From Nepal to Truro, with love
Couple puts down roots in farming community
In Nepal, sweet potatoes can grow as large as a man’s thigh. Perhaps this should be expected from a country whose mountains scrape the stratosphere, but here on the Cape, in the rolling glacial moraine built upon remnants of ancient peaks, people want their potatoes small enough to plate alongside a filet. Here, the points of reference are grains of sand; in Nepal they are the snow-capped roofs of the world.
This is but a single detail to which one Nepalese family in Truro has had to adjust. In addition to the process of immigration, and assimilation into the United States and their Outer Cape community, Digree Rai and her husband, Bhala, have had to learn the tastes of their neighbors and customers who enjoy produce from their vegetable gardens at Down Home Farm. Thus, they gather sweet potatoes at relatively diminutive sizes, and they cut their arugula when it is still young, before it acquires the bitterness that would be preferable back in the foothills of the Himalaya. Bhala’s broad smile as he describes these cultural differences speaks louder than any explanation; the couple’s labor is clearly one driven by love, by the delight that arises through the exchange of culture and great food.
The 2018 season will mark the fourth consecutive summer the Rais have worked as full-time farmers in Truro, and their garden is set to continue expanding to meet increased demands for locally grown produce. From a small plot in the backyard of Truro couple Ron Singer and Janice Allee to an expansion that spans more than four acres on the property today, Digree and Bhala have been instrumental in the transformation of the area’s landscape. Organic in every way but name—certification is a complicated and expensive process—the couple uses only compost and cow manure to fertilize their vegetables, growing produce that is free from chemicals and pesticides. “I like the really dark soil,” Digree says, “not the sand. It’s good for growing.” Their natural approach to farming also reduces the overall impact on the environment.
Truro’s connection with the Nepalese couple began with Nancy Pease, a neighbor of Down Home Farm. Bhala explains, “I was her porter in Nepal. Nancy had been trekking there many times, and I worked with her on four or five trips.” Pease later invited Bhala to come work for her in the United States, first in California, then at her second home in Truro. Beginning in 2006, Bhala worked for Nancy in the summers and returned to Nepal in the winters. This led to Janice Allee hiring the Rais on a full-time basis. An artist, Allee converted her studio—appropriately located in an already-renovated barn—into a home for the Nepalese couple and their son David. As they had done for Nancy, Bhala and Digree’s work for Janice Allee and Ron Singer involved odd jobs around the property and landscaping. Digree’s flower gardens brightened the hillside and began to draw the attention of Francie Randolph, director of Sustainable CAPE, the Center for Agricultural Preservation & Education.
Established in 2009, Sustainable CAPE is, according to Randolph, dedicated to “creating a deeply rooted food system.” The timing of Digree and Bhala’s gardening for Janice Allee was perfect, as Randolph actively sought farmers to help drive the agricultural program forward. With Randolph’s encouragement and the dedication of Singer and Allee, the Nepalese couple began growing vegetables along with their flowers. In 2015, they became regulars at the Truro Farmers’ Market, and they built a farmstand outside the office of Sustainable CAPE, where customers can purchase vegetables seven days a week during the summer and fall. Like the traditional houses in their district of Nepal, Digree and Bhala gave the farmstand a grass roof. The following summer, they expanded their operation to sell produce at the Provincetown Farmers’ Market as well.
Down Home Farm began from earth that Digree and Bhala turned completely with hand tools, using nothing but shovels and hoes. As the vegetable beds have expanded down a gently sloping hill, the Rais have used some machinery—a rototiller and tractor—but the bulk of the work remains manual. Nepal, a country that covers about the same total area as the state of Wyoming, is divided into districts. Digree and Bhala come from Khotang, a district in the eastern part of the country, about 160 miles from Kathmandu and roughly 110 miles south of Mount Everest. This is a hilly, rural part of the country, about 4,000 feet above sea level. Terraced gardens like the one they have built in Truro are common. Some of the vegetables that they grow are also familiar, though Janice Allee provided advice and recommendations about the varieties of produce that would have the most appeal to customers at the farmers’ markets. Digree says that some favorites have been greens such as “Bok choy, arugula, kale and Swiss chard.” In addition, they grow everything from garlic and leeks to squash and pumpkins to nightshades and root vegetables.
A key component in Sustainable CAPE’s mission is to make healthy local produce available to people from every socioeconomic tier, and its basic lesson is that local food is good for the health of both the community and the individual. This message is particularly poignant in a time when 10-packs of nuggets made mostly from factory-farmed corn sell as “chicken” for under $2 while an 8-ounce carton of raspberries goes for twice that. Randolph says, “When we started the farmers’ market, only one level of customer was coming.” Mark Bittman wrote in a 2014 New York Times article that farmers’ markets must overcome the generalization that prices are significantly higher than those in chain stores. He states that while this notion may often hold true, there are frequently bargains available. For example, he writes, “At the Truro Farmers’ Market, I bought lobsters for 40 percent less than they cost in local stores.” Randolph has addressed the issue of pricing by linking with organizations such as Wholesome Wave, whose programs serve to work with doctors to prescribe produce for patients’ health and to double the value of food stamps, or SNAP, at farmers’ markets. Likewise, in partnership with Emerald Physicians, Sustainable CAPE has created the FLAVORx Program, which also allows doctors to write prescriptions for healthy food. Randolph notes that “Patient biometrics are documented, measuring how increased access to fruits and vegetables can impact health.”
Hamlet famously described the world as “an unweeded garden that grows to seed,” and one can only imagine what he would think of modern society with its dubious food products. Fortunately, the local food trend has been gaining traction and allowing people to get back to their roots. “Truro is really taking off,” Randolph says. “We’re selling a lot of food; Digree and Bhala have been instrumental in this work because they offer a tremendous amount of produce.” Even so, demand is outstripping supply as more and more people desire fresh vegetables. Randolph also hopes that the example set by Janice Allee and Ron Singer will inspire others. She asks, “Wouldn’t it be great to have more people who want to have their land farmed?”
After a long battle with cancer, Janice Allee passed away on August 4, 2017, but her husband Ron Singer and the Rai family continue their efforts to keep her vision alive. A visit to Down Home Farm is spiritual; a deep love for family, community and land radiates even in the gloom of a rainy February morning. The warmth of Bhala’s traditional Nepalese tea, prepared with black pepper, seems to foreshadow the rich heat of summer. Throughout the winter, Bhala has been cutting firewood, and he and Digree have begun preparing for the upcoming season. “We will begin planting in March,” Digree says, “in the greenhouse.”
The extended community surrounding the Truro Farmers’ Market has also been invaluable to the success of Down Home Farm. Says Bhala, “Everyone has been really helpful.” For example, though the Rais own no vehicle, Henry Lum of Truro uses his truck to help them transport their vegetables to market. “There’s a real generosity of spirit through this work; everyone involved with the Truro Farmers’ Market has a compelling story,” Randolph says. “And Digree and Bhala are standouts in every way—they are talented growers, with incredible warmth of personality, and they are generous beyond compare.”
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