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STATES OF FARMING

Forty years after coming to the United States as a refugee from Cambodia, her produce business thrives

Phalla Nol’s success is rooted in early lessons that hard work and smarts pay off

Phalla Nol of Lowell weeded rows of garlic in her plot at White Gate Farm in Dracut.
Phalla Nol of Lowell weeded rows of garlic in her plot at White Gate Farm in Dracut.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Third in a series of occasional stories looking at BIPOC farmers in New England.

WESTFORD — It was 3 a.m. when 13-year-old Phalla Nol snuck out of her family’s bamboo and thatch shelter at the Mak Mun refugee camp, or “Old Camp,” on the Cambodian border with Thailand. After she and some of the boys from the camp slipped past the guards and into Thailand, they walked along the road in the dark. They knew there were hostile Vietnamese, Khmer Rouge, and thieves all around. They hid when necessary, taking whatever path they could until they reached their destination: a small market filled with stalls. As she moved from vendor to vendor, Nol bought cookies, cupcakes, and candy. Once she was safely back at Old Camp, however, she didn’t eat her spoils. Instead, she sold them at a higher price to other kids at the camp, using the profit on her next clandestine trip to buy food for her family and invest in more sweets to further her venture. This, Nol explains, was how she knew how to sell produce 30 years later. Phalla Nol always had an eye for business.

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Before the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia in the mid-1970s and after the Vietnamese invaded, Nol’s father, Nil Por, was mayor of Serey Sophorn. After he traveled to the border to negotiate with the government following the murder of one of his police officers, he found himself unexpectedly trapped there, wanted by the Vietnamese, his life in danger. Allies provided his family with updates about his whereabouts and gave them a plan for escape. Nol’s mother and her family fled in the middle of the night, leaving behind everything they owned. They slept in the forest, taking cover to avoid robbers and soldiers. The journey was slow since the children were small — the youngest was just 2. It took them three days to walk 30 miles to reunite with Nil Por at the Thai border. They would spend two years at three different refugee camps.

When they entered the United States as refugees in October 1981, they settled in Revere. Nol spoke “a little bit” of English and could understand well enough to get along at the local high school, where the students were friendly. The adults in the community weren’t as welcoming. The arrival of the Nols and other Cambodian refugees sparked animosity among some in Revere. Groups of men threw rocks and bricks at the house where five families lived on Walnut Place and tormented them on the streets. “Go go back to your country,” Nol remembers men shouting, “You don’t belong here!” She also recalls, “When you’d go down the stairs, they’d be waiting for you at night. They slapped my brother. In winter, they’d make snowballs and throw them at my mother and even at old ladies.” This persecution culminated in an act of arson on July 16, 1985, a three-alarm fire that left dozens of people, including Nol, homeless.

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Phalla Nol planted onions with the help of farmers Kao Caay and Tony Sin, both of Lowell, at White Gate Farm in Dracut.
Phalla Nol planted onions with the help of farmers Kao Caay and Tony Sin, both of Lowell, at White Gate Farm in Dracut.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The family went on to rebuild their lives in Greater Boston and made a “lot of good friends.” Nol’s parents sorted shrimp at the New England Seafood Company in Marlborough. After high school, Nol worked at Adam Russell Electronics and later coordinated and managed the soldering machine at Hewlett Packard.

Nil Por was 71 in 1998 when he retired from the New England Seafood Company and was among the first participants in the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, an initiative of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. The farmer training program supported his plot at Smith Farm, a training site owned by the Dracut Land Trust, where New Entry trained him in such skills as sourcing seeds, selling produce, using small farm equipment, pest and disease management, and drip irrigation. New Entry director Jennifer Hashley recalls Nil Por, or “Mr. Nil,” as he was known to the New Entry community, as “a very hard worker . . . he was at his farm plot every single day . . . I remember him showing me his traditional Cambodian seed-saving basket — he was forever saving seeds and would tie all kinds of markers on the plants to save the best fruits.”

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Nol’s trips to Smith Farm became more frequent when her father “wouldn’t eat until you’d bring him food! We yelled at him, ‘You need to come and eat!’ but he said, ‘I’m not hungry.’” Although Nol “loved the farm,” it didn’t generate enough revenue to interest her. “He didn’t care about money, but me, I do care about the money.” Beginning around 2007, however, Nol saw an opportunity for profit. She began purchasing produce from Cambodian New Entry farmers and graduates and resold those vegetables at local farmers’ markets. This proved to be a financial success.

In 2013, New Entry found that they had more Southeast Asian crops from their Cambodian farmers than they could use in their CSA. So Hashley approached Nol with a proposition.

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“Phalla was . . . already organizing and buying and selling from other farmers for her own markets,” she said. New Entry proposed that Nol become a “broker” of sorts between the farmers and Whole Foods. “We helped her get the necessary insurance and distributor’s license she needed to aggregate orders among the farmers and sell directly to Whole Foods. We also connected her to Russo’s in Watertown to do similar wholesale sales.”

A killdeer attempted to attract the attention of farmers planting onions near its nest in a field at White Gate Farm in Dracut.
A killdeer attempted to attract the attention of farmers planting onions near its nest in a field at White Gate Farm in Dracut. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Seeing the potential to expand her business even further by growing produce herself, in 2014, Nol leased an acre and a half in Boxborough. She sold at the Lowell Farmers’ Market that first year, keeping her work as a courthouse and hospital translator and broker for wholesale markets. As for the farm, she says, “I loved it . . . When I taste something . . . that you grow yourself and the one you bought in the supermarket, it’s not the same.”

Tony Russo, the owner of Russo’s in Watertown, has nothing but respect for Nol after doing business with her for eight years. “Phalla’s remarkable. . . . She’s honest, she’s responsible, she’s skillful. All the products she gives us are always just what they’re supposed to be, never less than that, and she’s fair with her prices. She’s a very hardworking person in a very difficult business environment. She’s a tower of strength.”

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A bundle of onions at White Gate Farm in Dracut.
A bundle of onions at White Gate Farm in Dracut. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Today, Nol leases five acres from the town of Westford and a smaller plot from the Dracut Land Trust. Her sister drives from New Jersey to help every weekend, and nieces, nephews, cousins, and other relatives do what they can to chip in. Although Nol pays a couple of people to plow and till, her mother, Kimsan Ly, “is with me 24 hours. . . . She’s my main helper. She’s stronger than me!” Nol and her mother begin many days at 5:30 in the morning, and some nights harvest until well after dark, preparing for farmers’ markets and wholesale deliveries. Since so much of the business’s financial success is tied to her family’s help, Nol is unsure of what the business will look like 10 years from now. “The older we get, the more challenging it is.”

Nol breaks down when she shares how her 29-year-old son, Keven Nol, died in an automobile accident in May 2020. “[Since my son died], I feel I cannot do the things that I could do before.” But she’s not ready to give up. She often thinks of her father during her hours in the field: “He would love it. He would come help me every day. It’s because of him I do this. Because he loved it.” Despite the challenges and despite the uncertainty of the future, she’s proud of the business she’s built: “My stand, what a crazy thing,” Nol laughs. “At my stand, people line up, from here to there,” she says, making a wide gesture. “They fight to get to my veggies!”

Visit Phalla Nol’s produce stall beginning in July, Thursdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Lynn Central Square Market, 20 Exchange Place, and Fridays from noon to 6 p.m. at Lucy Larcom Park, 255 Merrimack St. in Lowell. To learn more about the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, visit nesfp.org.

Phalla Nol planted onions with the help of her mother, Kimsan Ly, at White Gate Farm in Dracut.
Phalla Nol planted onions with the help of her mother, Kimsan Ly, at White Gate Farm in Dracut. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Jocelyn Ruggiero can be reached at jocelyn@jocelynruggiero. Follow her on Twitter @jocelynruggiero.