Bhutanese refugees find their calling as urban farmers
Seven thousand miles from their ancestral home, Bhutanese refugees are going back to their roots and tilling the good earth.
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It's at the Mackovjak farm, in Madison Township, that a new trade is taking root.Skip to next paragraph
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On a recent morning, a warm fall sun beamed down upon three men from Bhutan as they stooped among long rows of rutabaga, onions, and turnips. With gestures, Mackovjak showed them how to thin the leafy crops, and the Bhutanese fell quietly to work.
Indra Pyakurel, a father of six, once owned his own farm in Bhutan. He grew rice and pumpkins and oranges. Now he's tending tomatoes and other exotic vegetables. He's not getting paid yet. But at night, he leaves with bags of fresh produce for his family.
Pyakurel and his co-workers — Lal Bhujel and Rohit Basnet — represent three of nine Bhutanese families learning to plant, tend, harvest, and sell Midwest crops. They take turns vanpooling in from Lakewood, 50 miles away, work the fields, and sleep overnight in a trailer.
There's a learning curve. Back in Bhutan, the men plowed with an ox.
But the education goes both ways, Mr. Mackovjak says. When they first arrived at his farm in April, the Bhutanese asked if they could pick wild greens he considered weeds. A Google search on "lambsquarter" revealed a nutritious salad green consumed in much of the world.
Unfamiliar with pesticides, the Bhutanese farm is without them. What they can't eat or sell, they pickle or jar.
Mackovjak, the grandson of immigrants from Slovakia, said he sees his grandparents in the Bhutanese — hardworking people seeking a better life. He also sees a needed expertise.
"There's a need for farmers," he says. "Most Americans don't want to do agricultural work. That's the truth. These guys, they love the work."
The region's Hindu community envisions a business strategy: an organic farm supported by its customers. They are pulling the refugees into the Community Supported Agriculture movement, where people buy shares of a farm in exchange for a slice of the harvest.
Already, about 70 local Hindu families have purchased shares of the Bhutanese farm, Sreenath said. The investment will buy seeds and supplies for next year, when the Bhutanese intend to extend their handshake deal with Mackovjak, and maybe pay themselves for their labors.
The long-term goal is to own and farm their own land, as they did in Bhutan.
For lifelong farmers like Pyakurel, it offers a priceless measure of peace.
Knee-deep in ripening cucumbers, a cool wind in his face, Mr. Pyakurel smiled as if he wanted to be nowhere else.
"Life good," he said, as he plunged his hands into the earth.
Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page, which offers articles on many gardening topics. Also, check out our blog archive and our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We’ll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer’s blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.