Transplanting Traditions Community Farm | 2912 B Jones Ferry Rd, Chapel Hill | 984-212-4621
As a teenager, Hsar Ree Ree Wei hated when her parents, Zar Ree and Lion Wei, dragged her to their farm to help her weed, hoe and harvest the produce. A decade later, fresh out of college, Wei—who goes by the name Ree Ree—still doesn’t like the heat and physical labor of fieldwork.
“Some days, when I’m not working, [my mom] going to force me to go, but I always go with an attitude,” laughs Ree Ree.
But for as much as she dreads picking green beans, Ree Ree is thrilled to be the new executive director of Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, the same place where her parents started farming on a small plot of land over 10 years old, and where they are still farmed today for a CSA of over 50 members.
Ree Ree was eight years old when her family moved to the United States from Tham Hin, the refugee camp in Thailand where she was born. Burma’s civil war (Burma’s English name was officially changed to Myanmar by its ruling government in 1989) had been going on for decades, with periods of internal conflict and violence continuing to this day. Between 2008 and 2014, more than 100,000 refugees from Burma were resettled in the United States. Many, like Ree Ree, came from refugee camps on the border of Burma and Thailand.
Tham Hin is one of the more closed camps, being off the power grid and accepting few visitors. For these reasons, Ree Ree explains that when tourists occasionally visited – or, in one case, when a helicopter arrived carrying people from outside Burma – she thought they were from another planet.
“I always thought we were the only ones in the world,” she says.
In 2006, Ree Ree’s family first resettled in South Carolina, where they struggled with a lack of community and little support. A distant relative living in the Triangle encouraged them to come to Carboro, where they moved six months later. The family found a community of Karen refugees they had known in Tham Hin, and Ree Ree’s father got a job at UNC Housekeeping.
Soon after, Zar Ree and Lion Wei began farming on a new farm called Transplanting Traditions, and in 2013 Ree Ree was one of the first teenagers to pilot the organization’s youth program. Over the years, she has remained involved in various roles – internship, translation and consulting on projects – and has witnessed the expansion of the organization and the growth of the people involved.
Kelly Owensby, founder of Transplanting Traditions Community Farm first met Burmese refugee families while working in a community garden project run by the Orange County Partnership for Young Children.
“I learned that so many Burmese have an incredibly rich agricultural heritage and multi-generational knowledge about farming and living with the land. During resettlement, one of the first impulses of a people once deeply rooted in agriculture was that part of the process of recreating a home was to get their hands on soil and seeds” , explains Owensby.
When the opportunity arose to expand the garden, Owensby applied for a grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement and received three-year funding to start Transplanting Traditions. In 2010, its first year, 44 people from Burma worked collectively “to turn a pasture into a farm,” says Owensby.
The organization’s mission, according to its website, is to “strengthen food sovereignty in the refugee community through access to land, education and opportunities for refugee farmers to combat insecurity. community food supply and the obstacles they face in achieving their farming dreams”. It has become a hub for people from the Karen and Chin ethnic groups in the Triangle, and currently 22 people grow over 100 varieties of produce at Transplanting Traditions.
While some members only grow a few beds for themselves, friends and family, others sell at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market and Chapel Hill Farmer’s Market or supply produce to local businesses and restaurants such as Snap Pea Catering and Rose’s Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets.
Owensby, acting executive director of Transplanting Traditions, has roots in western North Carolina and will step down from her role this spring as she coaches Ree Ree.
Ree Ree, who is 23, initially doubted herself when offered the job.
“I was fresh out of college, so I had a lot of negative self-talk,” says Ree Ree, a 2021 graduate of Guilford College, where she majored in community and justice studies and forced migration studies and resettlement. “It took a lot of conviction and a bit of self-respect.”
She is also confident in the skills imparted to her.
“All the skills you’ve learned and acquired are repeatable,” says Ree Ree. “Share this knowledge with other people. If someone has no schooling, no high school diploma, teach them. There are hard skills and soft skills that can both be learned and taught, then share them with others.
That sentiment applies to Transplanting Traditions programming, which offers workshops and professional development training to farmers of all skill levels. And in addition to Owensby’s support, Ree Ree is backed by the family environment of the Transplanting Traditions farming community.
“I call them aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa,” Ree Ree says. “I feel very supported in this role and I’m going into it as a community and with my family together.”
A 2015 survey found that only 8% of nonprofit executive directors were people of color. Although this gap exists in other sectors, it is particularly glaring when it comes to non-profit organizations, the majority of which have social protection and justice missions.
I asked Ree Ree why she believed this dissonance still exists.
“It certainly has a lot to do with ‘Are we ready to give up our power? “, Ree Ree says. “A lot of organizations that I’ve been involved with are all about the conversation, but then they don’t implement it and do the action, and I see why those things have been hurtful to the community.”
That’s part of why Owensby takes a back seat at Transplanting Traditions.
“I’m a white woman leading a community organization where I don’t share that community’s culture, language, needs, and experiences,” says Owensby. “No matter how hard I tried, I experienced over and over again the ways I was limited. My hands were tied in my ability to lead authentically.
For many Transplanting Traditions farmers, the biggest benefit of a Karen Executive Director is basic communication.
“Being able to have someone in charge who can speak my language is really beneficial and helpful,” says Sirr Sirr Thart, a farmer with Transplanting Traditions. “If I have something I want to ask or share, I can go directly to that person instead of having to wait for an interpreter to communicate with that person and then come back to me, and that takes a lot longer.”
Sirr Sirr Thart fled his village in Burma at the age of 15. For several years, she moved from village to village, constantly chased away when the soldiers arrived. She ended up in Tham Hin refugee camp in her thirties. Before resettling, she was a farmer in Burma; now in North Carolina, he misses growing rice and other tropical crops that are difficult to grow in a North Carolina climate. Still, she is grateful for access to the land and her 10 years of farming at Transplanting Traditions.
“I can have extra income, grow and eat my own food without chemicals, and I can preserve and store it all year round, especially in winter,” says Sirr Sirr Thart. Initially, she was just growing food for her family, but has since joined the Share a Share program.
Here, individual donations are used to purchase Southeast Asian produce grown by Transplanting Traditions farmers such as Sirr Sirr Thart; these products are then donated to PORCH, a Chapel Hill and Carrboro-based organization that aims to alleviate hunger and promote better nutrition in the community. PORCH distributes the products to local refugee families who have limited access to healthy food.
Transplanting Traditions’ eight acres of farmland also creates an opportunity to grow crop varieties that were common in Burma but not widely available in the United States. Some of these ingredients are sold in Asian grocery stores, but the products are usually imported and not pesticide-free. Sirr Sirr Thart lists some of his favorite crops to grow and eat: “Roselle, Thai Chilli, Asian Cucumber and Thai Pumpkin – you can eat the sprouts and fruits.”
Ree Ree shares her love of roselle, also known as hibiscus, because of its unique sweet and sour flavor. A favorite Burmese recipe using this ingredient is chilli roselle paste. Roselle leaves, rather than the more familiar pink flowers of the plant, are cooked in water until the mixture becomes a paste. Once the roselle breaks down, the cook adds a little onion, shrimp paste, salt and chilli to taste. The sweet, spicy and sour dough is delicious served with rice and can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks. There are no Karen restaurants in the area, so having the freshest ingredients available allows Sirr Sirr Thart, Ree Ree and so many others to cook and enjoy Burmese food at home here in North Carolina.
The challenges and hardships faced by refugees of course do not end after being resettled in a new country. Transplanting Traditions Community Farm provides opportunity and support for many refugee families, but also a space to find community and to support, nurture and celebrate their culture here in North Carolina.
“Deciding to go home and reconnect with my elders wasn’t on my mind to do this early in my life,” Ree Ree concludes, “but it has truly been a blessing.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us ensure the viability of fearless surveillance reporting and coverage of essential arts and culture in the Triangle.
Comment this story on [email protected].