ITHACA, N.Y. — Susanne and Steve Messmer of Lively Run Dairy read everything they can about the current refugee crisis spreading across the Middle East and Europe. Despite the obvious distance, theirs is a personal connection to the emergency state in which millions of people displaced by wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan find themselves.

Steve is a US Army veteran who grew up in Interlaken and was posted to Germany in the 1980s. There, he met his future wife, Susanne, a social worker. They volunteered to help provide care and assistance to the 300 refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka living in Germany’s Gehringhof camp.

It was not just families from far-flung corners of the world they witnessed suffering during Steve’s deployment. Until 1989, Germany was still divided by East and West. “Steve was there patrolling the border looking over the fence thinking, ‘Look at this terrible disaster growing over there for the Germans stuck in the East,” says Susanne. “There were people killed at that fence trying to flee that situation.”

Susanne and Steve Messmer of Lively Run Dairy Photo by Benjamin Torrey/The Ithaca Voice

Taking to the fields again: Tompkins veterans find farming a pathway home

Since the Messmers moved to Steve’s hometown and opened their farm in 1995, they have continued to work with refugee families.  

In 1998, they sponsored an Egyptian family’s move to Central New York – the family lived and worked with them during their transition to the US. The father was an engineer; the couple’s children excelled at the school in Interlaken.  One son is now a doctor in Rochester.  

Of the current crisis, Susanne says: “I feel this huge compulsion to go back and help. But it’s not possible to just drop everything when you run your own farm and business, so we asked ourselves: What can we do here?” Then they heard about Sayeed’s story while listening to the local radio one morning in April.

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Compassion within the local farming community

The Messmers are by no means an anomaly. The Ithaca area is blessed with a vibrant farming community. And the farmers here view their role not only as the source of our locally grown and raised food; they are an integral part of the business and – in many ways, the humanitarian – community too.

Five local farms and businesses closely connected with the local food movement have been involved in advising and supporting Sayeed’s venture over the last month: Lively Run, The Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming, Plowbreak Farm in Burdett, The Crooked Carrot Farm & Kitchen in Ithaca, and The Wide Awake Bakery in Trumansburg.

Photo by Benjamin Torrey/The Ithaca Voice

Sayeed says that the farmers he has met here have been “his angels”. For now, he is working at Lively Run, making goat cheese and learning the ropes of the business.  He will receive on-the-job training: learning about the way a small Upstate farm operates, how to feed and milk the goats, and then the process of making, marketing and selling the cheese.

His goal is to start his own, independent farm and set up a stand at the Farmers’ Market. This is where the Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming, in Ithaca, stepped in.  Devon Van Noble is the man behind Groundswell’s Farm Business Incubator Program, – “the brain and the brawn”, his colleagues say – the first program of its kind in New York State.

Any new farmer can apply to Groundswell for farmer training, or to lease land at the organization’s incubator farm, or sign up for one of the many business training classes they run.

“I had heard of Sayeed and his work with Ithaca Welcomes Refugees (IWR): a mutual friend is volunteering with IWR and introduced us,” says Van Noble. “After an initial meeting I knew there were ways we could be supportive.”

For the past three years, Van Noble has mentored and developed sustainable farms with six farmers – refugees from Burma – through Groundswell. In 2014, the organization received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and the  “New Americans Initiative” launched by the NYS Department of State Office for New Americans.

Photo by Benjamin Torrey/The Ithaca Voice

Five local farms are involved in helping Sayeed start his own sustainable farming business

Over the last month, Devon and Sayeed and other local farming partners have met four times to navigate what forms of support each party could be providing.

“I was eager to support a new type a work, a new story and a different set of agricultural experiences, too,” says Van Noble.  

Silas Conroy of Crooked Carrot Kitchen and Rachel of Wide Awake Bakery and Mary Kate Wheeler, a Cornell University College of Agriculture graduate student, have also worked with Sayeed to create a sound business plan and find resources.

There is a burgeoning local food movement, alongside a move towards a diversification of food production, which is buoyed by farmers like Sayeed who offer different kinds of expertise and experience, says Van Noble.

This diversification – both cultural and agricultural – also leads to other good things: an increase in keeping agricultural land and infrastructure in production.

Aaron Munzer and Kara Cusolito own and run Plowbreak, a small but prolific sustainable vegetable farm in Burdett. Munzer is also the manager of the Ithaca Farmers’ Market.

“To me it’s always been important in the farming community to incubate new farmers, whoever they are,” says Munzer. “We certainly received lots of help as we started. Sometimes good advice from experienced farmers is worth more than gold, and we’ve all got lots of experience to share and mistakes, challenges and successes to relate.

Good advice from other farmers is worth more than gold.

“The agriculture in Iraq is incredibly different. At the vegetable farms they only grow one type of tomato, because that’s what the market demands. We grow more than a dozen,” he says. “In terms of cultivation and the laws governing marketing, Sayeed was surprised to find out that we could sell retail at farmers’ markets and to individual restaurants.”

This type of wholesale is heavily regulated in Iraq.

Farmers like Munzer see mentoring new farmers as a part of the job: it benefits both the farming community and, of course, the refugees who are starting new lives here.

“I immediately felt a kinship with Sayeed, as another fellow tomato farmer,” says Munzer. “He has lots of experience with growing tomatoes in the Iraqi climate, but of course our climate is very different here.

A win-win situation for the farming community

“We need to be taking in thousands more refugees than we are now. It’s a win-win situation for everyone, and I am very happy to see Ithaca taking the lead in resettling refugees from around the world,” Munzer said.

“We [at Plowbreak] feel richer for having helped Sayeed even a tiny bit.”

Munzer points out that Upstate New York is in a population downward spiral, with fewer people going into the farming business than ever before. Yet agriculture is essential to the success of New York State’s economy.

With that in mind, he says: “We could use more people out here, working the land, building community, and living peaceful lives. Wherever they’re from.”


The Groundswell Advisory Board is recruiting additional members and expanding the representation of people who are concerned with issues around immigrants and refugees. Contact: Executive Director, Elizabeth Gabriel: Elizabeth@groundswelllcenter.org

T: (607) 319-5095

Melissa Whitworth

Melissa Whitworth is a freelance journalist, specializing in features and profile interviews. Email her at mwhitworth@ithacavoice.com or click on the icons in the top right for more.