Kelly Owensby: Project Director, Transplanting Traditions

Kelly Owensby: Project Director, Transplanting Traditions

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PHOTO BY KRISTIN PRELIPP

Like so many recent college grads, Kelly wasn’t sure which road to take after earning her degree. So she went in as many directions as she could, seeking out adventurous work as a river rafting guide, a carpenter, a farmer and a Spanish language translator in a maternity ward.

She credits her parents for supporting her unconventional choices. “My parents really value happiness and have always really encouraged me to think about what I loved and was passionate about,” she says. “They told me I could make it work if I really tried. … I think otherwise I might have chosen a path I didn’t really love.”

In 2009, her path led her to Transplanting Traditions. There, 32 Burmese families who
have sought refuge in our state grow 40 kinds of traditionally Asian crops alongside native plants like beets and broccoli, selling them at the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Farmers’ Markets and through their CSA. The refugees – many are women – arrived in the U.S. already adept at farming. A great deal of Kelly’s job is to use her “crazy mix” of skills to assist them. “I’m able to combine my anthropology background with always having to build things and fix things, and I’ve learned to do a lot of teaching,” she explains. “I switch from my pant suit to my overalls on a daily basis.”

Kelly knows how valuable the crops are. “About 44% of our families are below the poverty line,” she explains, “so a big part of what we do is provide economic opportunity through marketing. But food insecurity is also a struggle, so they are able to grow a lot of food, which leads to lower grocery costs.”

The project – a collaboration between Orange County Partnership for Young Children and Triangle Land Conservancy – also provides space for people to socialize. As Kelly says, “The farm gives people a place to shine.”


Kelly was born in Chapel Hill and moved to Asheville when she was just a baby, but she returned in 2000 to attend UNC. In 2009, she founded Transplanting Traditions community farm outside of Carrboro. When she’s not working, you might find her and partner George O’Neal (plus two dogs and a cat) in the home they built themselves.