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Dunbarton’s Fresh Start Farm provides revenue and connections for New Americans

  • Bhutanese refugee Gopal Rasaily of Manchester tosses a handful of weeds as, from right, Tika Gazmer, Chhali Maya, Laxmi Missra and Dilli Gazmer work at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton on July 18, 2014. Members of the refugee community farm the seven acres of plots at Fresh Start with support from the Manchester nonprofit Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success. (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

    Bhutanese refugee Gopal Rasaily of Manchester tosses a handful of weeds as, from right, Tika Gazmer, Chhali Maya, Laxmi Missra and Dilli Gazmer work at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton on July 18, 2014. Members of the refugee community farm the seven acres of plots at Fresh Start with support from the Manchester nonprofit Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success. (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

  • Bhutanese refugee Chhali Maya of Manchester plants lettuce at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton on July 18, 2014. Members of the refugee community farm the seven acres of plots at Fresh Start with support from the Manchester nonprofit Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success. (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

    Bhutanese refugee Chhali Maya of Manchester plants lettuce at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton on July 18, 2014. Members of the refugee community farm the seven acres of plots at Fresh Start with support from the Manchester nonprofit Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success. (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

  • Bhutanese refugee Budha Gazmer, right, hands Tika Gazmer a handful of lettuce sprouts to transplant at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton on July 18, 2014. Members of the refugee community farm the seven acres of plots at Fresh Start with support from the Manchester nonprofit Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success. (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

    Bhutanese refugee Budha Gazmer, right, hands Tika Gazmer a handful of lettuce sprouts to transplant at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton on July 18, 2014. Members of the refugee community farm the seven acres of plots at Fresh Start with support from the Manchester nonprofit Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success. (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

  • Bhutanese refugee Gopal Rasaily of Manchester tosses a handful of weeds as, from right, Tika Gazmer, Chhali Maya, Laxmi Missra and Dilli Gazmer work at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton on July 18, 2014. Members of the refugee community farm the seven acres of plots at Fresh Start with support from the Manchester nonprofit Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success. (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)
  • Bhutanese refugee Chhali Maya of Manchester plants lettuce at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton on July 18, 2014. Members of the refugee community farm the seven acres of plots at Fresh Start with support from the Manchester nonprofit Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success. (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)
  • Bhutanese refugee Budha Gazmer, right, hands Tika Gazmer a handful of lettuce sprouts to transplant at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton on July 18, 2014. Members of the refugee community farm the seven acres of plots at Fresh Start with support from the Manchester nonprofit Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success. (WILL PARSON/Monitor staff)

Laxmi Nayaran Mishra’s piece of Fresh Start Farms sits at the very front of the 7-acre parcel in Dunbarton. Centered in a small patch, between his rows of cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and peas is an unfamiliar fruit, something long, green and spiny.

It’s bitter melon, a popular crop in Mishra’s home country of Bhutan.

“For our country, and our family it is very nice,” he said. “You cut it into small pieces then fry it, put in a little tomato, hot pepper, onion, then it’s good.”

The fruit is a reminder of home, where Mishra ran a thriving 35-acre farm before the government kicked him out of Bhutan in 2009 and took away everything he owned, he said.

Now, Mishra harvests his crops on a modest plot in Dunbarton alongside other immigrant and refugee farmers who use the produce they grow to earn money and ensure their own food security.

But more than that, the farm gives the growers a community, a place of solitude and a sense of independence.

“They had successful lives . . . (but) because of circumstances in their countries all that was taken away,” said Andrea Bye, the agriculture program director who works with the farm. “Now they can start to feel they are providing for their families again.”

Mishra is one of 18 farmers harvesting the land off Story Hill Road through an agriculture project supported by the Manchester nonprofit Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success. The Fresh Start Farms collective acts as an incubator, training new American farmers who are interested in getting into the business.

All of them harvest food to put on their own tables, but Mishra is one of eight farmers in the collective that grows commercially, selling crops wholesale in a CSA and at local farmers markets – and generating about $5,000 a year from it.

Since Fresh Start Farms’s inception in 2011, the collective has become so popular that it is now experiencing growing pains. The 7-acre plot – leased to the nonprofit for free – can’t support any new farmers. So now, Fresh Start Farms is looking for a new piece of land where it can continue its training program and draw in new refugee and immigrant farmers.

“We’re assessing different sites in the greater Manchester, even Concord area,” Bye said.

Once that happens – most likely within the next year – the nonprofit wants to turn the Dunbarton land over to the eight commercial growers so that they can start their own self-sustaining farming cooperative.

“We’re trying to figure out what shape that is going to take,” Bye said. Ideally, she said, over the next couple years, the nonprofit would continue to provide technical support as the farmers come up with a business plan, hire a manager and start getting more customers.

“We are looking . . . to have these eight farmers operate here independently,” she said.

On Wednesday morning, it was a group effort as the eight farmers harvested their crops in preparation for a weekly CSA delivery.

The farmers grow American crops but also traditional foods popular in their native countries, including mustard greens – common in Bhutan – and African corn.

The ethnic produce can fetch a high price at the Manchester farm stands where Fresh Start Farms sells, since the produce is not easily accessibly at local markets.

Mishra said he can sell 1 pound of his bitter melon for $5. Another farmer made about $8,000 in one year alone selling African eggplant, Bye said.

“Hundreds of families come to these farm stands to buy these ethnic crops,” she said. “More refugees are benefiting from the food that is grown here than just the 18 families.”

During Wednesday’s harvest, Isho Mahamed picked bright, yellow squash from her farm patch. The 33-year-old began farming in New Hampshire in 2007, and has been harvesting at Fresh Start Farms since its start. Mahamed’s family were farmers in her native Somalia, and after she resettled in New Hampshire, farming helped with the transition.

“I didn’t know a lot of people, I met new people,” she said through an interpreter. “I also go to training.”

The farming is much easier here than in Africa, she said, where everything is done by hand, without the help of machines. “If I get more training and go back home I would tell them the easy way to do it, instead of killing themselves doing it manually,” she said.

For her, the best part of farming her own plot is that she can feed her eight children healthy, fresh food. It’s like her own little grocery store, she said.

“Everything is buy, buy, buy,” she said. If the kids say “ ‘mom I need lettuce,’ I come to the farm, pick it, cut it and give it.”

Another plus is the income she takes home. In addition to farming, Mahamed works a part-time job at a chocolate factory.

“It’s about trying to make ends meet,” she said.

Mahamed is excited at the prospect of taking over the farm with the other seven, starting a cooperative and perhaps making farming her full-time job. But she has worries too – that the new cooperative won’t have its own machinery.

Near the CSA bagging table, Hajiya Libanga prepared her own onion harvest for sale. Her family, originally from Somalia, were farmers back home, before they went to a refugee camp in Kenya. She came to New Hampshire in 2004, leaving behind a country in civil war. And now, she farms to provide for her five children.

Her favorite part of it?

“Peace.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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