Thursday, April 7, 2011

New Roots Farmers Travel to National Farming Conference

The first week of February, I had the privilege of taking four farmers from the New Roots for Refugees program to the Minnesota Food Association’s annual Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference in St. Paul. There were 180 Karen, Hmong, Bhutanese, and Latino farmers, 30 interpreters, 30 presenters and 30 exhibitors in attendance. The workshops offered at the conference were practical, and ranged from pest controls to selling at farmers’ markets. Our farmers were particularly interested in the high tunnel workshop because of our newly constructed high tunnel at the Juniper Farm. The workshop, in which the conference presenter detailed how she constructed and grew in her high tunnel in Northern Minnesota, caused a flurry of ideas and conversations. We all sat there, dreaming and salivating over her photos of fresh spinach and tomatoes. The farmers decided that planting tomatoes in our high tunnel would be the best plan for this next season; it’s a high dollar crop that can greatly extend in the tunnel. They are also interested in planting Chin Baung- a sour Burmese sorrel- in the high tunnel. In Burma and Thailand, it flowers at the end of the season. The flower makes a traditional tea. In the United States, our growing season is not long enough to flower or turn to seed. I’m hopeful for my first cup of Chin Baung tea in 2011.
I was so pleased to offer them a training opportunity in their own language. Farming is often a solitary occupation, and large group meetings give us the sense that we are not alone in our profession. For refugee farmers, the opportunity for training of this kind is rare- lack of translation and cultural relevancy often prevents them from joining in other things that are happening in our city. It was an inspiring experience; we all came home excited and dreaming about the new growig season.

Lay Htoo, a second year farmer in the program made the trip to Minnesota and agreed to share with you about her experience. Her writing was translated from Karen by Htoo May.

My name is Lay Htoo, and I’d like to tell you about my family. I am married, and I have three sons and one daughter. I am from Klay Thoo, a village in the jungle of Burma. I am one of the Karen people, we have our own language and culture. Because the Burmese military came to our village to kill us, my family had to flee to Thailand. We crossed the border and lived in the Tham Him refugee camp. I lived in this refugee camp for 10 years. During that time I worked as a cook. I worked with my friend Beh Paw cooking and teaching other women to cook for 5 years, and then Beh Paw came to the United States. I missed Beh Paw too much. When Beh Paw moved to the United States, I decided to apply for resettlement too. It was scary, but I decided that I wanted a new life for my family.

I was resettled to Rockford, IL. I lived in Rockford for 5 months and we could not find work. Beh Paw told me that in Kansas City, we have jobs available and also gardens. I wanted to move to Kansas City, where Beh Paw was living. I wanted to have a garden. I had to pay someone to drive me to Kansas. My husband and my son got a job very soon after we moved here, so we rented a house. I wanted to work in the garden, so I talked with Rachel about starting my own farm in Kansas City. My first season working with the New Roots for Refugees program was in 2010. I worked in the garden, and everything went well. This past October, when things at the garden slowed down, I started going to school to learn English. I kept going to meetings for the garden during the winter, learning about many topics. During one of the meetings we started talking about a big farmers meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota. I heard that there were going to be many refugee farmers talking about farming in the United States. I said, “Yes! I want to go on this trip.” I was so excited.

Beh Paw, Pay Lay, Dena, and myself left for Minnesota on a Thursday. Somewhere in Iowa, we stopped at a gas station and went to the restroom. On accident, we went to the boys restroom, because I didn’t read the sign correctly. We laughed so hard.

It was a long drive, but we finally made it to St. Paul, Minnesota. There is a big Karen population in Minnesota. I was able to meet with family and friends that I hadn’t seen since the refugee camp. In the days, I went to the farmers meeting, and at night I would stay up with my friends talking about the past and our future until late in the night. In the mornings, Rachel picked us up and we went to the meeting. At the meeting they had headsets so that we could all hear the presentations in our own language. I had to give them my ID to get the headset for the day. I had to turn the dial to the correct number so that I could hear the Karen translator. I went to my seat and listened and then I learned about a lot of things. I learned how to do things to start my own farm. I went to different meetings about high tunnels, growing organically, using row cover to keep bugs away, and about selling at farmers markets. I am thankful to God that we had safe travels to Minnesota, and I’m excited to plant new things in this upcoming year, and I pray that the bugs will stay away from my vegetables this year. God Bless and Thank You.

This arcitle was originally featured in the April edition of KCCUA's newsletter, Urban Grown.


  1. Very, very cool. It's neat to hear the background stories from these ladies' lives - I need to make more time to listen to them!

  2. Wow, fantastic article written by Lay Htoo...thanks!

  3. awesome! thanks for sharing, Lay Htoo!