Interview and article by: Nico Hirscl, Cornell University
William Htoo is the newest farmer at Groundswell Center’s Farm Business Incubator Program, and just completed his first growing season. William is a refugee from Burma (also known as Myanmar) and came to Ithaca, NY in 2011. William and I sat down to have a conversation about his farming experiences and his time at the Incubator Farm.
William is no beginning farmer. He started farming at a young age with his parents, growing rice, cucumbers, pumpkins, coconuts and papaya among other vegetables and fruits. But farming in Burma is very different from farming in the United States. He explained: “I’d never planted in America so I didn’t know how to plant here – you need to plan for the weather, when to start seeds, what time to plant stuff outside. I didn’t know any of this, which is why I came to Liz [Incubator Farm Manager] who helped me a lot.” William enrolled in the program with aspirations of learning how to run his own greenhouse, getting familiar with what to grow and how to grow it, and eventually starting his own small farm. By doing this he hopes to provide for his family and have a career option for his three daughters if they choose to take it. But for now, given that the oldest is only 4 years old, they like to play on the farm and help their dad by “picking the rocks”.
The Farm Business Incubator Program is designed to help beginning and underrepresented farmers overcome the numerous barriers to becoming a successful entrepreneur in the Finger Lakes. The farm site itself is located on Ecovillage land in Ithaca, NY and hosted 9 distinct farm businesses / market gardens in 2018. It offers small plots of land, tools, machinery and other customized training for farmers to try out different techniques that prioritize care for the soil, water, air, and plants. The goal of the Farm is to provide a space where people can build on their existing knowledge of sustainable agriculture and create their own business model and lifestyle that works for them.
Getting started as a farmer in a new climate, with unfamiliar tools and equipment, was challenging for William “You have to learn a lot. If you don’t know that you are going to lose everything.” I asked him if he was nervous about moving forward with farming and he said, “A little bit, but I’ve already learned a lot”. When I visited his plot in September, I was thoroughly impressed. He had a lush quarter acre plot full of rosalie (hearty green), corn, cucumber, lemon grass, gotu kola (herb), and water spinach (salad green) and many beautiful squashes.
There are so many barriers to starting farming, especially accessing affordable land. The Farm Business Incubator provided the space that William needed to apply his existing agricultural knowledge to a new context, while growing Asian vegetable varieties that are culturally important and hard for his family and friends to find locally. For many, the Groundswell Incubator Farm serves as an entry point into the agricultural industry of the Finger Lakes, which is otherwise inaccessible. William continues to develop his business plan and expand his knowledge – his current interest is in mushroom production and marketing his products.
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