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September 14, 2013

From Bhutan to Burlington: New Americans Harvest Rice in the Intervale

Contributing writer Kevin J. Kelley wrote this post.

Paddies — and the rice they produce — are ubiquitous in warm, wet parts of the world. But apart from small crops produced by a few artisanal pioneers, rice remains a rarity in Vermont.

Bhutan 009That could change, though, as suggested by the scene in Burlington's Intervale on Saturday. About 30 immigrants from Bhutan were bending and squatting in drained paddies as they chopped rice plants with machetes and threshed the grain by beating bunches of it against boards. It was the first rice harvest of New Farms for New Americans, a program sponsored by the Association of Africans Living in Vermont.

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan may be a long way — culturally as well as geographically — from the People's Republic of Burlington, but rice cultivation here is actually a lot like it is there, says Laxmi Dahal, a smiling 60-year-old father of six adult children. His son-in-law, Yam Mishra, offered an even more positive appraisal. He declares Burlington "a perfect place for growing rice."

Mishra, a program director at the Howard Center, joined Dahal and his wife, Khina, during a break from the harvesting (pictured, right). Bhutan 007

The Japanese cold-hardy rice seeds nurtured in a Winooski greenhouse did well in the Intervale, says Rita Neopaney, a Bhutanese Vermonter who lived for 18 years in a Nepal refugee camp. So well, in fact, that Neopaney imagines expanding the paddies from a quarter-acre this year to five or six acres next year. She also speaks of raising money to buy a solar pump that would more easily and efficiently flood the paddies with water from the Winooski River, 50 yards away.

The organic crop harvested on Saturday will not be eaten but rather saved for its seeds, Neopaney notes. In the future, however, the Bhutanese farmers might market some of their rice to a few local stores while consuming the rest of it themselves. "In our diet, we eat rice twice a day," Neopaney explains.

Such ambitious plans could be hard to achieve, cautions Alisha Laramee, program manager of Vermont's New Farms for New Americans initiative. Bhutan 008She points out that a three-year, $180,000 grant from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement is about to expire and cannot be renewed. That funding has paid for not only the rice-paddy project but also for the nearby gardens where Congolese, Burundians and Somali Bantu raise African varieties of corn, spinach and eggplant.

Laramee frowns when asked what will become of her program. "We're hoping the Burlington community sees that this is an important effort," she says.

The daughter Laramee cradles in her arms (at right) was one of the few children present for the harvest. It was a decidedly older crew, separated by gender, at work in the paddies.

"The elders are in charge here," Laramee notes. "The younger immigrants either don't remember growing rice in Bhutan or they were born and grew up in refugee camps."

Bhutan 003Unlike many of the locals who cultivate community garden plots in the Intervale, "agriculture is a way of life" for the Bhutanese, Laramee says. "They don't do it as a hobby. They don't do it for fun. It's part of who they are."

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