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Igor Cordeiro, Brazil, and Dan Kent take a break outside the cucumbers high tunnel. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Igor Cordeiro, Brazil, and Dan Kent take a break outside the cucumbers high tunnel. Photo: David Sommerstein.

A mini United Nations on a St. Lawrence County farm

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The last time we checked in with organic vegetable farmer, Dan Kent, it was April, and there was still three feet of snow on the ground. Dan predicted he'd have to plant two weeks to a month late, and he was spot on.

"Even our highest and driest fields were muddy weeks beyond the time when we expected them to be in a condition that we could work and plant,"Dan says. "So, for some crops we were only two weeks late. For others, we were a month late."

It's finally full-on summer. And this week is a big one for Kent Family Growers. They're shipping out the first produce to their approximately 120 CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members. The deliveries start with spinach, zucchini, and strawberries. "That's always a really, really nice way to kick off the harvesting, with those really sweet red orbs."

Another thing came late this year. The Kent's three foreign workers had to change their flights a week later because of the late start.

This year, David Sommerstein is reporting regularly from Dan and Megan Kent's in the town of Lisbon. In today's episode of A Year on the Farm, this little organic vegetable farm in St. Lawrence County becomes a mini United Nations.

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The plants are finally ready for a real summer. Photo: David Sommerstein.

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

Foreign farmworkers are nothing new in the North Country. Spanish has become lingua franca in many milking parlors. But at Dan and Megan Kent’s farm, you’ll hear Hungarian, Brazilian Portuguese, and French this summer.

Peter Winkler, Igor Cordeiro, and Alex Correia are here on J-1 visas, the same visa a summer camp counselor or an au pair or a college student would use. These guys farm interns for seven months.

Peter, the Hungarian, and Alex, the Frenchman, are crouched in a high tunnel, running twine along several hundred tomato plants. They’ll do this trellising weekly, as the tomatoes shoot up more than an inch a day until they’ll eleven feet tall.

But today the going’s a little slow. They've never done this before.

Peter’s from eastern Hungary, right near the border with Ukraine. And he misses speaking his native tongue. "I haven’t spoken Hungarian with anybody, in person, for more than one month. I miss it a little bit."

Peter is 28 and is studying agriculture. He heard about this J1 visa through university friends who worked on farms near Boston. Just like here, he says organic and “local” foods are hot in Hungary. "It’s kind of fashionable today, to get organic things, to live more healthy."

And like here, organic’s more expensive. But in Hungary, fewer people have money to buy organic. So Peter’s not sure if this experience will lead to a career.

Alex is from the Brittany region of France, and says he’s very much pursuing the lifestyle - and the politics - of organic agriculture.

"People turn more and more towards organic farming, even if the European Commission is not very committed. People on the local level are more and more committed because they are fed up with GMO food and this kind of stuff."

Alex already has a masters in agronomy. He stretches from his knees to guide the twine among still-delicate plants. He says this hands-on experience will help him become an advisor for organic French farms when he returns."We don’t learn enough practical stuff at university, everywhere in the world, I think. Too much theoretical stuff."

In another high tunnel, Dan Kent is tapping at an iPhone translating app to figure out the portuguese word for “trellis”.

"No… ‘Barreira’ is something that separates two things, like a barrier," says Igor, who chuckles and helps Dan wrestle big metal trellises for the cucumbers. Igor's also an agronomist, from the beach city of Fortaleza in northeastern Brazil, where it’s dry, nothing like the vast corn and soybean fields of central Brazil.

"Normally, agriculture in my region is in small areas. You need irrigation to grow in.  The soil is not good. We have problems with rocks, and not fertility in the soil."

Dan Kent has chosen these guys as his three employees, despite their different backgrounds, different languages, and limited expertise. "The particulars of horticulture don’t come in the package. We have to teach most of them."

Dan could have gone with the more traditional H2A seasonal farmworker program, drawing mostly Mexican and Central American guys with limited education but perhaps more practical farm work credentials.

But Dan wasn’t comfortable giving orders in Spanish. These university students, he says, fit his farm better.

"We like the fact that they come with some English skills and then improve them while they’re here. We also like the idea of the nations of the world arrive at our doorstep. Megan and I would love to world travelers, but we can’t."

So this is part farm work, part high school exchange program. They do things around the North Country together. "We hiked Ampersand mountain a couple weeks ago. We go fishing on the St. Lawrence once a summer. We’ll go swimming at Lampsen Falls."

They eat dinner together regularly. And the three guys will get to travel around the country when their farm work is done, to places like San Francisco and New York City.

Later, Peter, Alex and Igor head out with the tractor to plant delicate celeriac starts. I ask Dan, why not local labor? He says what most farmers say, that these guys are more reliable in a business where it’s a race against time and nature. But more than that, he wants his employees to have a sort of reverence for the work.

"You can’t treat zucchini or beets like rocks or widgets or not be clean. Cleanliness is a mania with us. I tell the guys to treat everything like it’s an egg. Be that sensitive."

These young guys, he says, come here with the desire to learn. And by the end, Dan says, he usually doesn’t want them to go.

You can check out parts one and two of a Year on the Farm series here.

And please check out and follow our Year on the Farm tumblr blog, where Dan and Megan Kent are posting their own thoughts and photos on the year in farming.

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