As Groundswell was planning the Incubator Farm Program, people had been telling me about a man named Aung Htoo, a farmer from Burma who might be interested in farming locally. Eventually, with translation help from Aung Htoo’s younger brother, I was able to meet Aung Htoo and his brother-in-law Eh Hser. I told them about how the Program worked and what Groundswell could offer at the Farm, but they decided the Program wouldn’t work for them and I realize now, the time wasn’t right for us as an organization. At that point, Groundswell had no connections with Burmese refugees or service providers in the area, and furthermore we didn’t have any background working with participants that speak English as a second language. Since then, Groundswell has been able to build some of the trust that was needed, and we are very pleased that 5 – 8 Burmese farmers will be farming at the Incubator in 2016, including Aung Htoo and Eh Hser.
In 2014, the Groundswell Center received a grant from the Office of New Americans through the Appalachian Regional Commission to focus on building relationships with immigrants and refugees, and improving the accessibility of Groundswell programs. We worked closely with Susannah Spero, a Groundswell intern who had worked with a similar farming program for New Americans in Burlington, Vermont. After meeting with several service providers, we realized that there were some barriers preventing many New Americans from participating in the Incubator Program including transportation, childcare, the cost, and our limited language abilities as service-providers. We knew that we needed to address each of those issues to successfully support refugee farmers, and that it would be a gradual learning process. With Susannah’s help we learned a lot about communicating with New Americans. We started creating plain language flyers and making visits to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes with a slide show that visually described what the Incubator Farm was about.
As word about the Incubator Farm spread, service-providers including Catholic Charities and Challenge Workforce Solutions began to direct individuals interested in farming to Groundswell. In 2014, Ye Myint joined the Incubator Farm to grow cucumbers for his sushi business and a crop named Gongura, part of the hibiscus family, that is used for spicing meats and pickling. This year, another farmer named Paw Pha also started farming on ¼ acre where he grew water spinach, gongura, long beans, pumpkins and lemon cucumbers. Before the season started, Paw Pha participated in Groundswell’s 10-week Farm Business Planning Course, where it was evident that Paw was an extremely kind man and a very hard worker. We soon learned that he was similarly a leader in his community, and had been the first of his family to come to the United States. Paw has worked relentlessly over the years to assure that approximately 40 of his Karen relatives (Karen is one of many ethnic groups in Burma) have been able to arrive safely in Ithaca from Burma. Thankfully, this winter Paw expects to pick up his own children from Thailand and next year his wife should be able to come to Ithaca as well.
It has been a blessing to work with Paw Pha, because he has taught Groundswell a lot about how to adapt the Incubator Program to work effectively for Burmese farmers. He has been extremely clear with me about what works and what doesn’t, and it has been obvious that we will continue to need his guidance. Paw is now working for Groundswell as a contractor to facilitate connections with other Burmese farmers and to help us adapt the Program to better support them. He has hosted tours at the Incubator Farm, translated for meetings with new farmers, and next year Paw will be co-teaching and translating the Organic Management Basics course. Hopefully with this kind of creative power, Paw will help Groundswell develop a farm site that is useful for refugees from Burma and elsewhere. I have a huge amount of trust in Paw, and I know that he will bring wonderful people to the Farm and steer the Program in a good direction.
With Paw’s help we were able to officially accept 4 new farmers to the Incubator for 2016, including Aung Htoo, his wife Ae Say, Aung Htoo’s sister Merry Paw, and her husband Eh Hser. Aung Htoo has been working on several other farming projects since our first meeting, including working for West Haven Farm and Remembrance Farm, and now he and Eh Hser work at the new Food Hub in Groton. Together with their wives, Aung Htoo and Eh Hser will be farming ¼ acre and have started this Fall by planting garlic. Paw Pha also works with his family to farm. His mother and 2 sisters to up often to work on the ¼ acre, and this year they will be adding another 1/8th acre to their plot. We are very excited to have each of these families at the Farm, and I am looking forward to see how we can continue making changes that encourage other Burmese farmers to join the Incubator in the future.