[Market-farming] Hunting for a New Cash Crop

Pat Meadows pat at meadows.pair.com
Thu Sep 15 07:33:17 EDT 2005

Originally from the Washington Post, this was on another
list I subscribe to.


Hunting for a New Cash Crop
As Immigrant Populations Grow, Small Farms Turn to Ethnic
Foods, By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2005; B01

Israel Hertzler isn't the sort of man who usually bucks
tradition. On the rare occasions when the Amish farmer
leaves his home on dusty Woodpecker Way, he drives a horse
and buggy. He is partial to straw hats with wide brims and
homemade trousers held up by worn suspenders. And for lunch
most days? Meat and potatoes, of course. 

So Hertzler was more than a bit leery when a businessman
from Mali asked him three years ago to plant n'goyo , a
bitter type of African eggplant with green ridges, in a part
of Southern Maryland better known for tobacco barns and
oyster-shucking houses. "I said to him, 'You must be funny,'
" said Hertzler, 32, of St. Mary's County. "I don't know the
first thing about growing African eggplants." But he does

Hertzler and his brother have transformed their patch
of Amish country into a United Nations of horticulture. Down
the road from the half-acre of n'goyo grows another type of
eggplant, known as njilu in the Congo Republic. Nearby is a
plot of habanero peppers, highly prized in Latin America.
The patches of international vegetables are the latest
example of how immigrants moving into the Washington region
are reshaping the economy.  

As growing enclaves of ethnic groups, from Salvadorans to
Ethiopians, hunger for fresh produce from their homelands,
increasing numbers of farmers like Hertzler are trying to
meet their needs. The eagerness of some farmers to cast away
traditional crops and turn instead to vegetables with names
difficult for English speakers to pronounce underscores a
growing desperation in the agricultural community, in which
longtime growers are struggling to stay afloat. Faced with
falling crop prices and rising operating costs, more and
more area farmers are accepting multimillion-dollar offers
from developers and getting out of agriculture. Across the
region, fields of tobacco and soybeans are giving way to a
new crop: sprawling subdivisions.

But on quiet Lomax Road in Charles County, Lana Edelen is
determined to keep her farm going. Part of the key to her
success? The mix of ethnic fruits and vegetables she sells
to Jamaicans, Latinos, Asians and Africans. Down past the
rusty tobacco barns and rows of sweet corn, Edelen drives
from patch to patch in a gray station wagon caked with
mud. She points at a green leaf known as callalou to
Jamaicans. Then the Asian variety of eggplant known as
ichiban . But Edelen runs into some trouble when she tries
to describe a spherical yellow vegetable speckled
with white. She calls it a garden egg. "I don't know how you
say it in their language because I don't speak
it," said the 54-year-old former tobacco farmer. "I just
know Africans like to eat it."  When she has to write down
the vegetable's name, she writes it phonetically: B-O-M-A.
Yao Afantchao, a Togolese immigrant who buys her vegetables
and distributes them to local specialty stores, tries to
correct her.  "He says, 'That's not the way it's supposed to
be spelled. It's supposed to start with an H. And I say,
'Well, that's the way I spell it,' " Edelen said, looking
exasperated. "What's the point of having an H if it's
silent?" The bitter-tasting vegetable is actually spelled
gboma by West Africans.

Afantchao is just pleased that the Edelens, whose ancestors
farmed tobacco for generations, tried a new and exotic crop.
Afantchao is on a crusade to increase the number of local
farmers growing ethnic vegetables. He and Stephan Tubene, a
Congolese immigrant who runs the Small Farm Institute at the
University of Maryland and its fields in Upper Marlboro,
started working together in the 1990s when they realized
that immigrants craved the fresh produce they ate in their
homelands.  "My kids can eat the fast food Monday through
Sunday, but I can't," said Tubene, 43, of Glen Burnie. "I
need to eat my fufu or my egusi ."  He's not the only one
with a hankering for fufu (a type of African porridge) or
egusi (ground melon seeds used as seasoning). Ethnic foods
are part of the $25 billion specialty food industry, whose
sales jumped 16 percent between 2002 and 2004, according to
the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.  

So the two Africans began researching which tropical
vegetables could best be grown in the soil around
Washington. In December, Tubene published the 20-page first
edition of the "Ethnic and Specialty Vegetables Handbook."
They constantly tell growers about this burgeoning
market.  On a recent sun-baked afternoon at an Upper
Marlboro research farm, a few dozen curious farmers showed
up at the quarter-acre plot to gaze at the unusual produce.
Tubene held up what looked like a watermelon shrunken to the
size of a golf ball. "Anybody recognize this?" he said.
The farmers looked puzzled. " Tomatinas ?" someone finally
guessed.  "They are eggplants!" Tubene declared. "The Thai

Some farmers are skeptical of growing plants they've never
heard of. But Christine Bergmark, director of the Southern
Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, said she
anticipates more growers will turn to ethnic vegetables if
they can do it profitably.  "You've got to remember that
Southern Maryland was founded on a crop that no one knew
much about: tobacco," she said. "That was a new, novel
crop back then. But it worked pretty well for almost 400

Although there are no precise statistics measuring the
number of farmers growing ethnic vegetables, experts say the
number is steadily increasing. Immigrants also are starting
to grow their own vegetables. The New York-based National
Immigrant Farming Initiative estimates that 60 percent of
farm workers in the United States are foreign-born. Haroun
Hallack, 39, who was born in Sierra Leone, grows ethnic
vegetables on his farm in West Virginia. He sells to
customers throughout the Washington region who want their
African produce fresh, not canned or imported.  "We cannot
satisfy the demand," he said.

As he toils in his St. Mary's field, Hertzler doesn't give
much thought to the culinary preferences of West Africans.
He grew n'goyo for a year before he tried it, and he doesn't
plan on cooking it again.  "They don't actually taste good,"
he said. "I gave it to people, and they said it was
terrible."  But as he took a bite of a tennis ball-size
n'goyo on a recent morning, Hertzler noticed something
strangely appealing about the vegetable, picked fresh in the
field. It may not be sweet like an apple, he said, but
there's something about it that makes you want to keep
chewing.  "I'm not sure that I like it," Hertzler said,
taking another bite. "But I'm going to keep eating it."

C 2005 The Washington Post Company
-- northern Pennsylvania
"Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of
supply and demand. It is the privilege of human beings to
live under the laws of justice and mercy." - Wendell Berry 

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