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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cambodian Farmers

Air Date: Week of

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Living on Earth's Susan Shepherd reports on an innovative program in New England that is helping Cambodian refugees return to the farming life they left behind in their homeland.


TOOMEY: New England is home to a large population of Cambodians, many of them farmers who fled from the Khmer Rouge. But life here hasn't always been easy. Some of these refugees came without family, many are poor, and almost all long for something of the life they lived in Cambodia. Now, a project is helping hundreds of Cambodians recapture some of their farm heritage. Susan Shepherd has our report, but first, a side note. In this story you'll hear from John Ogonowski, a mentor farmer with the program. Mr. Ogonowski was also a commercial airline pilot. He was killed when his plane was flown into the World Trade Center on September 11th. This story was recorded several weeks before his death.


SHEPHERD: Ladyfingers, fish cheek herbs, gourds, taro, holy basil - this is pay dirt for a family of Cambodians that farms a small plot in Dracut, Massachusetts. On a warm day in early September a husband and wife and several children wearing straw hats squat among the green rows, in the brilliant morning sun. They're harvesting some of the first Cambodian vegetables of the season.


WOMAN: I take only the good ones.

GIRL: It's fun; it's hard working. It's hot staying in the sun.

SHEPHERD: White Gate Farm, where eight Cambodian families have plots, neighbors the city of Lowell, where some 20,000 Southeast Asian immigrants live. Most of them are poor, and many use assistance programs to help feed themselves and their family. Here, on the farm, they are growing traditional Cambodian foods they've rarely been able to buy here, because they're expensive or hard to find.

SON: The older generation, they love this stuff.

SHEPHERD: Born in Cambodia, SophieRoth Son is community liaison and translator for this project. In his late twenties, dark-skinned, with a round face, he walks carefully through the rows of vegetables, stopping to pick a leaf to taste.

SON: The flavors of the pig weed is a little bit lighter than spinach, and the reason why Asian people love eating pig weed, because it's sort of, to them, it's a kind of medication that provides and supports the immune system. Basically to cool your body down. It's good for the summer.

SHEPHERD: SophieRoth's father was a well-known general in Cambodia. He was assassinated by the Khmer Rouge, which was responsible for nearly 2 million deaths.

SON: During the Khmer Rouge oppression, almost the whole entire Cambodian cultures vanish because of that. All the intellectual people were killed. That's why, you can tell, there's a lot of Cambodian people here in the United States are farmers. Khmer Rouge don't kill farmers, they treasure farmers.

SHEPHERD: Many came to America, where they had trouble finding work, or took low-paying jobs. Farming wasn't an option. Most came with no money and buying land was out of the question. Then, a few years ago, a coalition of universities, nonprofits, and government agencies formed the New Entry Sustainable Farming project.

OGONOWSKI: It started out with a phone call from the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Gus Shumaker, and this was kind of a little project that he was starting, and he was looking for a place to get it going.

SHEPHERD: This farm belongs to John Ogonowski. Ruddy-faced, with a shock of light hair and a strong farmer's build, he's just come from fixing a tractor outside his enormous barn, which is stacked from floor to ceiling with hay. When not selling blueberries, pumpkins and horse feed, Ogonowski is a fulltime commercial airline pilot. He was also a pilot in Vietnam. That may be why, when Gus Shumaker called, Ogonowski was prepared to try to help southeast Asians in America.

OGONOWSKI: He called me and told me what he had in mind and I said, sure, I've got some excess land available right now that we can try it on, and we've been doing it ever since.

SHEPHERD: The project was designed to match immigrant farmers with unused farmland. Some of this land belongs to the state, some to conservation groups, some to private landowners. The idea was to grow specialty farm products for burgeoning farmers markets, to get immigrants back to the land and to provide food for a population in which hunger is all too common.

OGONOWSKI: My family, they're all immigrants, they came over here and had to start farming over here, so it sounded like a good chance to get people farming who were farmers in their country before. So I think once a person is a farmer, they're a farmer for life. They're hooked.

SHEPHERD: Ogonowski has been a mentor farmer for the past four years. He lends his land, helps the Cambodians till, apply pesticides, and irrigate. He also built several greenhouses at his own expense so the farmers could get an early start in the spring. He talked about the difficulties these farmers face, farming here in America.

OGONOWSKI: Their climate and their soils were a little different where they were; probably their pest problems were different. Even the weeds are probably different. Over there, they would farm with water buffaloes.

SON: They use ox, use water buffalo, to plow and to do the tilling.

SHEPHERD: A group of farmers and their families talk about what it was like to farm in Cambodia, as they congregate in a makeshift kitchen, set up in the field, under a bright blue tarp. They may not be using traditional farming methods here, but these farmers are eating traditional Cambodian food again. Some stay as long as fourteen hours in the fields, or race from the farm to the factory. So a place to cook is crucial.

EAP: That's called yahoun. That's yahoun, but I don't know in English.

SHEPHERD: That's Khat Eap. He takes the lid off the boiling pot and smells the stew he's been tending. Thin, with hollowed cheeks and a scarred complexion, he stirs and adds pea tendrils, fresh from the field.

EAP: I like to farm, I don't know why. They said, in my job in my country, I like to farm too much.

SHEPHERD: Khat Eap fled to the U.S. at age 28, but was separated from his family. They went to Australia. And since then, he has only seen his mother once.


SHEPHERD: On the floor, near the pot, several children on their knees lean over a plastic blue baby pool filled with water and pig weed. They swish their hands around, washing the greens, as their parents prepare the meal. Over and over, these Cambodians talk about how much they miss their former lives. Again, Khat Eap


VOICEOVER: Well, he was brought up on a farm and his whole entire family was farmers, back in Cambodia. So it's his way of saying that's my blood, that's my heritage, and he has the passion of doing farming.

SHEPHERD: As they sit down to eat, the children say they'd rather eat McDonald's. Their parents, however, are hoping that most of the Cambodian population in Lowell is willing to buy this traditional fare.


SHEPHERD: Early on a Saturday morning the farmers and their families congregate in a large vacant parking lot in Lowell. It's pay dirt time at the farmers market. Khat Eap squats inside the back of his truck. He smokes a cigarette, watching as several Cambodian women pile the produce he's hauled on tables, under tarps. Despite the unspoken anticipation of whether they'll make money today, Eap looks patient, even detached. He looks like a man who knows how to wait, and right now, he's waiting to see whether his vegetables are going to sell.

MAN: Baby corn, most Asians like that.

SHEPHERD: Everyone involved in this project is hoping that farming will make economic, as well as emotional and cultural, sense for these Cambodians. To accomplish this they've posted signs and billboards, in Khmer as well as English. Still, there are no more than a dozen people buying produce. But it's early in the day and early, still, in the season.

MAN: Sweet corn is four for a dollar.

SHEPHERD: A new program which has been successful providing Asian produce to high-end restaurants in Boston and New York may help these growers make enough money to live on until the farmers' markets catch on. But, for now, the leftover food will go to nearby food pantries. Cambodian produce is rarely available in the emergency food system, and it is clear that, since the Southeast Asians in Lowell are so poor and so many of them use public assistance, this food will not go to waste. For many of these farmers the coming winter will mean looking for jobs again or going back to the factories. But come May, they'll be plowing and planting, putting their hands in the dirt, making green things grow again. For Living on Earth, I'm Susan Shepherd in Lowell, Massachusetts.

TOOMEY: A follow-up to this story. Congress has just approved the renaming of a federal program in honor of pilot and mentor farmer John Ogonowski. The program provides aid to farmers in developing countries. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.



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