Meet the African Farmer Growing Rice in New York’s Hudson Valley | Civil Eats

Meet the African Farmer Growing Rice in New York’s Hudson Valley

Following the Jola traditions of Gambia, and made possible by the region’s warming climate, Nfamara Badjie is cultivating rice in an unusual setting—and harvesting to the rhythm of the African drum.

Nfamara's son Malick, center, with Naveen and Malaya Hoyte, Malick's cousins. (Photo by Jake Price)

A part of the harvesting process is also musical. Nfamara would take little breaks from his cutting and start singing. Scythe in hand he would wave it at the volunteers as if it was a conductor’s wand. The tempo of the music helped influence the rhythm of the cutting and the cutting also influenced the rhythm of the music. (Photo by Jake Price)

On the first Saturday in October, under an azure blue Hudson Valley sky, about 15 volunteers have assembled on the six-acre Every-Growing Family Farm for its annual rice harvest led by Nfamara Badjie. Badjie is dressed in the green, gold, and dark red colors of Africa and wears a ceremonial straw-plumed hat embellished with shells and pom-poms.

He introduces himself and the traditional African way of community harvest to the group: “Getting to know each other, meeting, and chatting—as long as we’re together, it’s a good thing, it’s the number one thing in life,” he says. “We cook, we dance, we eat together as family. Family is community . . . that is how we live in Africa.”

Nfamara Badjie supervising the harvest at Ever-Growing Family Farm. (Photo by Jake Price)

Nfamara Badjie supervising the harvest at Ever-Growing Family Farm. (Photo by Jake Price)

The event is unusual for several reasons. First, because rice is not a traditional staple grain of the U.S. Northeast, but an increasingly viable one due to its ability to withstand both the heavier rains and drought caused by climate change. Second, unlike the very few other small-scale rice growing enterprises in the region, it follows the traditions of master rice farmers from Badjie’s Jola tribe of Gambia and Senegal. Most strikingly, it features the persistent, hypnotic beat of the sabar, kutiro, and djembe drums during the harvest, as well as ringing voices from solo or call-and-response singing punctuated by a piercing whistle.

Badjie shows the group how to handle the small hand-scythes that have been distributed to everyone, demonstrating how to grab a bunch of rice stalks in one hand, and with the other, sweep the scythe across the stalks as close to the ground as possible in one smooth, strong movement. He takes the lead, demonstrating a powerful, sure stroke that no one is able to match. A line of three or four drummers stands alongside the field, or at times follows behind him like the musical contingent of an army regiment, elevating the group’s esprit de corps and helping them work to a rhythm.

Ever-Growing Family Farm is a test case for transplanting the agricultural practices of a foreign culture into fertile new ground, a win in a world increasingly transfigured by climate change, political instability, and the refugees that both create.

At Ever-Growing, the yield can vary from 500 to 1,800 pounds of rice per year, which the farmers sell to their neighbors. The four family members who work part-time on the farm find they cannot keep up with the demand, says Badjie’s wife, Dawn Hoyte.

To sharpen their technical, business, and marketing skills in this experiment, staff members have taken part in the farm incubation program at Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming. Glynwood, in turn, sees the farm as part of a new network of grain and staple crop producers it’s fostering. On this harvest day, a Cornell agronomist has lent her technical expertise, and a crew of aspiring farmers, food systems change advocates, chefs, and even a Japanese home sake brewer have volunteered their labor.

Traditional African Rice Farming

The Jola tribe has long been recognized for its rice-growing expertise. In the 18th and 19th centuries, slave traders were willing to pay a premium for West African Senegambian farmers, who maintained sophisticated agricultural practices along what earlier European mariners called the “rice coast” of the African continent, as well as among inland swamps. There, farmers constructed irrigation systems, dug paddies, and harvested, threshed, and winnowed rice by hand. In the pre-Civil War U.S. South, exploitation of their slave descendants’ expertise helped turn Carolina rice into a massively profitable cash crop.

Growing up in Gambia, drumming was as much a part of Badjie’s life as rice farming. He began to learn to play the búgarabu drums when he was four or five, first practicing on empty tomato paste cans covered with paper moistened with the juice of the baobab fruit. Today, he is one of the few masters of the búgarabu drums still living. In 2000, Badjie travelled from his home village of Sitta, which had no cars, running water, gas or electricity, to perform in Germany. In 2005, he arrived in America at the invitation of a University of California musicologist, eventually settling in New York City.

In 2008, along with his cousin Moustapha Diedhiou, also a drummer and rice farmer, Badjie visited New Paltz, New York, to play at an African dance class. There, he met Hoyte, a former African, Brazilian, and Afro-Caribbean dance instructor who had farmed organically in Barbados and the Hudson Valley.

Bonding over their shared interests in dancing, music, and farming, less than a year after meeting, Badjie and Hoyte married. Soon, they brought Badjie’s sons from a previous relationship to the U.S.

The move was a shock to his sons. “They had never seen a refrigerator,” recalls Hoyte. “They were afraid to touch the sink.” The two youngest boys began crying at the sight of pizza, which looked nothing like food to them.

Starting from Scratch

After moving to America, “farming was in my head all the time,” Badjie recalls. “Back home, everyone is a farmer. I wanted to teach my kids how we live there. I want a rice-growing community here, to grow what we eat and eat what we grow. It’s the healthiest way.”

“Back home, everyone is a farmer. I wanted to teach my kids how we live there. I want a rice-growing community here, to grow what we eat and eat what we grow. It’s the healthiest way.”

He knew that the land they found in 2013 in Ulster Park, a town north of Poughkeepsie, was very wet and would be well-suited to growing rice. In 2015, Badjie, Hoyte, and Badjie’s son Malick and cousin Diedhiou started a community supported agriculture program (CSA), which included traditional African vegetables. They also began farming rice, narrowing their focus to this culturally important crop in 2018.

Since their farm income is not enough to support the family, they all work off-farm jobs. Badjie works as a maintenance man for a local private school; Hoyte supervises state prison counselors; Diedhiou runs his own house painting company and teaches drumming; and Malick farms, makes wine, and performs other duties at nearby Red Maple Winery.

Nfamara's son Malick, center, with Naveen and Malaya Hoyte, Malick's cousins. (Photo by Jake Price)

Nfamara’s son Malick, center, with Naveen and Malaya Hoyte, Malick’s cousins, at right. (Photo by Jake Price)

At first, they did everything by hand in the traditional Jola way, digging paddies with a metal hand shovel attached to a 12-foot long wooden handle. They have since added farm equipment including a small combine, tractor, milling machine, and rice polisher.

Sourcing rice seeds has also posed challenges. The germplasm repository at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued them a scant handful of seeds, which did not do well. Then they learned about a Vermont rice farmer named Erik Andrus.

On a visit to Andrus’ operation, Boundbrook Farm, they saw the small-scale equipment he had sourced from Asia and his approach to rice farming, which relied on both low-tech farming methods (releasing ducklings in the paddies to eat harmful insects and weeds) and modern ones (using lasers to level his fields). Eager to share his hard-won knowledge, Andrus also sent them home with seeds for a cold-tolerant Japanese variety. Since then, Badjie, and Hoyte have added European, African, and other Asian rice varieties to their repertoire.

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In 2019, Ever-Growing Farm harvested about 1,700 pounds of rice. Of the 20 varieties they have trialed, the team has settled on the seven that grow best, including Japanese Nanatsuboshi, Italian Loto, and a Central Asian variety called Arpa Shali. The monetary equivalent of 10 percent of the year’s rice harvest goes back to Badjie’s home village in Gambia.

Now in his twelfth year of rice cultivation in Vermont, Andrus calls rice farming in the northeast an “uphill battle,” mainly because it lacks the networks of “engineers, plant breeders, experienced field hands, processing facilities, the knowledge base found in Asian countries.”

Volunteers harvesting rice on Ever-Growing Family Farm. (Photos by Jake Price)Volunteers harvesting rice on Ever-Growing Family Farm. (Photos by Jake Price)

Volunteers harvesting rice on Ever-Growing Family Farm. (Photos by Jake Price)

Early adopters like him and Ever-Growing, he points out, “are trying to create a whole system largely on our own, without the critical mass of community support you need to build resiliency.” He was eager to share all he knows with Badjie and Hoyte, he says, “because none of us can succeed without colleagues.”

Building Climate Resilience, Tapping Regional Expertise

Farmers like Badjie and Andrus also see the effects of climate change on their rice farms. In Africa, Badjie says the long hot season can either wipe out crops or, if they are not excessively hot, allow for two rice harvests instead of one. In New York, torrential rains when the plants are flowering can drastically reduce crop yields.

The unpredictable climate and weather can also pose challenges, but Andrus is constantly experimenting and learning, even by accident. For instance, due to a cross-contamination error, he accidentally planted some Koshihikari Japanese rice this season.

Hinode Koshihikari (Koshi) is a premium short grain variety of rice named after the historic Koshi Province in Japan. (Photo by Jake Price)

Hinode Koshihikari (Koshi) is a premium short grain variety of rice named after the historic Koshi Province in Japan. (Photo by Jake Price)

“It’s not a rice that I would have the guts to [knowingly] plant,” he explains, “because it’s way too heat-loving to grow in Vermont.” And yet, as of mid-October, there had been no freeze on the farm, and the rice was “still slowly plugging away”—good news for the few farmers like him in the northeast corner of the U.S., but bad news for the majority of global rice farmers.

Climate change also means that early adopters like Boundbrook and Ever-Growing “have to deal with both wet and dry, paying serious attention to [both the need for] drainage and irrigation,” he adds.

In 2019, as part of its effort to transplant West African rice cultivation to the Northeast, Ever-Growing teamed up with Cornell agronomist Erika Styger, who has done extensive research in Africa and helps promulgate a climate-resilient rice-growing method called System of Rice Intensification (SRI).

“The growing season in the Hudson Valley is so short that we wanted to plant rice later, when it’s warm, but not too late so that harvest is threatened by the cold weather in the fall,” Styger explains. The idea was to shorten the production cycle for Northeastern rice and increase productivity. Instead of using energy-intensive greenhouses, following the Jola farming tradition, they started seedlings in outdoor beds. Without using plug trays, they cut the seedling start-and-transplantation period by half, using fewer seeds per paddy.

Jake Price filmed this documentary at Ever-Growing Family Farm; several short clips are available to stream on the Civil Eats YouTube channel.

With a grant from the federally funded Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, they compared this cultivation technique to what is known as the Akaogi method, named for its founder, a Japanese rice farmer who settled in Vermont in the mid-1980s. Ever-Growing Farm and Styger demonstrated that the Jola method produces more rice with fewer resources than the Akaogi method: 90 percent fewer seeds and 30 percent less water.

In addition to increasing the diversity of crops grown in the northeast, rice has the added benefit of thriving on marginal soil unsuited to many crops, agronomists say.

The Question of Scaling Up

As the sun begins its slow western descent, the group breaks for lunch, a bountiful feast of food Hoyte has prepared and laid out on a second-floor table: curried garbanzo beans and potato, stewed goat, a risotto made with the farm’s own rice.

During the meal, discussion turns to the central question that faces the farm now: Whether and how should it scale up production to become a profitable commercial enterprise.

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Volunteers talk and eat a lunch cooked by Dawn Hoyte. (Photo by Jake Price)

Volunteers talk and eat a lunch cooked by Dawn Hoyte. (Photo by Jake Price)

Styger, the agronomist, believes that with their level of technical expertise, the farmers are close to being able to support a thriving commercial rice farm. What’s missing is access to superior land and a business model that will allow at least one farmer to farm full time. Neither is easy to come by.

But Dave Llewellyn, Glynwood’s director of farmer training, says, “I’m not positive that they should be growing at that pace yet. It will happen when it best fits into the Hudson Valley food system.” For now, he says, the farm’s most valuable role might be to expand its scope as a cultural center, where people can visit, learn about Jola rice farming, and amplify the story of rice in the region.

Many see Nfamara’s son Malick as the future of the farm, a member of the generation that will strike out on its own to make a profitable rice-growing enterprise. Any land the family adds to the enterprise, says Malick, “would have to be near water, and big enough for me to farm for a living—15 acres or more.” In the spring, he plans to begin looking at some possibilities for land nearby.

Late Afternoon Threshing

It is late afternoon by the time the last volunteers to finish lunch head back to the fields, where the crew is feeding the day’s harvest through a small Japanese-made combine to thresh it. The machine drops threshed rice into an inner tank and spews out stripped stalks.

Hoyte kneels over a pile of stalks, removing those with grains still attached. Then she carefully squeezes the last grains from each. “This is good rice; this is money!” says Imaeda.

Nfamara holds rice after the first harvest day. (Photo by Jake Price)

Nfamara holds rice after the first harvest day. (Photo by Jake Price)

Among the volunteers is aspiring farmer Corbin Laedlein, who works as a gardener at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The communal aspect of farm work here is important to him, he says, partly because it taps into the West African side of his bi-racial heritage and points the way to the kind of small-scale, regional agriculture he would like to one day practice.

“Being here is among the times when I feel most human,” Laedlein says. “It feels like hanging out with family.”

Malick, who was 19 when his father brought over him from Gambia, says he hopes to keep the Jola rice-growing tradition alive in America. “I’ve known how to grow rice since I was a little kid,” he says, “and it’s a business I want to stay in here.”

Photos and video by Jake Price.

 

Nancy Matsumoto is a freelance writer and editor who covers agroecology, food, sake, and Japanese arts and culture. She has been a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, Time, The Toronto Globe and Mail, NPR’s The Salt, and TheAtlantic.com, among other publications. She is the co-author of a forthcoming book on Japanese craft sake, and blogs on that topic here. Read more >

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