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 weed, hoe, and harvest produce. A decade later, fresh out of college, Wei—who goes by Ree Ree—still dislikes the heat and the physical labor of fieldwork.
“Some days when I’m not working, [my mom] will force me to go, but I still go with an attitude,” Ree Ree laughs.
But for as much as she dreads picking green beans, Ree Ree is excited to be the incoming executive director of Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, the same place where her parents started growing on a small plot of land over 10 years ago, and where they still farm today for a CSA with over 50 members.
Ree Ree was eight when her family moved to the United States from Tham Hin, the refugee camp in Thailand where she was born. The civil war in Burma (the English name of Burma was officially changed to Myanmar by its ruling government in 1989) had been going on for decades, where periods of internal conflict and violence continue to this day. Between 2008 and 2014 over 100,000 refugees from Burma were resettled across the United States. Many, like Ree Ree, came from refugee camps on the border of Burma and Thailand.
Tham Hin is one of the most closed-off camps, being off the electricity grid and accepting few visitors. For those reasons, Ree Ree explains that when tourists occasionally visited—or, in one instance, when a helicopter arrived carrying individuals from outside of Burma—she thought they were from another planet.
“I always thought that we were the only people that existed in the world,” she says.
In 2006, Ree Ree’s family initially 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 Carrboro, where they moved six months later. The family found a community of Karen refugees whom they had known in Tham Hin, and Ree Ree’s father got a job with UNC Housekeeping.
Soon thereafter, Zar Ree and Lion Wei started farming at a new farm called Transplanting Traditions, and in 2013 Ree Ree was one of the first teens to pilot the youth program at the organization. Over the years, she has remained involved in various capacities—interning, translating, and consulting on projects—and has witnessed the expansion of the organization and the growth of the individuals involved.
Transplanting Traditions Community Farm founder Kelly Owensby first met Karen refugee families while working at a community garden project managed by the Orange County Partnership for Young Children.
“I learned that so many folks from Burma held an incredibly rich agricultural heritage and multigenerational knowledge of farming and living with the land. Upon resettlement, one of the first impulses for a people once deeply rooted in farming was that part of the process of recreating home was to get their hands in the soil and seeds,” Owensby explains.
When the opportunity arose to expand the garden, Owensby applied for a grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement and received three years of funding to start Transplanting Traditions. In 2010, its first year, 44 individuals from Burma worked collectively “to turn a pasture into a farm,” Owensby says.
The organization’s mission, according to its website, is to “uplift food sovereignty in the refugee community through access to land, education, and opportunities for refugee farmers to address community food insecurity and the barriers they face in reaching their dreams of farming.” It has become a hub for individuals of the Karen and Chin ethnic groups in the Triangle, and currently 22 individuals farm over 100 varieties of produce at Transplanting Traditions.
While some members farm on just a few beds for themselves and their friends and family, others sell at the Carrboro Farmers Market and Chapel Hill Farmers Market or provide produce to local businesses and restaurants such as Snap Pea Catering and Rose’s Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets.
Owensby, the acting executive director of Transplanting Traditions, has roots in western North Carolina and will be transitioning out of her role this spring, as she trains 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, who graduated from Guilford College in 2021, where she majored in community and justice studies and forced migration and resettlement studies. “It took me a lot of convincing and a little bit of self-love.”
She’s also confident in the skills that have been passed down to her.
“Any skills you’ve learned and gained—these things are replicable,” Ree Ree says. “Share this knowledge with other people. If someone has no education background, no high school degree, teach them. There are hard skills and soft skills that can both be learned and taught, so share with other people.”
This sentiment applies to Transplanting Traditions programming, which provides workshops and professional development training to farmers of all skill levels. And in addition to Owensby’s support, Ree Ree is supported by the familial environment of the farming community at Transplanting Traditions.
“I call them aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa,” Ree Ree says. “I feel very supported going into this role and that I’m going into this as a community and with my family together.”
A 2015 survey found that only 8 percent of nonprofit executive directors were people of color. Though this gap exists in other sectors, it is especially jarring when it comes to nonprofits, the majority of which have social welfare and justice-centered missions.
I asked Ree Ree why she believes this dissonance still exists.
“It definitely has a lot to do with ‘Are we willing to give up our power?’” Ree Ree says. “A lot of organizations I’ve been involved with are all about the talk, but then they don’t implement it and do the action, and I see why those things have been hurtful to the community.”
In part, this is why Owensby is taking a back seat at Transplanting Traditions.
“I am a white woman leading a community-based organization in which I do not share the culture, language, needs, and experiences of that community,” Owensby says. “No matter how hard I tried, I experienced over and over the ways in which I was limited. My hands were tied in my ability to lead authentically.”
For many of the farmers at Transplanting Traditions, the biggest benefit of a Karen executive director is basic communication.
“Being able to have someone in leadership who can speak my language is really beneficial and helpful,” says Sirr Sirr Thart, a farmer at Transplanting Traditions. “If I have anything I want to ask or share I can go directly to this person instead of having to wait for an interpreter who will have to communicate with that person and then come back to me, and it takes much longer.”
Sirr Sirr Thart fled her village in Burma at the age of 15. For several years she moved from village to village, continually being forced out when the military would arrive. She ended up at Tham Hin refugee camp in her thirties. Before resettling, she was a farmer in Burma; now in North Carolina, she misses growing rice and other tropical produce that is difficult to farm in a North Carolina climate. Still, she’s grateful for the access to land and her 10 years of farming at Transplanting Traditions.
“I’m able to have a supplemental income, to grow and eat my own food that is chemical-free, and I’m able to save and store them throughout the year, especially wintertime,” Sirr Sirr Thart says. Initially, she just grew food for her family, but she’s since joined the Share a Share program.
Here, individuals’ donations are used to purchase Southeast Asian produce grown by Transplanting Traditions farmers such as Sirr Sirr Thart; that produce is 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 produce to local refugee families who have limited access to healthy foods.
Transplanting Traditions’ eight acres of farmland also create an opportunity to grow varieties of produce that were common in Burma but are not widely available in the United States. Some of these ingredients are sold at Asian grocery stores, but the produce is usually imported and is not pesticide-free. Sirr Sirr Thart lists some of her favorite crops to both grow and eat: “Roselle, Thai chili, Asian cucumber, and Thai pumpkin—you can eat the shoots and the fruit.”
Ree Ree seconds her love of roselle, also known as hibiscus, because of its unique sweet-and-sour flavor. A favorite Karen recipe using the ingredient is roselle paste with chili. The roselle leaves, rather than the more familiar pink flowers of the plant, are cooked down in water until the mixture becomes a paste. Once the roselle breaks down, the cook adds a little bit of onion, shrimp paste, salt, and chili to their own taste. The sweet, spicy, and sour paste is delicious served with rice and can be stored in the fridge for several weeks. There are no Karen restaurants in the area, so having the fresh ingredients available allows Sirr Sirr Thart, Ree Ree, and so many others to cook and enjoy Karen dishes at home here in North Carolina.
The challenges and hardships that refugees face do not, of course, come to a halt after being resettled in a new country. Transplanting Traditions Community Farm provides opportunities and support for many refugee families but also a space to find community and to sustain, nurture, and celebrate their culture here in North Carolina.
“Deciding to come home and reconnect with my elders wasn’t in my mind to do this early in my life,” Ree Ree concludes, “but it’s really been a blessing.”
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