liaison, also helps the farmers find markets for their produce, and aids in delivering and selling it.

What they grow often seems unusual to Americans. What looks like a weed may be a regular fixture in Southeast Asian diets. Mr. Joseph says he was familiar with only seven or eight of the 36 different items the Cambodians grew last year.

Even when the Cambodian farmers grow familiar American crops, they may use them differently. Melons may be harvested for pickling long before they're ripe, and corn picked when cobs are baby size. Peas are grown late in the season for their tendrils or plant tips, which are used in salads and stir-fry dishes.

As might be expected, these crops sell briskly at local Asian-American markets. And they are increasingly available at farmers' markets, flea markets, and even trendy restaurants.

In fact, some items are so chic that they're trucked to fancy New York eateries. "Pea tendrils are becoming the next cilantro," Joseph says.

The challenge, he adds, is balancing sales between Asian-American markets – which are more numerous but pay less – and high-end customers.

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