Refugee Farmers are Putting Down Roots in North Carolina

Transplanting Traditions Community Farm is helping Burmese farmers create new community.

Food Justice, Local Eats

The farmers’ market in Carrboro, North Carolina is filled with local staples like lettuce, tomatoes, and eggs. But if you turn left after the welcome booth, you’ll find a table that offers less common crops like pennywort, lime leaves, and kermit eggplant.

That table belongs to Tri Sa, a Karen refugee farmer from Burma, present-day Myanmar. Her stand is called “Mu Tar K’Paw Gardens,” a Karen saying which translates to “everything comes from sunlight.”

Tri Sa grows many traditional herbs and vegetables at Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, with 27 other Karen refugee families. The farm started as a community garden for low-income families in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, and it attracted many Karen farmers who asked for more space. Thanks to land donated by the Triangle Land Conservancy, the farm expanded into a five-acre operation.

The Karen are a Burmese ethnic minority group, many of whom fled agriculture-centered communities Burma to escape violence and persecution by the Burmese military regime in the mid-2000s. Thousands of the refugees went to camps in Thailand before ending up in the United States. There are now nearly 70,000 Karen living in the U.S., and over 1,000 reside just in Orange County, North Carolina, where the Transplanting Traditions farm is located.

While most Americans are now several generations away from farming themselves, a range of organizations—from the Brooklyn Grange to the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots project—are finding ways to incorporate refugee farmers from places such as Syria, Burkina Faso, Iraq, and Afghanistan into their work.

“Culturally, our families have farmed for generations,” says Kelly Owensby, the Transplanting Traditions project director.

Most of the farmers now make their living working at night for one of the nearby universities as custodians. But the farm offers them food security, the potential for extra income, and the opportunity to do work that they find fulfilling.

“[The] Farm is important to me,” Tri Sa says. “We have community. It’s important to me that we don’t lose our tradition, that we meet each other at the farm. And some income for helping family.”

Farmer's Market in Carrboro, North CarolinaAlthough there are 28 families farming at Transplanting Tradition, Tri Sa is the only one selling her crops at local farmers’ markets. For many, American farmers’ market culture requires a leap they are not quite ready to take.

“I remember going through training with Tri Sa, and she just would be so confused because people would be like, ‘what’s more nutritious, the green lettuce or the red lettuce?’” Owensby recalls. “Foodie culture is very strange, even to a lot of Americans. So trying to translate that is really tricky.”

Instead, Transplanting Traditions runs a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription service that allows 92 customers to buy produce directly from seven of the farmers.

Most farm families gravitated towards the CSA Owensby says. That’s partly because it allows them to take out a lot of the uncertainty around what they’re going to sell. “We help them figure out: How many seeds do you need? How many plants do you need for that?”

“After hearing that Transplanting Traditions grows a lot of South-East Asian vegetables, we were intrigued,” says Becky Stanco, a CSA subscriber and mother of three. She also used the recipes offered on the group’s website and says the Hakurei turnips were her favorite.

“The farmers work so hard to make the boxes look so beautiful,” she adds. “We also really love Transplanting Traditions’ mission.”

The CSAs provide an important source of income for the Karen families, but the ability to grow and eat familiar foods may be just as important.

“You hear people say ‘food is medicine,’ but I’ve never actually seen it as clearly as I have with our families,” Owensby says. In Burma, she adds, many of the Karen families didn’t really have reliable access to Western medicine, so they often turned to food to cure various ailments.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh, I really miss eating bitter melon and turmeric,’ it’s also, ‘This is how I know how to take care of my health and my family,’” she says.

The Karen farmers also like knowing where their food is coming from. For them, buying food in the grocery story is a new concept, and many have trouble trusting it.

The farm also provides a community space. The refugees are able to work together, gossip in their native language, and share food. A few of the farmers have also built small bamboo structures at the farm where families will gather and eat lunch together when the weather’s nice.

Transplanting Traditions also offers weekly hands-on workshops, because most Karen farmers are not familiar with growing in North Carolina’s temperate climate. Owensby and her team run programs and activities for the children and teens of these families, many of whom were born outside of Burma, or left when they were very young. The goal is to help these young people reconnect to their culture. The adolescents are also involved in the farm through summer jobs and paid internships.

Owensby hopes that in the future, the farm will be run more independently by the farmers themselves. As a first step in that direction, Transplanting Traditions hired five farmers last year to manage different aspects of the farm and supervise crews of farmers. The farm will also soon expand to be seven-and-a-half acres, allowing for more land on which to expand the farms themselves. The land is part of a much larger nature preserve that was donated to the land trust on the condition that it be used for educational farming activities.

Building the farm to its current state has taken time, and it hasn’t been easy, says Owensby. “Farming is crazy. And then there’s the nonprofit world, which is totally unpredictable. We are combining two very challenging and unpredictable models.”

But despite the difficulties, Owensby says she’s proud of what the Karen families have achieved.

“They do an incredible job,” she says.

Photos, from top: Farmer in field by Ivan Weiss; Tri Sa selling at the farmers market by Jag Meet Mac.

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