Breaking New Ground: Three Tips to Support New Immigrant Farmers

Got some epazote, gai choy on your farmers market list this week? As new immigrant farmers plant agriculture careers on American soil, our produce options increase with fresh flavorful options like the pungent Mexican herb, epazote, or Asian mustard cabbage, known by the Hmong as gai choy.

But these new farmers represent more than undiscovered greens. Like the American pioneers of 150 years ago, this current crop of immigrants also seeks a new and better life through working the soil. However, these new immigrants don’t need to forge along and isolated out on the prairie today. Through our food purchases we can seek out and support this new face of American agriculture.

“Our farmers have ranged from African to Asian to Latino, all new to this country but with farming roots in their homeland,” explains Rekha Banerjee, marketing and distribution manager for Big River Farms, a project of The Minnesota Food Association that supports new immigrant farmers. With a goal of ensuring that Minnesota land is used in a sustainable way long-term, our new immigrant program helps these new farmers learn how to raise crops while stewarding the land and market their harvest to the Twin City population.”

By pooling together and sharing resources and support, Big River Farms provides the ideal situation for these new farmers to garner growing experience from planting to packaging — without taking on premature debt and risk. “We help these farmers figure out what to grow for the Minnesota market, such as the ‘tried and true’ American vegetables like lettuce, carrots and tomatoes,” explains Banerjee, herself adding to the ethnic farmer mix with her Indian family background. “But these new farmers also provide a great opportunity for shoppers to try produce native to their homeland.”

Break out of your expected vegetable box with these tips to support new immigrant farmers:

1. Practice Biological Substitution
If you see a new vegetable at market and don’t know how to use it, think biologically. “If it looks like a root crop, use it like you would boiled potatoes,” advises Banerjee. Likewise, various greens can be sautéed and used in ways you would typically use spinach.

2. Crack Assumptions
“People often assume that immigrant farmers don’t grow sustainably, but that isn’t true,” explains Banerjee. “These growers typically don’t know any other methods than organic by default because back in their homeland they couldn’t afford chemicals. People also assume that these farmers can’t speak English because they appear shy and reserved, but remember these new immigrants may come from a culture much quieter than the boisterous American farmer’s market scene.”

3. Keep Loyal and Connected
Initiate a connection with a new immigrant grower by buying loyally from them during the market season. “Share recipes, give feedback and even offer to come out and visit their farm,” suggests Banerjee. “Such connections provide a warm welcome that helps these new growers truly feel a part of the landscape and community.”

Here’s one of Banerjee’s personal favorite recipes that celebrates summer abundance that can be adapted for various ethnic produce:

Mixed Vegetables with Panch Phoron

About 6 -10 cups mixed veggies, such as:
potatoes or turnips, 1 inch cubes
carrots, chopped
summer squash, 1 inch cubes
green beans, chopped to 2 inch lengths
whole peas or snap peapods
tomatoes, chopped
greens, chopped
etc, whatever is in season

1-2 inch fresh ginger root, chopped finely

3 T canola or safflower oil

1 tsp panch phoron (a whole spice mix: equal parts of cumin, mustard, fennel, onion seed (AKA kalonji), plus a pinch of fenugreek seed (AKA methi)*

optional: two fresh green chilis, sliced in half length wise

0.5 tsp turmeric powder
0.5-1 tsp cayenne powder
salt to taste

1 T lemon juice
1/4- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the panch phoron, let sizzle until the mustard seeds have all popped (sounds like popcorn) and it smells fragrant (keep your face away- very hot and may jump out at you!)

Lower heat to medium, add ginger (and green chilis if using them) and stir fry a few minutes.

Add tumeric, cayenne and salt and stir fry a minute, careful not to burn the spices (you can add a little water if contents are sticking to the pan).

Add potatoes and fry a few minutes, then add turnips or other hard vegetables.
Continue stir frying and add other veggies in sequence, according to their cooking time.

When most veggies are at least half cooked, add tomatoes and/or greens, cover the pot until veggies are cooked. Stir occasionally, add water if necessary.

Take off heat; add lemon juice and cilantro before serving.

Alternate method: Cook each vegetable separately (boiling, steaming, frying) so that you can add them to the spice mix at the same time.

*you can find these spices in a Indian, African or SE Asian grocery store.

Related Links:
Chicks for Change: Four Ways Women Can Instigate an Agriculture Revolution
Eat Those Words: A Reading List to Cook UP a New Food System
A True Campaign for Change: Five Tips to Stir Up the Local Foods Movement in Your Community

Photo Credit: Minnesota Food Association

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