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Remembering a fallen pilot and organic farmer

(Sept 17, 2001 – CropChoice news) – Dear CropChoice readers, here is a remembrance of the pilot of the American Airlines flight that crashed into the World Trade Center last week. He was also an organic farmer and promoter of sustainable agriculture and land conservation.

John Ogonowski was the pilot on American Airlines Flight 11 to Los Angeles that crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. At this time of immense tragedy, all our hearts go out to his wife Peggy, to their three children and to other family and friends. But it is also a time to remember John for his generous efforts on behalf of farming in Massachusetts, and particularly for immigrant farmers from Cambodia whom he assisted as part of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project.

John became involved with this project at its very inception over three years ago, when Paul Fischer of Farm Service Agency in Westford contacted him looking for land to make available for Southeast Asian families living in nearby Lowell who wanted to farm. John recognized this immediately as an opportunity to help a worthy group of beginning growers to practice another kind of agriculture. He not only made land behind his home available to these farmers, but White Gate became our first all-commercial "mentor farm" - a training site for these beginning growers. In practice he was involved in every activity on the farm involving this project. He ploughed and harrowed the land and fertilized it with well-aged compost he would have otherwise used for his own crops. He excavated a pond as a water source, and set up an irrigation system connected to it and to existing wells. He ordered materials and set up a greenhouse so the growers could raise seedlings and do extended season production. He provided advice to them on managing production, pest control, harvesting and other production practices. He participated at project steering committee meetings; in fact, he and Peggy hosted a number of these meetings at their beautiful home where they would serve dishes made from their farm grown vegetables and fruits in additional to other great foods.

All John Ogonowski was asked to do was to 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 expense for which he often never asked for reimbursement. John did all this while he was a full time pilot for American Airlines, while he raised his own crops on an additional 200 acres spread around Dracut, and while he helped raise three wonderful children. He was a founder and active member of a local land trust that has helped to save a substantial amount of local farmland in Dracut from development.

This year, the land trust negotiated the purchase of about 50 acres of land about a mile from his house. With much of John's own land out of commission due to a major gas pipeline installation, he made this land available to our project and because of that a dozen Cambodian households got a new start in farming this year.

Susan Shepherd of NPR’s Living on Earth interviewed John just a few weeks ago (to air this week). In that interview he talked at length about how much he loved to farm and how he got involved with the immigrant farming program because he wanted to offer an opportunity to others who also loved agriculture. He praised the hard work of the participating Cambodian families and how it meant so much to him to be able to offer them this opportunity.

August Schumacher, Jr., former USDA Undersecretary of Agriculture and a founder of the NEFSP, was, like everyone who knew him, tremendously anguished by this catastrophic event:

"John Ogonowski's tragic death is a terrible loss to Peggy, their children and his wonderful parents and to so many in Massachusetts farming. He was so committed to helping immigrant farmers, to assist new immigrants from war torn Asia to make a better life farming in America. I just think how ironic it is that someone who worked so hard to help victims of terrorism should be brought down by an act of terrorism himself. He will be sorely missed".

John was a personal friend to many of us and a true friend to Massachusetts agriculture - we will indeed miss him greatly.

Hugh Joseph

A memorial service for John Ogonowski will be held next Monday, September 17th, at 11:00 a.m. at St. Francis Church on Wheeler Road in Dracut. Everyone is welcome; the family expects a large turnout so those attending may want to arrive a bit early.

For those wanting to send condolences to Peggy Ogonowski and family, the address is:

315 Marsh Hill Road
Dracut, MA 01826

Peggy has asked that contributions in memory of John be given to the Dracut Land Trust. The address is:

Dracut Land Trust, Inc.
c/o The Enterprise Bank and Trust Co.
168 Lakeview Ave.
Dracut, MA 01826

Note: the Ogonowskis and other neighbors formed the Dracut Land Trust to save farmland in Dracut from development. The trust recently purchased a 50 acre site off Jones Road, and John made the agricultural land on it available to immigrant Cambodian farmers as part of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. The Trust is actively working on other sites. So your contributions will preserve farmland in honor of John Ogonowski in perpetuity.