Ingrained: An Ancient African Rice-Growing Tradition in Ulster Park
“I told him, ‘You’re crazy, we can’t grow rice here!’” says farmer Dawn Hoyte with a self-deprecating grin. She’s standing in the grass next to one of Ever-Growing Family Farm’s many rice paddies, the hot sun beating down and the slender, green rice plants reaching up from the water to wave in the welcoming breeze. Not surprisingly, Hoyte has since conceded that her initial assessment was wrong and her husband, Nfamara Badjie, was right. The evidence surrounds her in the couple’s small farm in Ulster Park.
The couple purchased the property in 2013 with the intention of farming it. “But it was so wet—like a swamp,” says Hoyte. Fortunately, Badjie, who grew up growing rice in a tiny village in Gambia, was far from discouraged. Although most farmers would eye the marshy, clay-laden soil with doubt, Badjie knew it was a blessing—a perfect place to grow rice.
Armed with a traditional, long-handled shovel called a “kajandu,” Badjie, his three sons, Malick, 23, Modou, 15, and Abibou, 12, and his good friend and farming partner Moustapha “Tapha” Diedhiou began the process of digging down into the heavy soil and building up a berm to create the paddies. The work was intensely demanding, but it was work they knew and loved. The Badjies and Diedhiou are all members of the Jola, a tribe of master rice growers in the Casamance region of West Africa that spans parts of Senegal, Gambia and Guinea Bissau. “It’s like rice is in their DNA—they can tell what kind it is and how long it’s been stored just by looking at it,” says Hoyte.
Rice is Life
It’s impossible to overstate how important rice is to the Jola, an egalitarian tribe whose people believe they were born to cultivate rice. They view their labors in the fields as their half of the bargain they’ve made with their primary deity, Ata Emit, who is known as “The Master-Owner of the Universe” and rewards their hard work with rain. Rice defines every aspect of Jola life—culinary, social, economic and religious. It’s eaten at every meal—sometimes it is the meal. “If you haven’t eaten rice, you haven’t eaten,” is a common saying in parts of West Africa.
While Badjie and his sons were busy slicing out chunks of heavy, wet earth from the farmland with the kajandu and stacking them to form the sides of the fledgling paddy, Hoyte read everything she could find about rice farming. “Everything I know comes from a book. None of the guys have ever read a word about it but they’re like encyclopedias of rice farming,” she says.
One of the biggest surprises to the family was the discovery that procuring rice seed proved far more challenging than creating a place to plant it. “Rice is a commodity, which means that the government controls it—it’s not like buying tomato seeds,” explains Hoyte, who wrote to the USDA to request some of the precious seed. “They sent us about two tablespoons—that’s not very much,” she says with a grimace.
Perhaps more discouraging, most of the growers they met at rice conferences were not inclined to share information and had an unpleasant tendency to talk down to Badjie whose English is heavily accented. But things turned around when they met Erik Andrus of Boundbrook Farm—110 acres of gloriously soggy clay bottomlands located in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, where he and his wife, Erica, grow rice and raise ducks in a fascinating integrated system that traces its origins to Japan. Unlike the other more circumspect growers, Andrus was friendly and generous with both his knowledge and his seed.
The first year, the Ever-Growing team built and planted two paddies, saving every bit of the rice they harvested for seed. The second year, they built two greenhouses in which to start the seedlings and added several more paddies. After flooding the paddies, they planted four varieties of rice: Akitakomachi and Koshihikari, two high-end, short-grain varieties from northern Japan; Duborskian, a sweet, nutty, short-grain rice from upland Russia; and last but not least, Ceenowa, the pretty, red heirloom rice that the Jola have been growing along West Africa’s aptly named “Rice Coast” for centuries. When cooked, the Ceenowa grains turn a beautiful, light purple.
Ceenowa and other varieties of African rice (Oryza glaberrima) are a different species of rice from the many varieties of Asian rice (Oryza sativa) grown around the world. Independently domesticated in the Niger Delta roughly 3,500 years ago from a wild rice that still grows in Sub-Saharan Africa, it has been quickly declining in recent years. Well-meaning NGOs and global market forces have combined to push Asian rice, which tends to mature more quickly and produce higher yields, albeit with a lower protein content than its African counterparts. The Jola are the primary guardians of Oryza glaberrima at this point, although many of them have also switched to growing the Asian varieties. Back in Badjie’s village, his parents were strict believers in the superiority of their native rice. “If you were cooking that rice you buy in the store (from China or Pakistan), my father could just smell it and he’d say, ‘I don’t want it—it’s not healthy,’” says Badjie.
In late September, when the rice was ready to pick, the family invited their friends, CSA members and neighbors to the farm for a harvest party. Badjie and Diedhiou donned their colorful Jola costumes, got out their drums and proceeded to teach everyone how to harvest rice to the beat of their traditional rhythms. “This way we have more fun, and the singing gives us more energy. It’s also a competition— nobody wants to be left behind, so everyone works harder and faster,” explains Badjie, showing me a video of the harvest on his phone. If I squint my eyes and ignore the teenager with the blue hair, I can believe I’m watching a harvest filmed in Gambia or Senegal. Once the rice is cut, it has to dry. Finding enough dry places where the birds could not pilfer the harvest was a bit of a challenge. Eventually, rice covered every available surface on the property, including the interior of the house. “You should have seen our living room, it looked like it was covered with a fringe,” remembers Hoyte. When the rice was dry, they separated some to use for seed the next year, loaded the rest into the car and drove it up to Boundbrook Farm in Vermont, where they paid Andrus a small fee to use the rice milling machine he had imported from China. They experimented with various degrees of milling, sending some of the rice through the machine once to create brown rice, preserving the hull and bran layer of the grain, and some through three times to create white rice as well as milling some of each variety twice to create what the Japanese call “haiga mai”—a half-brown, half-white rice that some studies indicate may be even more nutritious than brown rice because the nutrients are easier to digest.
After five hours with Andrus’s little machine, the Ever-Growing crew had over 200 pounds of freshly milled rice. Back at home on the farm, Hoyte and the boys packed the rice into bags, carefully labeling each one with a pretty, handmade label. In keeping with tradition, they gave some of it away—the Jola version of Social Security. “You’re supposed to give some away before you sell it, even before you eat it,” explains Badjie. “It goes to whoever needs it, usually the elderly and the poor,” adds Diedhiou. They gave one bag to each of their CSA members and sold the rest through word of mouth—to rave reviews. Freshly milled rice is especially tasty: nutty, fragrant, sweet and toothsome.
Encouraged, they decided to double their CSA membership in 2016 to provide the funds needed to purchase some essential equipment, including a BCS rotary plow that 23-year-old Malick has made good use of, adding several new paddies. “If you do it right, supposedly you can get between two and three tons of rice per acre. We’re not there yet, clearly,” laughs Hoyte, “but they’re very ambitious and they really know rice.” Badjie is a quiet, soft-spoken man of 46 with a ready smile and a gentle manner. Whenever he talks about rice, I am struck by both the confidence and the passion he projects. The same holds true for Diedhiou.
“We want to extend over here and over there,” says Diedhiou, pointing beyond the paddock that houses the family of goats and one ornery ram, to an area next to a row of corn. “But it’s hard because it’s so dry this year.” The drought this summer forced them to hire an excavator to dig an irrigation pond to capture the crucial offerings of one of the streams that runs through the property. Amazingly, the vegetables they planted for the CSA grew well without being watered. “It’s a testament to how wet the ground is here most of the time,” says Hoyte as she lifts the row cover to show me a bunch of beautiful lettuces.
In addition to the rice, they grow a wide variety of vegetables. There are all the usual CSA box fillers—corn, broccoli, cabbage, lettuces, carrots, kale, squash, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, garlic, beets, herbs, turnips and more, as well as a number of less-common Asian greens like mizuna, tatsoi, bekana and yokatta. They also grow certain foods that the West African members of the family consider essential—hot peppers, onions, okra, eggplant and hibiscus (also known as sorrel in the Caribbean and West Africa). Although the hibiscus leaves are edible, the plant’s main attraction is its showy flowers, which dry to make a deliciously tart, deep fuchsia tea that is known by different names in different parts of the world. In West Africa, they often add a little sugar, ginger and mint to the dark red tea they call “bissap,” which is so popular that it’s considered the national drink of Senegal.
At mealtimes, naturally rice is always on the menu, served with stir-fried vegetables and a variety of rich, spicy sauces featuring peanuts and palm nuts that draw their inspiration from the cuisine of Gambia and Senegal. Once a year, Badjie and sons harvest a goat to supplement their meals, although Hoyte, who has been a vegetarian for decades, does not partake. The chickens stalking around the property provide fresh eggs that are enjoyed by all.
A Labor of Love
As with most small-scale farmers, the adults also work full time off the farm; Hoyte is an offender rehabilitation coordinator in a prison, working four 10-hour days in order to devote three full days to the farm, trading her professional attire for a pair of dusty construction boots and well-used gloves. Badjie works in the buildings and grounds department at the Woodstock Day School, and Diedhiou is a house painter and drum teacher. Putting in several hours of weeding, digging and harvesting after a 10-hour workday sounds exhausting to me, but it’s clearly a labor of love. For Badjie and Diedhiou, it also appears to be an essential link to a heritage they hold dear, as well as to the people and pasts they left behind when they came to the U.S. As we lean against the fence made from recycled wood pallets, Badjie affectionately ruffles the dirty wool of the naughty ram. “My family has grown rice forever. I’m never gonna give this up,” says Diedhiou.
Badjie will not let me leave empty handed—another Jola tradition. As I drive home with a bag of rice and a shopping bag full of kale, all I can think about is coming back to help with the harvest at the end of September.
EVER GROWING FAMILY FARM
115 Union Center Road, Ulster Park