Dunbarton: At Fresh Start Farms, the farm is a classroom

  • Five hoop houses are lined up at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton. 

  • Sylvain Bukasa, 51, emigrated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the United States in 2006. He lives in Manchester and began farming in Dunbarton four years ago.  NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

  • Rows of garlic sprout from underneath recycled black fabric, which locks in heat and controls weed growth, at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

  • Sylvain Bukasa spends a few days a week working on his plot at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton. BELOW: ORIS Youth Program Coordinator Wendy Stevens stands on a plot where student interns work in the summer. Photos by NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

  • Wendy Stevens is the youth program coordinator at ORIS. She is seen standing in one of the plots student interns will work on this summer at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

  • A look inside one of the five hoop houses at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/5/2016 11:07:00 PM

The old, worn tires that line the perimeter of Sylvain Bukasa’s crop at Fresh Start Farms in Dunbarton might not look like much, but they serve an important purpose: Fresh food grown fast.

Bukasa plants potatoes inside the tires. The black rubber absorbs the sun’s heat, warming the soil at a higher rate and expediting growth.

“This is what the consumers want,” said Wendy Stevens, an expert and advocate in the realm of local food initiatives and healthy eating. “There are a lot of different approaches here to make food available sooner.”

In the face of a national food industry that Stevens says is too large and therefore unsustainable, an effort to expand small-crop farming in New Hampshire and educate students continues in Dunbarton at Fresh Start Farms.

Stevens, the youth program coordinator for the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success (ORIS), oversees the summer internship program for high school students at the farm. The Farm and Food Leaders program begins in July and is now accepting applications.

“The vast majority of farmland in New Hampshire is owned by non-farmers or former farmers with an average age over 58,” she said. “This is why it is important to teach youth how to grow their own food, to ensure New Hampshire’s food security in the future.”

The summer internship, which runs for seven weeks from July through August, is a first step toward farming for most students. Stevens says the majority of participants have never been on a farm before.

Farmers like Bukasa, who only started growing crops about four years ago, are examples of success.

Bukasa, 51, escaped violence and uncertainty in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and came to the United States in 2006. His family – he is married and has a 23-year-old son – settled in Manchester's west side, and began a new life.

In 2012, Bukasa got involved with ORIS and started learning the basics of growing food. He became more interested in the work, and what started as a hobby developed into a serious endeavor.

“At first, it was just farming for food at home,” Bukasa said, taking a short break on a windy morning at the farm. “Then, I ended up selling like $1,000 (worth of food). And they told me in America if you sell $1,000, then you are a farmer.

“I take it seriously,” he added. “Back home, I used to grow stuff like flowers. But I never planned to work this big with food.”

Bukasa said he finds peace working the land. Birdhouses surround the farm, songs whistling and chirping from behind the treeline.

“I’m not a guy who likes to live in the big city,” he said. “Even before I came here, I was dreaming to live on a farm. . . . The only thing that scares me is when people are shooting around here. I think, ‘Is it war again, or what?’ ”

He drives about 20 minutes from Manchester three or four times a week to do his farm work, in addition to his full-time job in the car rental business.

Bukasa lends a hand teaching students and any newcomers to the program. He’ll trade some tips, like growing food in tires. They are techniques he has learned over the last few years from other farmers through various programs.

“It’s just an exchange,” he said. “You give them something maybe they have never experienced in their lives. If they love it, they’ll learn.”

The idea of an ‘exchange’ – expanding a network of farmers in the state by educating people, young and older, in how to farm productively – is a development Stevens hopes will continue to grow.

The summer course focuses on growing food; working under the sun elbow-to-elbow, digging into the earth, lugging the food across back to the wash station 100 yards away. It’s hard work, but students often come back for another session.

And the program isn’t only about grueling work in the dog days of summer. Each Thursday, the students help the other farmers at the farmers markets.

Other days, they might do something fun such as throwing “seed bombs” around more urban areas. A seed bomb, Stevens explained, is water, cat litter and dirt mixed together in a ball with seeds. The cat litter locks in moisture around the seeds and protects them from a bird’s beak.

“You sort of guerilla bomb them in the city and they grow food,” she said. “We mostly throw them into vacant lots, places like that.”

For Stevens, the program’s mission is reconnecting people with the food they eat.

“How did we get there where farmers in New Hampshire are 50 years or older and we’re so out of touch with are food?” Stevens said. “It’s so vital right now to get the education on how to grow your own food back into the schools.”

Students in the program will receive credit toward earning a diploma, and all students are welcome to apply.

“It’s going to be a nice integration of Americans and refugees working on the farm together,” Stevens said.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3314, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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