New American farmers harvest Asian produce

I stopped by the Juniper Gardens Training Farm in Kansas City, Kan., last week while working on a story. The gardens, under the auspices of Cultivate KC, are running a farm business development program for 17 Burmese refugees.

Planted between public housing and the railroad tracks by the Missouri River, with the Kansas City skyline as a backdrop, the nine-acre garden was abuzz with Burmese chatter. Cathy Bylinowski, Juniper Gardens program manager, was talking to farmers with help from Joanne Sauter, an interpreter.

I watched as Sauter did some of her own training, telling Bylinowski about chin baung, a low, leafy plant that is central to Burmese traditional cooking. Unknown here, it is very popular in many Asian dishes, Sauter said, and it sells well at the local farmers markets here that cater to the refugee population.

Chin baung is sour-tasting and is often used in soups or sautéed with fish, Sauter said. It’s from the hibiscus family, Bylinowski said, and is also called roselle.

These new American farmers, settled here with the help of Catholic Charities, each get a quarter-acre to produce food for their own use. They must work in their plot 20 hours a week and they are required to sell at the local markets, with a profit goal of $1,500 for the season, as the program hopes to make them more entrepreneurial.

Most of the refugees were farmers in their homeland, Bylinowski said, and when Catholic Charities tried to get them jobs, they asked about farming.

“(Advocates) would say, ‘Let’s try to get you a job at this meat-packing plant’ or ‘Let’s try to get you a job at this factory and people would say, ‘Isn’t there a way to make money by growing food?’” Bylinowski said.