Food
1:21 pm
Wed August 31, 2011

Some U.S. Farms Trade Tobacco For A Taste Of Africa

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:28 am

For the past 10 years, farmers in tobacco-growing states have been slowly saying goodbye to that old leaf in favor of other crops.

Of course, there's lots of corn and soy replacing tobacco, but some farms are testing out specialty crops that appeal to recent immigrants.

George Bowling's farm in southern Maryland is one such place. He started growing African vegetables about a year ago, but he has worked on farms growing corn and tobacco for much of his 70-something years.

The only sign suggesting that you've arrived on the property is a simple white wooden one. It says "African produce" in red letters, painted by hand.

Bowling took me on a tour of his fields on a steamy mid-August day.

"I've had the African eggplant, I've had the hot peppers, yellow tomatoes, red tomatoes, okra, and potato leaves, watermelon, cantaloupe," he says, pulling his dusty baseball cap down to shade his eyes.

This year, seven acres of his 60-acre farm were dedicated mainly to new African crops he hadn't planted before — something of an experiment, he says.

A Request For Sweet Potato Leaves

Bowling's wife, Julia, says they started researching African crops after some customers asked for sweet potato leaves to cook with.

"We'd never heard of anybody that ate sweet potato leaf, and when we plowed our sweet potatoes last year, that's when they first started coming in," she says.

Sweet potato leaves are used like spinach in many cultures, added to a stir fry or an African stew.

Customers asked Bowling to plant African produce and said they would come to pick it, she says, so he gave it a shot. He ordered specialty seeds for vegetables like "garden eggs" — tiny green African eggplants — and chocolate habanero peppers, and planted them.

And now many customers come to Bowling's farm, picking 16-pound bags of hot peppers at a time. They load up their cars, drive home, tell their friends and come back for more. It's mostly word-of-mouth marketing.

If you can find these peppers at a specialty market, they are often expensive or dried out, says Gladys Fontem, who is originally from Cameroon. She wears surgical gloves to protect her hands while picking the hot peppers. She comes to pick, she says, because the peppers here are fresh, and the farm is clean.

"You can't cook without peppers," says Fontem. "We love that spicy stuff."

But there's another reason they come, according to her sister, Ara: "It gives us a taste of home. The smell, the fields — it's like we're back home."

Market Potential

There's a big market for African crops in the D.C. area. Nearly 120,000 people born in Africa live in the metro area, according to the U.S. Census.

In other parts of the country, the foods of home are different.

A recent study by Rutgers showed that the demand for Mexican, Indian, Chinese and Puerto Rican produce is worth more than a billion dollars — on the East Coast alone.

As tobacco taxes have gone up and imported tobacco has flooded the market, many farmers are looking to try new things.

In Maryland, the state gave some farmers an incentive.

In 2000, it offered to buy out farmers who grew significant amounts of tobacco if they promised to stop growing tobacco but keep their land in agriculture for 10 years. More than 80 percent took the offer, according to Christine Bergmark of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, the agency that administers the tobacco program.

So some farmers are trying out wine grapes, some are giving public farm tours and Halloween hayrides, and some are testing African and other specialty ethnic crops.

African crops are fairly new, but they are not just limited to the ethnic market. Some farmers are even starting to take their products to urban farmers markets and high-end restaurants.

Crops Adjust To A New Climate

Growing new crops in this climate isn't easy.

Yao Afantchao came to Maryland from Togo about 20 years ago. He missed the taste of home and brought seeds with him to experiment. He tried peppers and melons, and more exotic things like edible hibiscus and jute leaves. Turns out they grow fairly well, but they take some adjustments.

"We have few problems. We have a weather problem. This is a temperate zone, and so the growing period is shorter," he says.

Eventually, the University of Maryland hired him to help set up a program that would educate farmers about how to grow the crops and find markets.

He still works with several Maryland farmers, as well as with city garden farmers through the University of the District of Columbia.

But farming is not easy work, no matter what is growing. With the hot, rainless July and the downpours of August, it's been tough, says farmer Bowling. He lost a field full of cantaloupe.

"A total loss almost," he says, pointing to the withered vines. "But that's farming."

Still, Bowling doesn't miss tobacco. Even though he says he's retired, he puts in 15-hour days now. I ask him if he makes any money.

"I probably got a net return of a dollar an hour now ... this is a lot of hard work and kind of a minimal return," he says.

So, why do it?

"I just love dealing with people," he says.

He also loves the farm, and this area — Charles County — where he grew up.

"We've got it all — we've got mountains in the back, [the Chesapeake] Bay on the East, Potomac River there, I can go to the bay and fish and crab, I mean, what else could you want?"

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: For the last 10 years, farmers and tobacco-growing states have been slowly saying goodbye to the old leaf in favor of other crops. There's a lot of corn and soy. But some farmers are also trying out less familiar plants, crops that appeal to immigrants.

NPR's April Fulton visited one farm in southern Maryland that is growing African vegetables.

APRIL FULTON: Drive just over an hour down the back roads south of Washington, D.C., and the landscape gets greener.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR)

FULTON: I pull into a gravel lane off a winding road in Charles County, Maryland. There's a wooden sign in a clearing. It says: African produce. An arrow points the way.

Hi, are you George?

GEORGE BOWLING: Yes.

FULTON: I'm April.

BOWLING: How are you doing?

FULTON: I'm good...

George Bowling leans on a shed, smiling and squinting in the sun. It's a steamy August morning and he wears a faded baseball cap. He takes me on a tour of his fields.

BOWLING: Well, I've had African eggplant. I've had the hot peppers, yellow tomatoes, red tomatoes, okra, and potato leaves, watermelon and cantaloupe.

FULTON: George and his wife, Julia, got into African crops just recently, after some customers started asking for sweet potato leaves to cook with.

JULIA BOWLING: We'd never heard of anybody that ate sweet potato leaf. And when we plowed our sweet potatoes last year, that's when they first started coming in. And they begged him to plant the African produce and that they would come to his farm.

FULTON: It's George Bowling's first year with the new crops, but certainly not his first year farming. He's been working corn and tobacco fields for a big part of his 70-something years.

But as cigarette taxes and foreign competition have gone up, the tobacco industry has faded. Bowling doesn't miss it. He pours a bucket of fiery African peppers onto his scale.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEPPERS POURED ONTO SCALE)

FULTON: This year, he planted seven acres of his 60-acre farm with African vegetables. There's a big market, potentially. Nearly 120,000 people from Africa live in the D.C. area.

A group of women in colorful headscarves, long pants and long sleeves gets out of a car. Gladys Fontem from Cameroon is here to pick hot peppers, the key to her spicy stews. She pulls on surgical gloves to protect her hands.

GLADYS FONTEM: It's that hot. You need to put on gloves, trust me.

FULTON: She says the kind of peppers she wants are hard to find at stores. They can be dried out or very expensive. They're shipped from far away. Bowling charges just 80 cents a pound, all you can pick. Customers come and pick and go tell their friends. This time, Fontem brought her sister, Ara.

ARA: We come to the farm because it gives us a taste of home. Yeah, the smell, the fields, it's like we're back home.

FULTON: In other parts of the U.S., the foods of home are different. A recent study by Rutgers and other universities showed that the demand for Mexican, Indian, Chinese and Puerto Rican produce is worth more than a billion dollars on the East Coast alone. Yao Afantchao is an ethnic crop specialist and something of an evangelist.

YAO AFANTCHAO: Not in the true sense of evangelization, but I am really trying to help people discover new foods.

FULTON: He immigrated from Togo to Maryland 20 years ago. The University of Maryland hired him to explore whether African crops could even grow in the state. He tried peppers and melons and things like edible hibiscus and jute leaves. Turns out, they grow fairly well, but it takes some adjustments.

AFANTCHAO: We have few problems. We have a weather problem. This is a temperate zone and so the growing period is shorter.

FULTON: He works with farmers like George Bowling. Bowling shows me what's left of his melon patch.

BOWLING: You had three rows of cantaloupes from here to the woods and the sun cooked them all, a total loss almost.

FULTON: How did the African crops do with the heat? Do they fair a little better than some of these things?

BOWLING: Not really because what they call the African eggplant, when it gets real hot, like, they turn red and they don't want them.

FULTON: These red eggplants are actually supposed to be green with white stripes. I asked George if he makes any money.

BOWLING: I probably got a net return of a dollar an hour now.

FULTON: A dollar an hour. It doesn't sound like much, but he tells me he's technically retired, so he can afford to experiment. Maryland has given many farmers an incentive to experiment. Back in 2000, the state offered them money to stop growing tobacco as long as they kept their farms going. More than 80 percent of the Maryland farmers who qualified took the buyout. Some are now growing wine grapes, some are giving farm tours and Halloween hayrides and some are taking African vegetables even further, introducing them to new customers at farmers markets and fancy restaurants. April Fulton, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.