Mushroom Grower, Man of Peace
Amir Hebib’s journey from war-torn Bosnia to the markets of Burlington
Written onMay 23 , 2014
Sitting with Amir Hebib in his living room in Colchester, sipping herbal tea made from his own spearmint and lemon balm, you get a sense of peace, of refuge. But when you talk to Amir about his life, you discover that the road to this peaceful Vermont home has been a difficult, war-blasted one. He has come full circle in his 53 years: from a peaceful farm childhood in southeast Bosnia, through years of conflict and a sojourn in a UN refugee camp in Croatia, to finally making his way to Vermont and back to his roots in agriculture.
Amir is a farmer and the owner of AH Mushrooms. He is a familiar figure to customers at the Burlington farmers’ market, selling his shiitake and oyster mushrooms and small pots of dazzlingly robust ornamentals and herbs. He also supplies mushrooms to City Market and Healthy Living in Burlington and, seasonally, to the Intervale Food Hub and Pete’s Greens.
When Amir came to the U.S. in 1996, he felt like he was coming “from a different planet.” His country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, had been torn apart by war since 1992. Arriving in Vermont with his wife and young son, Amir spoke no English and had no idea how to find his way into work in his chosen field, agriculture. “I was destroyed by war, in all means, physically, emotionally, financially,” he told me. With initial help from Vermont Refugee Resettlement, the family found housing and Amir found a job. First he worked in a Winooski soap factory and then at McKenzie Meats in Burlington, but he found that being inside a building all day didn’t suit him at all. “Every day I am more and more stupid,” he says of his early work in Vermont. “I don’t see sunlight.”
He had grown up on a farm in the southeast part of Bosnia, near the Adriatic Sea. They called it ”Little California” because of the mild Mediterranean climate. His father, Murat, who wanted to spare his son the rigors of farm life, told him, “Talk nice about agriculture, but go away from it.” Amir did not heed this advice. He studied agriculture for four years at the University of Sarajevo, in Bosnia’s capital, and upon graduation, he got a job with Agrokomerc, a huge Bosnian farming conglomerate that, at the time, had 14,000 employees. “We produced a million eggs a day,” Amir remembers, as well as turkeys, chickens, rabbits, honey, and every kind of vegetable and fruit, shipped regionally and internationally. Agrokomerc was also the largest mushroom producer in Europe, with 24 huge mushroom houses, which Amir eventually managed.
As an employee shareholder in Agrokomerc and the owner of 200 beehives at his home, Amir had a lot to lose by emigrating. However, the war either destroyed or disrupted everything in his homeland, including the farming sector of the Bosnian economy. “I didn’t leave my country,” Amir says. “I fled.”
Amir’s two mushroom houses in Colchester are much more modest than the ones he managed for Agrokomerc, but given that he built them with his own hands, they are still impressive, and his pride in them is evident when he shows me around. Normally he produces 120 to 150 pounds of shiitake and oyster mushrooms each week, but the production increases seasonally when the Intervale Food Hub and Pete’s Greens include his products in their CSA shares.
The shiitakes grow on inoculated blocks of wood, preferably oak. The medium for the oysters is a mix of organic materials that starts with a base of straw but, depending on availability and price, can include coffee grounds, ground peanuts, wheat bran, even cardboard. “People say organic food is expensive,” Amir tells me as we walk through the buildings he has created for mushroom growing, “but what’s more expensive than going to [the] doctor’s?”
He runs down a list of what he doesn’t like about conventional farming : “too much using chemicals; too many new varieties; too much hybridization, and adds, “I believe in the power of Mother Nature.” Although temperature and humidity must be closely controlled in mushroom growing, Amir doesn’t like using chemicals—even organic ones like neem oil—to control the shore flies and fungus gnats that are drawn to his growing media. Instead he uses yellow “sticky cards” that draw and capture the insects. In the summer, he resorts to electric zappers to keep down bug populations. “They don’t attack mushrooms” he says. “They attack [the] media and spread disease.”
We go into the small greenhouse and my nose is filled with the intoxicating smell of summer. Exotic succulents, abundant herb plants, and giant aloes fill the small space. “I enjoy growing plants,” Amir says simply.
After leaving McKenzie Meats, Amir worked for seven years as a grower at Claussen’s Greenhouse in Colchester. He had overcome PTSD (“war traumas” he calls it) and had started growing some mushrooms at home. He felt ready to launch his own business, but that’s when he fell gravely ill. “The doctor told me, ‘Amir, you can die anytime,’” but no one could diagnose the illness. He reduced his work at the greenhouse and slowly got better. “It was [a] very hard time,” Amir says now.
So he began to build and supply his mushroom houses. “Nobody helped me,” he says. “I didn’t have money to pay someone else.” With all the money he could earn and save, Amir started his farm. “I didn’t have intention to live growing mushrooms,” he told me, but it was something he knew how to do, something he could do as he recovered his health. “People think it’s big money overnight,” he says. “It’s not.” He didn’t have room to grow the more familiar button mushrooms, so he concentrated on higher value shiitakes and oysters. Now, eight years later, there is more demand for his products than he can supply. “Now I sell three to four times mushrooms more than when I started. More and more each year.”
As his farmers’ market customers know well, Amir Hebib regularly dispenses more than mushrooms and potted plants. He is a modest man, but he is also a storyteller. “In Bosnia,” he says, “farmers’ market is first place to go. Store is second.” As a child, he sold his family’s products direct to consumers. “Big markets,” he remembers, “with refrigerators and locked boxes”—unlike Vermont’s markets that tend to set up each week like a traveling circus. “You didn’t have to bring your own table.”
Amir’s experience, both as a lifelong farmer and as a survivor of ethnic strife, has left him with a faith in natural processes, a distrust of organized religion, and a philosophy of nonviolence that he enjoys sharing with his customers, many of whom have become friends. “Nobody knows how many people were killed [in Bosnia]. Real people. Humans.” Amir says that he is “100 percent nonviolent.” His philosophy, as he freely expresses it, is simple, but deeply rooted: “I believe God wants us to respect each other, to help each other, to be nice with each other, to be against bad things like war.” He knows from personal experience what can happen when people deviate from that path. “It’s easy to go to war,” he says.
Amir Hebib, mushroom grower and man of peace, is happy to be in Vermont. “People are [the] reason I’m here,” he concludes.