New arrivals grow and market fresh ethnic produce

Eager customers purchase Song Van Yang’s pumpkin vines and other greens from Flats Mentor Farm at a farmers’ market.
Photos Courtesy of Maria Moreira.

On small leased plots of what was once a dairy farm, new arrivals to the U.S. are growing food from their countries of origin. New and experienced farmers alike are learning to adapt tropical and subtropical crops to more northerly climates, and as they enjoy the flavors of their home countries, they also enrich the tastes of their adopted one. By 2009, the farmers of Flats Mentor Farm were selling their ethnic crops in and around the Boston area at an impressive 40 farmers’ markets and to Whole Foods stores.

From milk to Queijo Açoreano to water spinach

In 1980, the Moreira family, Portuguese immigrants from the Azores, purchased 70 acres of river bottom land in Lancaster (near Fitchburg), Mass. By the mid-1980s, however, it was clear that 35 Holsteins and hard work alone could not support a family of six. So, to add value to their milk, the Moreiras began making Queijo Açoreano cheese, an old family favorite. The cheese was very popular among the area’s many Portuguese immigrants.

Song Van Yang carries newly harvested vegetables from her field to be packed and readied for market.

Fast-forward to 1985, when immigrants from the other side of the world were struggling to keep their farming traditions alive while making their way in their new country. Hmong refugees whose people fought against the Pathet Lao during the Secret War in Laos and subsequently aided the U.S. during the Vietnam War, the newcomers were among some 169,000 Hmong refugees who have been allowed to immigrate to the U.S. since the late 1970s.

As new refugees were arriving, the last of the four Moreira children were leaving the farm, and the dairying operation came to a close. Today, the Moreira family uses a bit more than half of their original farm to raise beef cattle, goats and sheep, and to grow corn for silage. At the same time, 50 Hmong farmers, more recently joined by a small group of refugees from Kenya, Liberia and Congo, are growing about 40 crops from their native countries on 30 acres of the Moreiras’ farm. Among the most recent additions is water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica), an herbaceous perennial of the morning glory family grown for its tender shoot tips and younger leaves. Popular among Asians, water spinach can overtake waterways, earning it a place on the USDA’s Invasive and Noxious Weeds list. Basically illegal to cultivate in the U.S., it is grown by special permission at Flats Mentor Farm, but cannot be sold outside of Massachusetts, where cold winter temperatures prevent it from becoming invasive.

A teaching farm

They come with extensive farming experience—and with no experience at all. What began as a small plot for one elderly Hmong woman has become an organization known as Flats Mentor Farm, a place where people of diverse ethnic backgrounds can learn the art and science of farming in the northeastern U.S. Folks just thinking about farming are first offered 1/8-acre plots; experienced farmers can lease 1 to 4 acres for $400 an acre, which covers all soil preparation, including soil testing, cover cropping, tilling, harrowing and composted manure.

Three varieties of amaranth, a plant that sustained the farmers of Flats Mentor Farm when they lived in Laos, has become a plant that farmers’ market customers request.

Technical assistance on issues such as soil fertility, irrigation, pest and weed management and marketing is provided by Flats Mentor Farm Project Director Maria Moreira. The help is designed to promote sustainable agriculture and economic independence. Recently, two Flats Mentor farmers, one for eight years, the other for 10, purchased farms in Missouri to grow vegetables to sell at farmers’ markets.

The farmers of Flats Mentor Farm, who organized and incorporated in 2005, share large items such as a greenhouse, a tractor and a refrigerated truck. The farm is supported by Heifer International, the Massachusetts Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the United States Department of Agriculture and many other organizations and individuals.

At Flats Mentor Farm, growers have learned to use drip irrigation and plant in straight rows, an advantage in mechanical planting and harvesting generally unfamiliar to them in their countries of origin.

Marketing, marketing, marketing

“Every Flats Mentor farmer must have a marketing plan,” says Moreira. “It is our number one rule; There must be a marketing plan before growing begins.” Farmers need to know the communities in which they are selling, as well as who their customers will be and what produce their customers will buy.

“Presentation is extremely important!” says Moreira. Flats Mentor farmers also share their food and cultural traditions at an annual festival at the farm. “We want our farmers to succeed and to become financially independent.” Regularly scheduled farmers’ meetings, monthly in winter and weekly in summer, and lots of equipment demonstrations also promote that goal.

A new crop for the Northeast

Recognized around the world as a leaf vegetable, a cereal and an ornamental, amaranth is well-known to Flats Mentor’s Hmong farmers in their native Laos. During their time in the jungles, they foraged for the leafy, nutritious vegetable in order to survive. First cultivating it at Flats Mentor for their own families and friends, the farmers began introducing leaf amaranth to customers at farmers’ markets, where it has also become popular among other ethnic groups, including people from the Caribbean, where the vegetable and the dish into which it is made are called callaloo. The three leaf amaranths grown at Flats Mentor Farm—green, red and green and red—have also found many repeat customers at upscale farmers’ markets. Attractive displays, recipes and tips help promote Flats Mentor Farm produce.

Sometimes called pigweed, amaranth (from the Greek amarantos meaning “the one that does not wither”) is a summer annual weed. The cultivated variety of amaranth, however, has different characteristics and is not known to become weedy in fields where it has been grown.

Amaranth is planted two or three times during the farm’s north-central Massachusetts growing season, and this year will be planted again in high tunnels. Seeds for Garnet Red Amaranth (sold as a micro mix ingredient) and Red Leaf Vegetable Amaranth (Amaranthus tricolor) are available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

“Amaranth is very hardy and low-maintenance,” says Moreira. When flea beetles attack the young leaves, Flats Mentor farmers use IPM practices to control them. “We used no pesticides last year, and we absolutely do not allow the use of herbicides. Hands and flames are used to control weeds.” Harvesting is usually done with scissors, although for some markets the root is pulled for people who prefer to use the entire 12-inch plant.

An experiment in extending the growing season

When the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service announced the availability of funding to install seasonal high tunnels to increase the availability of locally grown produce in an environmentally friendly way, eight of Flats Mentor Farm’s Hmong farmers applied. Each received funding for one 30-by-72-foot tunnel. The pilot project will test the potential conservation benefits of growing crops within high tunnels, including their effectiveness in reducing pesticide use, retaining soil nutrients, increasing yields and extending the growing season. A longer growing season is especially beneficial for ethnic produce originally from the tropics and subtropics. Along with the $85,936 grant provided through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to construct hoop houses, the farmers will also receive technical assistance to construct and operate the structures.

Earlier grants from Heifer International and the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture supported the purchase of a drip irrigation system and a Kubota tractor.

Ethnic CSA

For the first time in 2010, Flats Mentor Farm is experimenting with operating an ethnic produce CSA, offering customers a combination of ethnic produce such as amaranth, bitter melon, chipilin and Chinese broccoli, as well as the more usual vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans. Forty-nine vegetables are on offer. One CSA share, estimated adequate for a family of four, is $550. The CSA runs weekly from July 3 through October 9.

As buyers become familiar with the ethnic produce grown by Flats Mentor farmers, demand for ethnic produce continues to rise, expanding market opportunities for other growers.

Newly harvested chipilin grown by Mr. Vue is popular in both eastern Massachusetts farmers’ markets and in the neighborhoods of east Boston where there are large Central American communities.

For further information

  • Everything from how to begin growing ethnic crops to seed sources to crop insurance to recipes using ethnic foods: www.flatsmentorfarm.org/resources.htm.
  • To find ethnic crops categorized by countries of the world where they are popular, see www.worldcrops.org. If, for example, a sizeable percentage of the customers at your market are from Puerto Rico, click on Puerto Rico to check out crops from there that can be grown in the Northeast.
  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds: Source of most of the seeds for crops grown at Flats Mentor Farm.

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Growing. She resides in Henniker, N.H.