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Taking root in a new land

Immigrants fill need for farmers by renewing a passion for planting

Song Yang placed pea tendril seeds along straight rows that lined a four-acre plot in Bolton one recent sunny morning. As the temperature climbed toward 80, her husband, Nou Yang, followed close behind with a rake, covering each seed with dirt. After they completed a few rows, he stopped, mopped sweat from his brow, and said with a smile how good it was to be working the land.

Wearing wool pants, a loose-fitting button-down cotton shirt, and baby blue flip-flops, Nou Yang said his crops were about three weeks behind schedule, thanks to the earlier wave of cold and wet weather. At this time last year, Nou Yang said, he was already selling lemongrass, baby bok choy, and Asian eggplant at local farmers' markets. He shrugged off this year's delay. Growing vegetables, Nou Yang said, is one of the few things he and his family can do in the United States each summer to stay connected to their past lives in Laos.

Nou Yang, a Hmong refugee who fled communist Laos to Thailand and then to the United States following the Vietnam War, estimated his age at about 52, but he said he isn't really sure.

''All of my people are farmers," said Nou Yang, who speaks little English. ''It reminds you of home. We like to see our vegetables growing. It's food for our families, and we sell some at the farmers' market."

Nou Yang, who lives in Fitchburg, is part of a growing trend of immigrant farmers who are changing the face of US agriculture.

The average age of white US farmers is almost 55, according to 2002 Census figures, and many of their children are not following their parents into agriculture. So, farming activists have turned to immigrants with agrarian backgrounds to help save what agricultural land is left before it is swallowed by development -- including huge McMansions and strip malls.

''It's not farmland without farmers," says a bumper sticker on the car driven by Hugh Joseph, who directs the Tufts University New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, which supports Massachusetts immigrant farmers.

''If we're going to keep our farmland alive, we need to have farmers," he said. ''And here are hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees arriving with agrarian backgrounds, and a large number are interested in making a living farming."

The sustainable farming project provides training and consulting support to Cambodian, Ghanaian, Hmong, and Liberian immigrants who work on more than 100 acres of land at one of five participating farms. One farm straddles the border of Bolton and Lancaster; the others are in Dracut and Sutton.

The project offers an 18-week course that focuses on farming techniques, pest control, and marketing. It also helps immigrant farmers find work, attain funding to buy or lease land, and connect with farmers' markets where they can sell their fruits and vegetables.

There are about 20 similar programs across the country, said Rachel Dannefer, coordinator of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based National Immigrant Farming Initiative, which promotes farming by immigrants. In Washington state, Mexicans operate apple orchards. There are Sudanese farmers in Nebraska, growing sorghum. And in Maryland, farmers from the Caribbean raise goats for meat.

''For many people, farming is an incurable passion, and this is a common thread among the immigrant and refugee communities that these projects are tapping into," Dannefer said.

Hispanic farmers are, by far, the fastest-growing population of immigrant farmers. According to Census data, the number of Hispanics nationally considered ''principal operators" of farms increased by 51 percent from 1997 to 2002. In Massachusetts, there was a 204 percent increase, from 47 to 143 Hispanic farmers. Still, even with the sharp increase, Hispanic farmers make up only 0.8 percent of the roughly 6,075 principal farmers in the state, according to the Census data. Asians make up 0.3 percent.

The US Department of Agriculture cautions that the statistics may be inflated due to recent changes in the way US Census data are collected. Those changes make it more likely that spouses of farm operators will also be counted. Nevertheless, groups such as the National Immigration Farming Initiative cite the figures and say they show the number of immigrant-run farms is on the rise, spurring a need for more support services.

Last week, roughly a dozen Hmong farmers and some of their children spent the day planting seeds along 20 acres of private land in Bolton. Maria Moreira, who owns the property on the Bolton-Lancaster border, said she currently works with more than 50 Hmong families who grow Asian crops many Americans may never have heard of, such as daikon -- a large white radish -- and ong choy, a type of water spinach, which they'll eat with their families, give to friends, or sell at local markets.

''I would never have thought that I would be eating pumpkin vines," she said. ''And they're delicious. And I'm really into that fuzzy gourd. . . . You eat a plate of that, and you're all set for the day."

Judy Dore, market manager of the Newton Farmer's Market, said the stand run by Hmong farmers is quickly becoming one of the market's most popular.

''People in Newton love new vegetables and trying new things," said Dore, who operates the market for the Newton Parks and Recreation Department.

She said that, typically, customers will first walk through the entire market before deciding where to shop.

''But you see them returning to the [Hmong] family," she said. ''So they must like what they see."

Nou Yang's niece, Mai Lee, has her own half-acre of land in Bolton, which she uses to grow vegetables to sell at the Hmong American Market in Lunenburg. Mai Lee, who says she is about 44 or 45, said that when she arrived in the United States in 1980, she felt very lonely and detached from her heritage. Everything was different: the weather, the people, the food.

Four years later, Mai Lee said, she met Moreira while looking for some land where she could grow some of her native vegetables. Moreira offered her a small corner of her field off Route 117, where Lee started a small set of crops, which she still tends.

''In my country, we always work in the garden," she said. ''If I stayed at home, I would feel like I'm forgetting my home. So I keep a garden to remind me of where I'm from."

Franco Ordoñez can be reached at

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