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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dracut farmer carries on the mission of 9/11 pilot

This Sept. 7, 2011 photo shows farmer Dave Dumaresq at his farm in Dracut.
DRACUT — Born and raised in the same community, they shared a love of agriculture. Farming the land was the road less traveled that each would choose. Along that road they became friends.

One would use his own land to reach out to immigrant farmers who needed a little guidance. The other would temporarily leave his busy agricultural business to travel to another continent to lend his expertise to farmers who also needed a little guidance.

Though each made a difference to farmers in need from another culture, the tragic consequences of a decade ago today would mean that one would do so in the other’s name.

American Airlines pilot, Capt. John Ogonowski, used his expansive White Gate Farm in Dracut to improve the lives of Southeast Asian immigrants who had fled the terror of Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia. But he did so quietly. It was not until after Ogonowski became a victim of terror himself as the pilot of American Airlines [AMR] Flight 11 — the first to crash into the World Trade Center — that others learned of his compassionate work as part of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project.

"Many were farmers in Cambodia and they knew how to farm, but not in New England," said Dave Dumaresq, owner of the 90-acre Farmer Dave’s in Dracut and Tewksbury.

All Ogonowski was asked to do was to lease his land, but he "would till the land for them and talk to them about crop timing and New England growth cycles, which are very different from Cambodia," Dumaresq said. "He would do some plowing, help them with irrigation, spread compost; and he established a greenhouse so they could start transplants and get a jump on the season."

The Cambodians "came from a rural area with lots of space, but ended up in small apartments in Lowell. They would bring the entire family up to John’s farm, and it gave them something they missed from home. They were back to nature, back to agriculture, and back outside, which brings happiness back," he said.

Many Cambodian immigrants were well educated but often were relegated to assembly work, Dumaresq said. Through Ogonowski’s guidance, "they could go out and farm and it gave them that sense of being."

Because of Ogonowski’s contributions to the immigrant farming community, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Farmer to Farmer program was renamed the "John Ogonowski Farmer to Farmer Program" as part of the 2008 Farm Bill.

Providing for the transfer of knowledge from U.S. volunteers to farmers, farm groups, and agribusinesses in developing countries, it has benefited 1 million farmer families representing 5 million people.

Dumaresq also has roots in the program, though under a different name. While he was in the Peace Corps in Ecuador in 1996, he "hosted two American volunteers from the Farmer to Farmer program. I was very interested in it but at the time didn’t realize I’d be going into agriculture."

Ninety acres, 15 years and countless crops later, Dumaresq had the expertise himself to volunteer in the program. His greenhouse vegetable growing experience was needed in the Republic of Georgia, which has struggled agriculturally since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"I feel I have a God-given talent, and I have found that it can be effective and life-changing if there is a need," Dumaresq said. "Someone was asking for help, and I thought I could help."

It was a "surreal" experience, he said, to arrive in March and see plaques and literature bearing the name of his friend from home.

"It puts a closeness to the work. Rather than going to the other side of the world to help someone you don’t know, you are helping someone under the name of someone you know very well," he said. "This was a continuation of what John was doing here in Dracut. I felt that he was looking down and was happy with what I was doing in his name."

Dumaresq spent three weeks educating, through the use of an interpreter, local farmers how to properly use greenhouses. They had, he said, "been making a lot of mistakes. They were very grateful for this American who was helping them."

Dumaresq returned a month later, at their request, but this time as a consultant with Economic Prosperity Initiative. He and an American economist designed a system to encourage banks to more readily provide loans for agriculture.

His experience taught him that it’s all about the "personal connection. Where I was is not far from Afghanistan, where the 9/11 terrorists were trained. By helping these people, as American volunteers, rebuild their economy and bring them a happier life, I like to think that someday if they hear of anyone planning harm to America, they would crush those plans. If so, then someone like John doesn’t have to lose his life needlessly."

Dumaresq says he will treasure the "connection between the cultures, the sharing of knowledge and experience, and how it strengthens the connections between the nations. John made that same connection between cultures and nations. Our lives and their lives are richer for it, and in the end, we’re all better off."

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