Summer 2017

Taking Root

With a little help from Tufts, an immigrant farmer sustains her family, her culture and a diverse community.

By Alonso Nichols and Julie Flaherty

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Photos by Alonso Nichols 

Phalla Nol, 51, is a Cambodian immigrant, a tireless businesswoman and the flywheel of a family farm that employs her mother, younger brother, son and other family and friends. On two acres in North Andover, Mass., they organically grow regional standbys—corn, tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant—as well as produce less familiar to New England, including luffa, bitter melon and Asian cucumber. Whatever country Nol’s farmers’ market customers hail from, they’re likely to find the food of their homeland under Nol’s tent.

Her thriving business has its roots in the Friedman School’s New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, launched in 1998 to help refugees and other immigrants make a start in New England agriculture. (Sixty refugee farming projects have since sprung up across the country.) From the beginning, New Entry’s mission was twofold: provide economic opportunities for immigrants, and ensure a sustainable food system. Over the years, New Entry expanded its scope to train recent college grads and people starting a second career, but refugees and recent immigrants still make up 30 percent of its long-term farmers.

Nol’s late father was one of New Entry’s first grower-trainees back in 2004—he’d bring his daughter to workshops as his translator. Once a mayor in Cambodia, he took to farming with passion, regularly working far past sundown.

Now Nol is the one putting in the long hours, sometimes harvesting water spinach or melon by flashlight until 11 p.m., preparing for the next day’s market. “I love to see my things grow,” she said. “And then my customers, they love me, they love what I grow. I love the people that love my vegetables.”

With the help of the New Entry program, Phalla Nol was able to take out a microloan, find farmland to lease, and set up a greenhouse affordably. “They were there for me, no matter what,” she said. Her farm has been one of the most prolific suppliers for New Entry’s World PEAS Food Hub, which provides produce to senior centers, community programs, day cares and a CSA.

Nol sets up her tables before the opening of the farmers’ market in Lynn, Mass. She goes to great lengths to grow what her customers want. At the market in Lowell, where Nol also works, they love bitter melon; here in Lynn, she can easily sell 200 bunches of green amaranth.

With the market in full swing, Nol has her hands full selling (and dispensing free recipe advice), while relatives heft boxes of produce from the truck and restock tables.

After the Lynn market closes, it’s back to the farm for Nol and her family. Here, Nol’s mother washes and bunches produce.

Nol is still hard at work after sunset, harvesting eggplant to prepare for the next trip to market.

The New Entry Sustainable Farming Project will hold its Community Food Systems Conference December 5-7 in Boston. For more information, visit

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