Fresh Start Farms program helps refugees find community

  • Sylvain Bukasa talks about what farming means to him in front of the plot of land he works and the hot house he shares with other refugees Wednesday at the Stone Farm in Dunbarton. CAITLIN ANDREWS / Monitor staff

  • Laxmi Mishra and Sylvain Bukasa have participated in the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success’ Fresh Start Farms program for several years. The program allows resettled refugees to grow crops and sell them at no cost to them. CAITLIN ANDREWS / Monitor staff

  • Greens are still growing in the mild November weather at Stone Farm, where refugees have the chance to grow their own crops and even make a profit. CAITLIN ANDREWS / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/18/2016 11:19:34 PM

After 200 years of being owned and worked by the same family, there’s both change and stability at the farms owned by the Stone family in Dunbarton.

The duty of turning the soil and tending to the crops will now be handed down to a new group of farmers. But the land will remain a farm as long as someone wants to plant a seed and pick what grows.

“We’re at a point where a lot of the older farmers in the state are starting to retire, and there’s not a lot of interest in farming,” said farm manager Tom Paulsen. “Why not bring people on who are genuinely interested in farming in and make sure the property remains as farmland?”

Enter the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success, which has arranged the purchase of 56.8 acres of land owned by the Stone family to ensure refugees can both cultivate the land and build their business skills selling the crops.

The group’s Fresh Start Farms program lets refugees farm their own crops and keep 100 percent of proceeds.

Paulsen said the sale makes sense, not just to continue the program, but to make sure farmland remains in the state. ORIS is looking to raise  $20,000 to complete the sale of the farm from its owners for $90,000 – around 40 percent of its estimated worth. 

ORIS isn’t the only group working to preserve Stone land: the Five Rivers Conservation Trust recently finished fundraising efforts to secure an easement for the Stone Farm, a seperate 200-plus acre piece of land also owned by the Stone family, with the possibility of a deal being closed in December, according to executive director Beth McGuinn. She said the easement cost $293,000, and over $50,000 of those funds were raised by community donations. McGuinn noted while there were a few large private donations, many people donated between $25 and $50. The rest of the funds came from various grants.

“The community really did a bang-up job of making this happen,” she said. Similarly,

that would allow refugees like Sylvain Bukasa to continue to work the land.

Bukasa, 51, came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2006. He said he knew before he came to this country that his goal was to work, and that nothing was free.

“I didn’t know that food stamps or benefits like that existed,” he said. “But I thought that was so amazing, that there were people who didn’t want to see others starving. I wanted to be a part of that country, where we help people who can’t afford food, or those who are disabled, by making sure everyone has something to eat. I think it’s something we should encourage, people becoming not just self-sufficient but someone who can help others.”

Bukasa has worked at the farm a few days a week in the summer as a source of supplemental income since 2012; his main gig is as at a rental-car business.

“I sold a little more than over $1,000 of product that first time,” he said. “They told me that if you sell more than $1,000 in this country, you’re a farmer. I thought that was amazing.”

But he relishes the chance to work with the land and with his fellow farmers, something he did a little back home. His backyard garden was small and full of crops they could pick and eat, like amaranth and beans.

“I was under the impression that farming here wasn’t easy, because of all the technology involved in big farms,” he said. “I was used to the kind of farming you did with just a hoe.”

Another refugee who grows at the farm, Laxmi Mishra, 62, came from a farming background, growing corn and potatoes and keeping cows and horses in Bhutan. He came to the United States in 2009 with his family, and has been involved with ORIS since 2010. The chance to continue to farm in a new land was important to him, and he hopes to pass his green thumb to his children.

“My son works with me at the farm sometimes in addition to his job, and I’m teaching my daughter how to farm as well,” he said.

Bukasa said he is able to grow enough food to feed himself and make a profit. He said he also enjoys partnering with the eight other farmers, including Mishra, who partake in a community-supported agriculture program. One of his biggest pleasures is delivering the boxes of food to his neighbors, as well as meeting new people when he sells at farmers markets.

“There’s Americans who are so excited to meet someone who just came here,” he said. “And that makes me feel good. I’m proud to be part of such a big society.”

The mission is more than the 56.8 acres ORIS is looking to buy: there’s a social purpose for the refugees and New Hampshire as a whole.

At one point, ORIS program manager Wendy Stevens expressed concern about revealing too much personal information about the refugee farmers, fearing the political climate around immigrants could dissuade people from donating to the cause.

But Bukasa felt differently.

“I’m naturally positive,” he said. “I know that bad things come and go away, but people remain. If we can find a common ground, we can work together for everyone.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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