By Jacqueline Kantor
Carrboro Commons Co-Editor
A few miles drive along Jones Ferry Road from downtown Carrboro sits the 269-acre donation to the Triangle Land Conservancy, the Elinor Irvin Nature Preserve. Down the gravel driveway to the left is a fenced-in plot of produce, backed by a large, open-air pavilion.
Boxes of vegetables for this week’s shipment of CSAs (community-supported agriculture) are lined up on a long wooden table with handwritten labels with family names.
This could be one of many sustainable farms in the Carrboro area, except for the looping, foreign script that adorns the whiteboard, bulletin board and welcome signs to Transplanting Traditions Community Farm—the Karen language of the distant Asian country of Burma, also known as Myanmar.
Transplanting Traditions Community Farm is in its second year of a three-year grant to provide local Karen immigrants a space to farm and to learn about sustainable agricultural practices in North Carolina.
Program coordinator Kelly Owensby started working with local families in 2007 at community gardens in Carrboro with the Orange County Partnership for Young Children.
“There was a low income requirement—it was free to all participants—but that meant the majority of the participants were low-income demographics, including refugees,” she says.
“The Karen families, all ethnic Burmese, wanted more space than what was allotted in the community garden. They were really eager for the space—farmers in Burma are used to a lot of land.”
Owensby found a way to expand through the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Project with a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Refugee Resettlement.
“The purpose is to train refugees in the sustainable agricultural skills they will need in order to one day operate their own businesses,” she explains.
The farm opened in January 2011 with 17 families. There are now 25 participating families, with about 140 people total involved in the second growing season, Owensby says.
Farm education covers what goes into running a business on the agricultural and marketing sides. CSAs, or what Owensby describes as a “magazine subscriptions for vegetables,” send out ginger, sweet potatoes, lettuce and other vegetables to local customers and Carrboro restaurants.
“CSAs are a great way to say, ‘I’m supporting,’ for beginning farmers,” Owensby explains. “It’s a big deal to pay upfront. This really has been amazing for our CSA members.”
Families can come out to the farm to tend to crops at any time during the week. Owensby says that in addition to weekly workshops, they’ll give the Karen participants reminders on what point of harvesting they should be focusing on for the week. There’s an emphasis on education and the business of North Carolina farming. The goal is to help participants gain the skills they need to start their own farms.
“Everybody has really strong basic agricultural skills, and we help them translate that into North Carolina agricultural knowledge and to do it sustainably,” Owensby says. Details such as the difference between the tropical climate of Burma and the seasonal limitations of North Carolina are areas of focus.
The cultural, geographical and language differences can often be overwhelming for the immigrants from the ethnic minority group in Burma. Veronika Martin is the former director of the Karen American Community Foundation and is now on the advisory committee. She has worked with transplanted Karen communities around the country, including the Carrboro community.
“They do not arrive here with English,” she says. “It’s acculturation to a new planet, not to a new situation, and it’s very very difficult. It requires extra attention to bring people to place where they feel comfortable trying to survive.”
Transplanting Traditions seeks to do that by putting the community in a space they feel at home.
“I think it’s become a really important community space for people and I think it’s something they’re really comfortable doing,” Owensby says. “They move to the U.S., move to a small apartment, and it’s all concrete, so coming out here really comfortable. They’re creating their own space.”
Nicole Accordino, program assistant at the farm, points out an elaborate trellis built by a community member with a large family. He took his plot of land and created a green, open space for family and friends to gather—a place of solace thousands of miles from home.
The Carrboro Karen community recently joined together with the development of the Karen Community of North Carolina.
“In the last year they have been able to form organize themselves into a community-based organization that can help themselves address their needs as opposed to relying on resettlement,” Martin says. “Rather than waiting, they’ve begun an initiative.”
There’s still work to be done, Owensby says, and three years will not be enough time. The larger Transplanting Traditions gets, the more supplies are needed, and it’s not feasible at this time to ask families to pay for the full cost. With more time, the farm could focus on helping individuals or groups of families find land to begin their own businesses.
“We’ve hit an awesome stride this year, and the third year is going to be incredible. The fact that the grant will run out just breaks my heart,” Owensby says. “This program made people realize that it’s possible to become a farmer in North Carolina. It gives them a certain amount of confidence in their ability, it gives them a really important sense of purpose.”