One of Us: Putting Down Roots – Tompkins Weekly

One of Us: Putting Down Roots – Tompkins Weekly

One of Us: Putting Down Roots

By Sue Henninger
Tompkins Weekly
Photo by Jamie Love (different photo than included in original article)

Historically, America has been a country made up of people from all backgrounds and all walks of life. The city of Ithaca and surrounding areas are reflective of this. Join Tompkins Weekly as we learn more about who we are as a community.
“My parents were farmers,” Paw Pha said describing his childhood in Burma (also known as Myanmar). “We moved to different places to farm each year. We don’t have to own land there; we just farm on it.”

The fourth of sixteen children Pha, who identifies himself as ethnic Karen, recalls his youth in Teepolay with nostalgia. There were only 20 houses in the small community, he explained, so villagers helped each other with farming responsibilities such as seeding their paddies.

Pha attended school locally until fourth grade, then moved to a secondary school. He was forced to drop out of the Mission School in ninth grade when Teepolay was invaded by the Burmese government army.
“We didn’t decide to leave; we had to,” he noted. “It was hard. It was peaceful there [in Teepolay]. There were no worries.”

The family fled, first by boat, then by foot, to Thailand, taking only the things they needed to survive. Once they got there, the only place for them to live was Tham Hin Camp, one of the many overflowing refugee camps in the country. The conditions there were unbearable. Many died, Pha explained, as there was never enough food or medical supplies. The water was bad and people frequently suffered from diarrhea and malaria. The emotional impact the camp had on refugees was terrible too.
“In the refugee camp, there is no hope,” he asserted.

After living in these conditions for five years, Pha and a friend snuck out of one of the unguarded areas. If caught, they knew they’d be jailed and have all their money taken from them, but Pha never regretted his decision. He journeyed to Bangkok where he waited for several years to get permission to come to the United States as a refugee. Eventually he received an I-94 (similar to a passport).
“I always wanted to come to the U.S.,” he said. “We think we will have the opportunity to come here and have a better life.”

Though he didn’t know anyone in Tompkins County, two townspeople, one from the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca, sponsored him. Next, Pha applied to become a U.S. resident. In 2009, he applied to become a United States citizen, passed the citizenship exam, and participated in an August naturalization ceremony in Ithaca.

Once he was settled in New York, Pha wanted to bring his mother and siblings, still in the refugee camp, to America. His sponsors and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) helped him achieve his goal. So far he has brought more than 30 family members from Thailand to this area. Once they’ve found employment, the relatives pay UNHCR back for their plane tickets. Pha’s two young children and his wife, who he met in the Mission School, live in the house he purchased in Thailand.
“One time a year I go back to Thailand to see them,” he said.

There are many differences between Pha’s native land and America. His family didn’t have any electricity in Teepolay. They used flashlights and owned an old radio that provided them with both music and the time. Here, he confidently and effortlessly uses the internet. There’s more time to relax in America too, he noted.
“In Teepolay, we worked Monday through Saturday and went to church on Sunday. They only time we relaxed was December when we celebrate the holidays,” Pha said. “Here (America) we work, but only for 40 hours.”

In his “down time” Pha likes to watch all kinds of movies to improve his English.
Though the 39-year old works full time at the Annex Library at Cornell University helping students with document delivery, he’s also managed to find a way to return to his agrarian roots. When he heard through the grapevine that Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming was establishing an organic Farm Business Incubator Program, specifically geared toward “New Americans,” refugees and people of color, on land leased from Ecovillage at Ithaca, he jumped at the chance to participate. Pha credits Devon Van Noble, who owns Van Noble Farms and is one of the incubator farm’s founders, with helping him get accepted to the three-year program.

According to farm manager, Liz Coakley, “The Incubator Farm provides low-risk access to land and resources.” Participating farmers are allowed to rent up to half an acre of land, use Groundswell’s farming equipment, and take advantage of “mentor farmers” advice, knowledge, and farm tours at a greatly reduced financial cost. Currently there are several Burmese farmers in the program.

Coakley emphasized that the program experience is unique for every farmer as they are all starting from a different place in terms of farming knowledge and business skills. She sees the Groundswell program as being invaluable to refugees like Pha, who want to preserve their farming skills and to grow and eat the foods they like and are familiar with. She and Groundswell staff have been evaluating whether three years will be sufficient time for the program’s farmers to establish a foothold in the farming industry.
“To farm under new conditions, learn English, and learn to run a business – all while working full-time – may not be possible,” she said, adding that they believe four to seven years might be a more realistic time frame for the program.

Now in his third year as an Incubator farmer, Pha grows some popular native vegetables: Roselle (whose spinach-like leaves are used as a vegetable or in soups), lemon cucumbers, and watercress. He sells these and other produce to Karen people from Utica to Buffalo, driving to these towns on a weekly basis.
“I test my product on them to narrow the focus to the things that sell best,” Pha said. “The second year of the program, I kept track of my product and profit on the computer.
“At first I didn’t think I wanted to be a farmer, but now I think I do,” he added, as he proudly surveyed the green shoots sprouting up on his land.

Groundswell Story: Main Street Farms

Groundswell Story: Main Street Farms

Allan and Bob Cat, owners of Main Street Farms in Homer NY, are graduates of Groundswell Center programs who now operate a small diversified vegetable farm that does CSA and wholesale and farmers markets. They currently have 30 acres in vegetables, 15 in cover crop, a aquaponic operation, and a plan to farm their entire 150 acres in 3-5 years. The farm has been in operation for 6 years and employs up to 15 people.

How did you decide to become farmers?

Bob Cat:  Allan was a highschool Social Studies teacher and started to see a connection between his students having trouble learning and what they were eating for lunch – often a bag of chips and a bottle of soda. This inspired him to get more involved with food. Originally he started researching aquaponics and then bought a flower nursery in Homer which is when he asked me to come join him. I was working as an outdoor environmental educator at the time, also with kids, and the food that they were being fed was also not very good, which also led me to think about eating better food. So for both of us, it all started with education.

Why do you think this work is important?

Allan: This work is important on different levels. The most basic level is from an environmental quality perspective as we’re an organic farm so we take care of the soil and the environment much better than bigger conventional farms. The next level is that we’re growing food for our local community so we’re helping people to eat better, eat healthier, eat what’s in season, and not go to grocery store so much. And then on a whole different level, we have a decent-sized farm business and a bunch of employees which makes us feel really good that we can provide jobs and employ people, and take part in our community that way.

What advice would you give your beginning farmer selves 5 years ago?

Allan: Personally, I would say visit as many farms as possible, work on a farm for a year or two ,especially if you’re unsure what scale of farm you envision, and make sure you like the work. Also remember that as much fun as it is being outside farming, it’s still a business …at some point you’ll have to pay some bills.

Bob Cat: Neither of us actually grew up on farms or even spent a full season working on farms before we started Main Street Farms. We were either avid gardeners or did some WWOOFING. Groundswell programs were our saving grace in that they provided an accelerated crash course into farming even though we went into it without full-season farming experience. Even more importantly than the things we learned, were the contacts we made with some of our mentors, especially having someone like Todd McLane (who now manages the TC3 Farm) on speed dial. But to echo what Allan said, take the time to work on other people’s farms, make your mistakes somewhere else, and get your ducks in a row to make sure farming is really something you want to do.

How did you get started with Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming?

Allan: I got involved with Groundswell when they were a brand new organization in their first year ever by taking their year-long Sustainable Farming Training Certificate course. I also took their Farm Business Planning Course and I went on multiple Finger Lakes CRAFT tours. Bob Cat took the Sustainable Farming Certificate Course in its second year, which I think they changed and no longer offer.

How has your relationship with Groundswell grown since then?

Allan: We did some advisory work for a while but then got super busy because the farm keeps expanding like crazy every year.

Bob Cat: We’ve also attended workshops, taught workshops, go to meetings, go to events, provided donations, and more. We try to help Groundswell on a multitude of levels and whatever way we can.

What would be different if you hadn’t taken Groundswell courses?

Bob Cat:  I think the farm would be way behind and much smaller, and we probably would have made more mistakes and relied a lot more on internet searches for information.

Allan: Also if we didn’t take Groundswell courses, we wouldn’t have tapped into the network of some of the most amazing farmers in the Finger Lakes who have been successful vegetables farmers for a long time and who are very willing to share knowledge and resources with us.

Incubator Highlight: Ability in Bloom

Incubator Highlight: Ability in Bloom

Article by Glen, Ability in Bloom Program Coordinator:

Ability in Bloom is a social enterprise program of Challenge Workforce Solutions where our goal is to provide jobs and work skills training for a dedicated group of adults and students with barriers to employment.  We employ Challenge participants who have had trouble finding work outside of Challenge or who are not ready to find work in the community.  At first we were growing flowers together recreationally, and decided to turn our work into something bigger.

We started growing flowers at the Ithaca Community Garden and still grow flowers there that we use for our awards dinner and luncheon. Two years ago we began growing at the Incubator Farm. This year, we have formed a business relationship with Take Your Pick Flower Farm in Lansing.

The Groundswell Incubator Farm has been a vital resource for helping us expand our production beyond a hobby level.  With the help of Groundwell staff and the trainings they have offered, we learned that we could successfully grow a product together as a team.  Working with Groundswell helped me learn, as the leader of the program, what my workers are truly capable of and how to help them utilize their abilities to produce a quality product.

Working with Linda Van Apeldoorn and her business, Take Your Pick Flower Farm, will enable some of the most successful trainees of my program to gain a more steady income from their work.  Linda is a wonderful person for us to work with.  She understands the needs of the individuals who work for Ability in Bloom and she has an intuitive understanding for how to set up work areas so that they are able to work effectively and efficiently.  Everyone who has worked at Take Your Pick Flower Farm loves it and wants to go back. I overheard Lauren, one of our trainees, telling her friends about the work she has been doing for Linda and I could hear the pride in her voice.  Our intention is to help Linda expand her production and make this a lucrative partnership.

The most noteworthy thing about working with the crew from Ability in Bloom is how much they generally love being outside and working with plants.  I say generally because there are some rainy, hot, or cold days that lower morale, but 9 days out of 10, they’d rather be at the farm or gardens, and I’ve noticed that crew members have fewer behavioral or motivational issues when in the gardens.  Personally, I much prefer working side by side with my workers as an equal in pursuit of working with nature to produce something beautiful.  On days when we are all in the groove and have a good routine down, it can be magical.

One of the people I developed Ability in Bloom to employ is Lillian.  Lillian ran her own catering business and is an experienced floral artist.  One of my favorite things about this work is when we bring our harvest to Lillian and seeing the delight she takes in working with all of the different flowers and greens.  It’s almost as if we are growing them just for her.  Lillian and Linda Van Apeldoorn hit it off magnificently when they worked together to make arrangements for Challenge’s awards dinner back in May.  I am hopeful that this will lead to more work for Lillian in the future doing what she truly loves.

One of the main things I have learned from doing Ability in Bloom for two years is that everyone can have their place in a productive team if the conditions are set up well and the motivation is there.  Getting their hands in the soil and working with living plants motivates the trainees of Ability in Bloom and we have achieved things together I never thought possible.

Although Ability in Bloom is not selling directly to the public this year, you can support us by purchasing flowers from Take Your Pick Flower Farm.  Our labor and flowers go hand in hand with Linda’s work so when you buy a CSA share or wedding and event arrangements from Take Your Pick, you are providing paying work for the trainees of Ability in Bloom.  Follow us on facebook and visit our website for updates.
-Glen Robertson,
Ability in Bloom Coordinator,
Challenge Workforce Solutions