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Planting Seeds For The Future

Planting Seeds For The FutureAn innovative farming project run by Tufts has become a living memorial to the American Airlines pilot who served as an example of its generosity.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.11.02] On September 11, John Ogonowski was supposed to be honored by federal officials for his generous support of a Tufts-led program that helps immigrant farmers plant their roots in Massachusetts. But the American Airlines pilot was called away at the last minute - summoned to fly one of the planes that was ultimately hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center towers. A year later, the pilot is getting the honor he deserves, as the program to which he dedicated so much of his time has become a living memorial to his spirit.

"He was a very powerful but very subtle, strong-minded person," Tufts' Hugh Joseph - who manages the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project -- told The Boston Globe late last September. "He was very gentle. I never saw him raise his voice. His willingness to farm and his fight to save land in Dracut - he was very tenacious about that."

He was also very willing to help out a fellow farmer.

"Under the project, experienced farmers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island rent farm land to Cambodian and Laotian immigrant farmers and mentor them in using sustainable agricultural principles," reported ATTRA News - an agricultural trade publication. "These immigrant farmers then raise 'culturally appropriate' crops for sale to approximately 30,000 Southeast Asian American immigrants who live in the Boston area."

Ogonowski was immediately drawn to the program.

"It sounded like a good project," he said in an interview with National Public Radio, taped just two weeks before his death. "My family, they're all immigrants. They came over here and had to start farming over here. So it sounded like a good chance to get some people farming who were farmers in their country before."

Though an airline pilot by profession, Ogonowski was always a farmer by heart.

"I think once a person is a farmer, they're a farmer for life," he said in NPR interview, which aired after September 11 on the environmental program Living On Earth."They're hooked."

A volunteer since the program's inception, Ogonowski offered up his land, his experience, and his passion for farming to help the immigrants participating in the Tufts program.

"John recognized this immediately as an opportunity to help a worthy group of beginning growers to practice another kind of agriculture," Joseph - director of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy - wrote in a letter to his colleagues shortly after September 11. "He not only made land behind his home available to these farmers, but White Gate [Ogonowski's farm] became the first all-commercial 'mentor farm' - a training site for these beginning growers."

His dedication to the program and the farmers, Joseph wrote in his letter, was tremendous.

"All John Ogonowski was asked to do was rent land to these growers, which he did. But he'd rarely collect the rents and he did so much else for the growers that took up his time and created out-of-pocket expenses for which he often never asked for reimbursement," Joseph wrote. "John did all this while he was a full time pilot, while he raised his own crops on an additional 200 acres spread around Dracut, and while he helped raise three wonderful children."

But his work didn't stop there.

"In addition to his work with immigrant farmers, Ogonowski was heavily involved with the Dracut Land Trust, a group that tries to protect the town's farmland from development," the Globe reported last September.

But after the death of Ogonowski - who was willing to use his own money to ensure the land would be preserved - the project was short on funds and in jeopardy. To honor the pilot's life, friends, family and political leaders vowed to continue Ogonowski's work.

"[The Dracut Land Trust is] a magnificent way to remember an authentic American hero," U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy said in a speech last June, in which he vowed to help support the project.

Last week - almost a year after Ogonowski's tragic death - his dream of preserving Dracut's farmland took a big step toward becoming a reality following a significant boost from the Greater Lowell Community Foundation, which proposed a $4 million endowment in the farmer's honor.

Land trust officials plan to use the funds to buy the 33-acre parcel of farmland Ogonowski was trying to preserve. It will be managed by the Tufts program that caught the pilot's attention four years ago.

"The New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, which will be permanently funded when the John A. Ogonowski New Farm Family Project endowment reaches its $4 million goal, is being called a living memorial to Ogonowski, the gentleman farmer," reported the Lowell Sun.

For many of Ogonowski's closest family and friends, it is a fitting tribute to his life.

"John dedicated his life to creating, building and growing, and this New Farm Family Project memorializes his life," Peggy Ogonowski - John's widow - wrote in a statement. "This living memorial continues his work and celebrates the American values that must stand tall against all those who only know how to destroy."

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