Old Roots, New Shoots: Immigrant Farmers Cultivate Ginger in a New Land
Often, shoppers have trouble believing that there is ginger growing in New Paltz. That is, until they see Hector Tejada’s farm stand. Huge green leaves shoot off in every direction, obstructing any view of the other produce on display. Long stalks, piled high on folding tables, go from light green to deep red at their bases; at their ends, still speckled with soil, is a pink root. It is ginger.
Well-suited to warm and tropical climates, ginger cultivation is novel in New York. But for farmers like Tejada, with connections to farming that reach beyond New York State, this soil welcomes the revival of old traditions.
Jeana Park and Yong Yuk, the owners of Et Cetera Farm in Ghent, work 16 hours a day. “The end of March we start getting busy,” Yuk explains. “Until November, we don’t take a single day off.” When the South Korean couple first moved to Ghent from Los Angeles 10 years ago, they had no experience farming. But Park grew up on a farm, and her family had owned farmland in Korea for more than 15 generations. With these memories in mind, the couple wanted to re-create the experience of a small Korean family farm on their three acres of land. They immediately started growing crops that were unusual for the region.
“We were starting off, so we weren’t afraid of anything,” says Park. By the second year on their farm, Park and Yuk had ordered ginger rhizomes from Hawaii, a crop that neighboring farmers knew little about. “We grew something that nobody else really grew,” says Yuk. Being able to offer something unusual at farmers’ markets helped to attract customers.
Hector Tejada, another starting farmer, moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic in the late 1990s, speaking no English. Tejada needed a stable job, and found one at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. While working for a fishmonger there, Tejada discovered the New Farmer Development Program, now named the Beginning Farmer Program. The program provides resources for start-up farmers and, at the time, offered community garden plots in the Bronx.
Tejada’s interest was piqued. On his days off, he grew tomatoes in a planter box at the garden. Still working his market job, Tejada met an Amish farmer who needed help on his upstate land. Tejada accepted his offer.
“When I first went there, I was the only non-Amish person on the whole farm. That’s when I started really making myself speak English.” That is also when Tejada began to fall in love with farming. By 2001, he’d saved enough money to rent land for his own farm, which he named Conuco.
The Spanish word conuco, Tejada explains, evokes the kind of small, working-class farm his grandparents owned when he was young––a small parcel of land where they grew cassava and sweet potatoes to both eat and sell at market.
“It used to be the happiest time,” says Tejada, remembering all the weekends he spent at their farm. “I got to run free and climb the trees to find the ripest mangoes, and the perfect tangerines.”
Tejada has his own connection to ginger. “I want my farm to be different and unique, and to offer things that are healthy,” he says. “Healthy is my drive.” When he saw ginger, a plant he recognized from the Dominican Republic to have healing benefits, Tejada was intrigued. He first noticed the plant in the yard of a local herbalist and healer in the DR. “She had three different types of ginger growing. It blew my mind. I tasted it and I was, like, ‘Oh, this is different.’ One is bitter and white. One is mild, another is yellow and strong.” When Tejada got back to New York, he started researching whether it would be possible to grow ginger in New York.
For the farmers behind Conuco and Et Cetera, growing ginger in New York has proven to be possible, if challenging. “It’s risky.” Tejada says. Instead of growing his ginger in a high tunnel––a tall row of plastic hoops covered with strong plastic––he opted to grow ginger in the fields. Several years ago, without the added protection of the high tunnel, an early frost killed his entire crop. “It can come out OK, or it can also be a disaster.”
Park and Yuk started their ginger operation outside as well. But as Yuk recalls, “When you have a wet, cold summer, it just doesn’t work.” Sometimes, Park explains, even the protection of their high tunnel is not enough to ensure a good season. Before the ginger can be transplanted into the fields or high tunnel, the rhizomes must be germinated (or “babysat,” Park says) in a dark, warm place. “For several years, we had rotten rhizomes,” Park recalls. “Because we cover them, we don’t know whether it’s rotting or not.”
Amy Ivy, a vegetable specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, recently started exploring how ginger might best serve growers in New York. “Ginger,” she explains, “wants to be in Hawaii; it doesn’t want to be in New York. By October, in Northern New York, we don’t much resemble Hawaii, so we harvest before it freezes.”
As soon as the ginger leaves begin to turn brown and dry, the plant is ready to be picked. Months younger than the version harvested in Hawaii, the roots of New York ginger are too young to develop a hard peel. It is not yet fibrous, and is sweeter and less spicy than its more mature (and hardier) tropical counterpart.
Among the customers who look forward to this locally grown ginger is Marianne Courville, co-owner of The Hudson Standard, a manufacturer of small-batch cocktail bitters and shrubs based in Hudson.
“I wanted the flavors to shout Hudson Valley,” Courville says. Last year, she ordered 15 pounds of fresh ginger from Et Cetera Farm. Pear-honey-ginger, the first bitters flavor she crafted, was a huge success.
Downriver, in Croton-On-Hudson, The Blue Pig ice cream shop uses the local ginger to make Fresh Ginger, one of their most popular flavors. “We frequent farmers’ markets every Saturday and Sunday, and are always on the lookout for flavors to go in our ice cream,” says Lisa Moir, the shop’s owner. When she first saw local ginger on a farmer’s display, Moir did a double take and walked back to the stand. She had to try it.
After Park, Yuk and Tejada have fulfilled the demand for their ginger, there’s always some leftover. For Park and Yuk, this means jars of spicy kimchi. Tejada has taken to drying and powdering his leftover ginger, with plans to market it in the future.
In 2017, weather was good to the ginger. Of the four varieties Tejada planted, the Lemon Rainbow was his favorite. When I visited the fields of Conuco Farm, Tejada fell to his knees and pulled up a stalk of it. With a small knife––it’s always strapped to his belt––Tejada cut into the root. The ginger’s cross section is a vivid spectrum of pink, orange and yellow. Tejada smiled and shook the fist holding his ginger. “It’s really, really good.”
Note: these reference to Hudson Valley Standard Bitters will be changing.