Farmers in the spotlight: CISA’s annual Field Notes zeroes in on the central theme of resilience

Darwin Cruz sharing his story of helping Holyoke overcome diabetes with holistic foods. Cruz teaches courses about personal health with Nuestras Raices.

Darwin Cruz sharing his story of helping Holyoke overcome diabetes with holistic foods. Cruz teaches courses about personal health with Nuestras Raices. SAM GELINAS

By Samuel Gelinas

For the Gazette

Published: 03-17-2024 1:06 PM

NORTHAMPTON — From flooding to fires, few people these days are as resilient as farmers.

So it’s only fitting that Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture’s annual Field Notes event held earlier this month included a host of local farmers sharing stories of their life and work that centered around the common theme of “resilience.”

The event, which was first held in 2019, celebrates the ways local food and farming impact the community and individual lives. Eight storytellers across a range of backgrounds were featured this year, including an immigrant from Nepal and a literature expert who left the nonprofit world to work on a farm.

Emcee Monte Belmonte, radio host and executive producer of NEPM’s “The Fabulous 413,” opened the March 10 event by praising the resilience of local farming.

He cited their struggles over the past year, including unwelcome frost, flooding, and other forms of natural disasters experienced by western Massachusetts, including the recent loss of a 100-hundred-year-old barn at Red Fire Farm in Granby (which is scheduled to be rebuilt).

The resilience of the featured stories included more than simply narratives of gritty farm life, with the dirt and manual labor which defines the industry. Their stories included personal testimonies of overcoming setbacks with the vigor of the human spirit.

Hem Bhujel is one such farmer who shared his winding journey to farming. Born in Bhutan, Bhujel was introduced to the industry by his parents, who grew crops and had livestock. After completing his secondary education in Bhutan, Bhujel spent 20 years as a refugee in Nepal, where he taught high school, completed his bachelor’s degree and grew vegetables in his backyard.

Bhujel left the southern Asia continent in the wake of political conflict that led to the arrest of his father.

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He settled in Westfield in 2012, where he went to work at Dollar Tree and started tending to a small backyard garden his landlord let him cultivate. Seven years later, Bhujel bought his own house, which included a spacious backyard, a portion of which became a garden where he grows seasonal crops for consumption and for sale.

He described the adjustment as “challenging” at the beginning. “I had to learn a new language, learn to drive, and develop American habits.” The audience let out a laugh when he described his discovering Dunkin’ Donuts as a part of this process of becoming immersed in his new home.

On a professional level, he was introduced to record keeping. “People don’t record keep abroad,” he stated, adding that he was able to make more money by acquiring this new skill.

Today, he utilizes his agricultural IQ to teach modern farming techniques to younger generations of farmers as a peer teacher for All Farmers, a Springfield nonprofit connecting immigrants and refugees with arable land.

While Bhujel was raised as a farming prodigy of sorts, others were less instilled with the gifts of the trade, and decided to pursue it regardless.

Leslie Harris, who graduated college with a literature degree and worked most of her career both with animals and in the nonprofit sector, decided to leave it all behind to get a piece of the action on the farm: driving tractors, mowing fields, and pruning apple trees, just to name a few of her daily occupations nowadays.

She considers herself, “fortunate to be one of the stewards of this land.”

“I love the puzzle of the job,” she stated, as she recounted the various procedures and traditions pertaining to the occupation. According to her, “the easiest part of the job is picking the apples,” which happens to be the job many of us might pay to do in the fall. She currently works at Quonquont Farm as farm manager.

For Darwin Cruz, a native of Puerto Rico, farming is a way to spread a healthy lifestyle. That was the main message during his Field Notes story, during which he said he came to the United States to pursue what he called the “American Dream” — a dream that farming allowed him to fulfill.

Cruz, who describes healthy food as “medicine,” teaches courses about personal health with Nuestras Raices, a Holyoke group that works in collaboration with UMass and Holyoke Health Center, with the goal of lowering the high rates of diabetes within the city.

Turkish-born Suna Turgay, the food access coordinator for Grow Food Northampton, proved to the audience that the wo rld of farming isn’t a trade exclusively enjoyed by adults and professionals. Her narrative revolved around the struggles of her emotionally challenged daughter, who found a place participating in farmer co-ops. After struggling behaviorally in schools, it was through farming that her daughter was able to find guidance, purpose and acceptance.

Julia Coffey began her journey with local food production, of all places, in her closet, after realizing that the mushroom industry has been, “underrepresented in the valley food system.” That closet grew to be what is now the largest mushroom growing facility in the state, and operates under the name, Mycoterra Farm. She has been working in the local food industry for 24 years, and has worked on a variety of projects, which now includes volunteering with local food groups, and serving on CISA’s board of directors.

Emcee Belmonte stated that, “their (the farmer’s) resilience keeps us fed.”

“They keep us sustained ... we need to sustain them,” he stated. To that end, CISA is roughly $64,000 away from its fundraising goal of $1.8 million. Online donations can be gifted at buylocalfood.org/donate, or via venmo, @CISA01373