DRACUT - Sinikiwe "Nikki" Makarutsa worked on her parents' small-scale farm in Zimbabwe, and prefers to feed her children food grown organically. She also prefers the food she grew up with, particularly favoring maize to American sweet corn.
These days, the 43-year-old Lowell resident harvests her crops at Richardson's Dairy Farm in the morning - her maize stalks dwarf others in the vicinity - while she's not working at either of her two nursing jobs.
Farm-stand organic crops "are too expensive," said the licensed practical nurse. "They don't have the ethnic crops that we eat in Zimbabwe. So I said, where can I do it myself?"
The answer, for Makarutsa and other local immigrants and refugees, who hail from such countries as Zambia, Liberia, Cameroon, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Poland, Haiti, and Malaysia, is with Tufts University's New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, which is trying to grow a new generation of farmers among newcomers to this country.
In partnership with Community Teamwork Inc. of Lowell, the state Department of Food and Agriculture, the USDA Farm Service Agency, community groups, and local farmers, the project offers training in agriculture and farm business and marketing, as well as in-the-field assistance.
"The average age of farmers in the US now is 55, and getting older," said Jennifer Hashley, project director. "And people's children aren't going into farming, so what do they do when all of their assets are in the land? Who takes over the land and keeps it in production, when everybody's saying, 'Oh, you can cash it in and put condos on it'? If they don't have someone to pass the farm and business to, they're not left with a lot of options."
The project serves about 22 to 30 farmers, with each given his or her own plot of land, from half an acre to an acre and a half, for three growing seasons. There are six weeks of instruction, 10 to 12 hands-on workshops in the field, and Tufts students provide technical help that includes instruction in new farming techniques and techniques specific to New England.
The project has its own Community Supported Agriculture program (in which customers pay a pre-season annual fee to receive boxes of vegetables throughout the growing season), there is a marketing component called World Peas (People Enhancing Agricultural Sustainability), and farmers also make their own connections with farmers markets, restaurants, grocery stores, and independent clients.
On a recent day, as some of the farmers brought in crops from their morning harvest, Viola Beh, a Liberian native who lives in Lowell, stopped by to buy vegetables. She, too, liked to eat food familiar to her in Liberia, she said, adding, "It's hard to get it fresh."
Seaona Ban Ngufor, a Lowell resident and native of Cameroon, has participated in the program for three of the five years she has lived in the United States. She had just finished harvesting tomatoes, green beans, sweet peppers, and basil, and was planning to take it to the farmers market.
"I like farming, and like to eat fresh vegetables from the garden," said Ngufor, a nurse's assistant at a nursing home. If she could make her living from farming, she said, she would.
"I wish I could have chickens and goats and have a bigger farm," said Ngufor, 52, who farmed in her native country, which has two seasons: rainy (from March through October) and dry (the rest of the year).
Tufts, in fact, plans to add a poultry component next year.
Hashley estimated that 80 percent of those involved in the program are working full-time jobs. About half of those who complete the program will continue farming afterward. All of the immigrants are documented.
A full-time technical assistance coordinator visits once a week to scout the fields for any potential problems and to recommend assistance.
The diversity and personality of the farmers is reflected in the land they till. On the nearby Smith Farm, Noeuth Deth, 60, of Lawrence is tending to his spread of crops that includes taro, garlic chives, lettuce, cilantro, Asian cucumbers, green onions, long beans, mustard greens, fuzzy melons, eggplant, Chinese broccoli, water spinach, amaranth, and several other small crops. He works a 1 1/4-acre plot, which is larger than what most other farmers have.
"He's an excellent grower," Hashley said. "He's also retired, so he and his wife are here full time."
Deth is from Cambodia, as is his farming neighbor Oen Oung, 38, of Dracut. Oung, a painter who previously worked on a farm in Ohio, has a quarter-acre but has carved tree branches into a triangular row of trellises to maximize the land he has.
"He has six different crops going on here," Hashley said, pointing to the small vegetables that grow on and around the trellises. "He has the Chinese long beans going this way [up the trellis], eggplant, bitter melon, tickling spice underneath, high basil, and another type of eggplant over there. He's making every available square inch count."
For more information on the project, go to http://nesfp.nutrition.tufts.edu.