Refugees Find Common Ground to Grow: A Profile of Transplanting Traditions

The Roots: Meeting the Organization

Food is a critical component of culture–it’s a familiar scent that brings you home; it’s a gathering place for family and friends; it’s a way to connect with others. Farming this food is a way of life deeply-rooted in many cultures, and traditional techniques are often passed down through generations. In 2010, Kelly Owensby recognized an opportunity to use food and farming to connect Burmese refugees to their community in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and thus Transplanting Traditions Community Farm (TTCF) was born. The farm has since grown, and now occupies 8 acres of lands leased by the Triangle Land Conservancy. The mission of Transplanting Traditions is to “provide refugee adults and youth access to land, healthy food and agricultural and entrepreneurial opportunities. The farm provides a cultural community space for families to come together, build healthy communities and continue agricultural traditions in the Piedmont of N.C.” (Transplanting Traditions, 2020). Transplanting Traditions brings refugee families together in a positive setting with a common purpose, allowing them to develop close community bonds. Around 150 Burmese refugees farm this land, integrating their own traditional farming methods while learning how to be successful farmers and business owners in North Carolina. Sara Snyder, the former education programs coordinator for Transplanting Traditions, explains “Helping folks be able to grow foods that they’re familiar with and cook dishes that they’re familiar with and also create a space where they feel comfortable in fully embracing their culture is really important in helping folks acclimate here. It is having a community they know they can go to where they feel recognized and supported” (Parker, 2019). Transplanting Traditions helps Burmese refugees to utilize their deep knowledge of traditional farming techniques and build a community that supports the success of the refugees as farmers, business owners, and members of their North Carolina community.


Working with a refugee population presents unique challenges and opportunities. According to the CDC (2016), from 2008 to 2014, nearly 117,000 Burmese refugees, escaping instability and ethnic conflict in the Myanmar region, were resettled in the United States (IRC). North Carolina has become the new home of approximately 5.4% of the total Burmese refugee population in the United States, making it the state with the 4th largest Burmese refugee population (CDC, 2016). Relocating to a new country and being plunged into a new language and culture can certainly present challenges. Transplanting Traditions works to help ease the transition and aid refugees in establishing roots in their new home of North Carolina, drawing upon familiar farming traditions and skills. While connecting to the new landscape through farming and earning income, refugees are also enhancing their ability to be food-secure and well nourished. The refugees who work at the farm have deep roots in tradition and culture, which includes food and farming, and they are given the opportunity to continue these traditions while adapting to and connecting with their new community.

Tools & Approaches

Transplanting Traditions uses a variety of approaches to build community, empower youth, promote social justice, and support the economic stability of the farmers. A central pillar of the Transplanting Traditions model is the 150-member CSA, or Community-Supported Agriculture program, where members pay to receive fresh vegetables each week throughout the growing season, typically Spring through Fall. Each CSA member is matched with a farmer, and the CSA fee goes directly to the farmer to help support their farming operation and family. What farmers grow on their allotted land is up to them; farmers are empowered to choose what they grow, what they sell, and ultimately what ends up going into each CSA box. The farmers put an incredible amount of care and work into each step of the process, from growing the vegetables to washing and packaging them for pickup or delivery. The CSA program provides farmers with opportunities to learn how to start and run a successful farm and business in NC while forming connections with the local community (Transplanting Traditions, 2020). Weekly workshops focused on farming and business are held at the farm throughout the year to help farmers adapt to farming and building a business in North Carolina. Transplanting Traditions also has a Farmer Manager program, which provides opportunities for farmers to take on leadership roles in the farm. There are currently three farm managers, all of whom are refugees who farm at Transplanting Traditions.

Through TTCF’s distinctive Share-a-Share program, community donations purchase traditional Burmese vegetables from farmers through the CSA. The fresh vegetables are then donated to PORCH, a local food pantry, who distributes the food to local Burmese families with limited food access. The executive director highlighted this Share-a-Share model helps to address the mismatch of some of the original food donations with more culturally appropriate foods. Currently, 215 households receive deliveries every other week (Owensby, Personal Communication, 2020). The program supports the farmers by purchasing their vegetables, but also provides fresh, local food for those who need it, and creates an opportunity for these families to connect to their own traditions through cooking traditional Burmese vegetables which are not readily available for purchase in the area. The Transplanting Traditions website has an extensive list of the vegetables you may find in your weekly CSA, including delicious recipes to make with the fresh ingredients. By growing and selling these traditional vegetables, as well as providing community members with recipes to use them, the farmers are able to share a bit of their rich culture with CSA members through cuisine.

A graphic outlining the impact of the share-a-share program. Source: Transplanting Traditions.

Transplanting Traditions also hosts a robust Youth Program, which helps teens to get involved in the farm community and develop leadership, public speaking, and community organizing skills, along with their self-confidence. Participants are important advocates for the farm, from putting on cooking demonstrations at local farmers markets to hosting a national youth food justice conference in NC. The program provides a unique opportunity for young people to learn critical skills and connect to their community while maintaining strong connections to their culture and traditions.


Transplanting Traditions has strengthened the community at large through their various programs. While their initial mission was to help Burmese refugees achieve food security and sovereignty, TTCF has also played a critical role in fostering community and developing social ties (Owensby, Personal Communication, 2020). For the individuals and families that participate in the CSA, it provides an opportunity to connect with fellow refugees as well as the larger community by sharing their traditional farming knowledge and providing fresh vegetables to CSA members. Because the CSA is a source of income as well as food, farmers become food secure, allowing them to help other refugee families who are still experiencing food insecurity through the Share-a-Share program and ultimately bringing the community closer together. Farmers grow a number of traditional Burmese crops that are otherwise essentially inaccessible to the refugee community in NC, cementing community ties with comforting elements of familiar culture and catering to the community’s health needs.

Connecting Theory with Practice

Transplanting Traditions uses a dynamic model employing many community-based environmental management themes and strategies, including social capital, social networks, the three-legged stool, asset-based community development, collective action, traditional ecological knowledge, and cultural constructions of nature and place. Rather than provide shallow discussions of all these, we want to highlight three major themes that are embodied in Transplanting Traditions model: asset-based development, social capital and collective action, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

Asset-Based Development Approach

Elly Goetz, TTCF’s executive director, recognized that Burmese refugees were a particularly engaged and large group who sought to plant on the farm at increasingly greater scales. Transplanting Traditions was thus born out of an asset-based community development approach. Asset-based community development is defined by Kretzmann & McKnight (1996) as “the development of policies and activities based on the capacities, skills and assets of lower income people and their neighborhood.” Burmese refugees represented a large existing asset in those who were planting at the community garden. Their community and network embodied agricultural knowledge that had been passed down through generations, and they were motivated to connect to their new home through connection with the land in North Carolina. This refugee population knew how to grow Asian crops like tatsoi and bitter melon, which are not typically farmed in the area or readily available for purchase at most markets. Transplanting Traditions leveraged the existing agricultural skill-set of the Burmese refugee population, and the activity directed toward the development of this capacity was the foundation of the farm.

A farmer with her Squash Blossoms at the market. Source: Transplanting Traditions.

Transplanting Traditions empowers the refugee community of farmers to be economically supported through a land leasing program, in which they lease the land to the farmers at “an extremely subsidized rate” (Parker, 2019). The educational programming, which includes hands-on agricultural lessons provides those farming the land with the tools needed to make a successful venture out of the leased farmland. This technical support builds on the existing knowledge of the refugee population, and empowers them to better understand the farming practices needed to make agricultural soil in the triangle region successful. The organization also provides assistance and programming in business management, and helps them to promote the garden and to find CSA members. This asset-based development extends also to youth programming. The teenage youth consider themselves to be “advocates for their community” (Parker, 2019). Their English-speaking abilities allow for them to promote and link their family farming venture with the greater-Chapel Hill community. Transplanting Traditions offers leadership development to these teens, who can then leverage those skills to build on the advocate-position they already had assumed and strengthen the capacity of these family farms to operate and connect with the region. Through this program, they are also connected with youth groups across the state where they can better advocate for food justice.

Youth programming helps build community and develop leaders. Source: Transplanting Traditions.

Social Capital & Networks

The term social capital is defined as “the links, shared values and understandings in society that enable individuals and groups to trust each other and so work together” (OECD, 2007). There are four key features of social capital, all of which Transplanting Traditions fulfills through their work: relationships built on trust, reciprocity and exchanges, common rules and norms, and connectedness within groups (Pretty & Smith, 2004). One of the goals of Transplanting Traditions is to create a more comfortable and welcoming society, and they achieve this by facilitating a cross-cultural exchange of knowledge. They have turned the farm into a very important cultural space where Burmese refugee families can connect and bond over shared labor. Not only do the refugees come here to grow crops as a second form of income, but the farm is also used as a place for communal gathering with friends and family (Parker, 2019) . The farm also exhibits a bridging form of social capital between refugees and the rest of the Chapel Hill community. Their teen programming provides cultural storytelling and Asian vegetable cooking demonstrations that allow others in the community to learn about the cultures and traditions of the Burmese people (Transplanting Traditions, 2020). This further promotes reciprocity and exchange through the selling of produce grown by the farmers. This helps connect the farmers and the rest of the Chapel Hill community, as the rest of the community is given an opportunity to interact with this community and learn about traditional Asian produce.

Collective action also plays a key role in the success of Transplanting Traditions. The community is able to come together for the interest of producing healthy food and providing refugees with the opportunity to reconnect with their cultural heritage. The staff have taken action by offering agricultural classes for refugees that allow them to adapt their knowledge and agricultural customs from back home in order to be successful farmers in North Carolina. This allows the refugees to maintain aspects of their previous life while providing new and healthy foods for themselves and their community. Many of these vegetables are of high cultural importance to the refugees and not readily sold in the US (Idealist, 2018). Growing these highly culturally important vegetables at the farm allows for all Burmese immigrants in the region to enjoy access to them. The specific actions taken by the staff and refugees to participate in the CSA program and farmers’ market has developed further cultural awareness for the Burmese people and secured their place as valuable members of the Chapel Hill community.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Transplanting Traditions is helping to preserve and share the traditional ecological knowledge held by 32 Burmese refugee families. Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK, is “an accumulating body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (human and non-human) with one another and with the environment” (USFWS, 2011). While farming practices in the U.S. differ from those in Myanmar, these refugees hold valuable knowledge passed down from their ancestors and their relationship with the land. TEK systems cannot be preserved exactly how they are, they can only endure by adopting and incorporating new forms of knowledge (Gómez-Baggethun et al., 2013). Transplanting Traditions is facilitating this process by helping farmers translate their traditional skills so that they can be successful farmers here in North Carolina. Doing this allows the farmers to continue generating and applying their TEK. Transplanting traditions is also helping integrate these farmers into the community and facilitating the spread of their knowledge to the rest of the community. The farm acts as a community gathering place where members come to purchase produce and are introduced to the farmers and the types of vegetables they grow back home. This also gives the farmers a chance to tell their story, and for the CSA members to learn and gain respect for another culture.

Sample of produce. Farmers at Transplanting Traditions have grown over 600,000 pounds of produce since the program began.
Photograph by Natalie Ross, source: Transplanting Traditions

Conclusion: Growing Forward

Transplanting Traditions is always seeking to learn how to best serve their communities. As they work towards growing their customer base so farmers can farm full time and provide the primary income for their families, they’ve got an additional goal in mind. Building a strong foundation and leveraging the power of relationships, TTCF plans to continue their community-based approach by supporting and empowering community leadership within the organization (Owensby, Personal Communication, 2020). Owensby recognizes that community led efforts help to insure buy-in and sustainability of programs. While Transplanting Traditions do currently have a number of Burmese refugees on staff, there are opportunities to create more representative composition in the organization’s leadership. Having individuals from the community in higher levels of management, where they will be involved with decisions about the organization’s future, funding, and operations, would be incredibly valuable in giving the community more agency within the farm. On this eight-acre farm in Chapel Hill, Transplanting Traditions has harnessed the knowledge, abilities, and rich culture of Burmese refugees and created a safe space for individuals and families to use and share their farming expertise with each other and the community.


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