Umebe Onyejekwe delighted in seeing ewedu, a leafy green also known as jute leaf or molokhia, growing at the University of Minnesota’s research fields in St. Paul.
The green is commonly used in the cooking of her native Nigeria, but she didn’t know it could grow in Minnesota, where she’s lived for the past 13 years. Having access to produce from West Africa would be a pleasure for older immigrants and help them save money on trips to specialty markets in other parts of the country.
“If we can grow our own produce here, it will be cheaper for us,” Onyejekwe said
That’s the goal of the University of Minnesota’s Community Plant Breeding Team, a group of graduate students at the Plant Breeding Center and Extension service staff. They are partnering with immigrant master gardeners to experiment with staple crops from around the world.
“We are trying to see which plants can be adapted to Minnesota,” said Isaías Ariza, a Ph.D. student at the U of M who volunteers with the group.
The Community Plant Breeding Team and Hennepin County Master Gardeners hosted an August 8 open house to share their knowledge, take questions, learn from members of the African diaspora in Minnesota, and enjoy a meal prepared using plants grown on site.
Attendees sampled vegetables like African basil, African eggplant, amaranth, bitterleaf, and waterleaf. They were able to take home seed packets, and information on growing crops available in English, Spanish and Swahili.
Some plants, like Ethiopian cabbage and spider wisp (also known as chinsaga) are doing well. Others like sugarcane and pineapple struggled.
“We probably grew the first sugarcane in Minnesota,” Ariza said, adding with a laugh that it didn’t really work.
Professor Rex Bernardo leads the group. A native of the Philippines, Bernardo likes to do two things when he goes home—see his parents and eat the produce he grew up with.
“That’s a powerful tug that reminds you of home,” Bernardo said.
He was inspired by stories he heard from people in Minnesota’s African diaspora community, who told him they’d travel to places like Seattle just to buy produce traditional to their native regions. The U of M’s Plant Breeding Center wanted to know more.
“We started with basically zero knowledge,” Bernardo said.
The science is exciting for Bernardo and his research group, but he said the students are also learning about how to reach people in the community and exchanging knowledge with farmers from other cultures.
The group is focusing on leafy vegetables, which in general do well in Minnesota. The challenge for varieties native to Africa is that Minnesota’s growing season is much shorter. The plants grow well, but may struggle to flower and seed before the weather cools. Three species that seem to be successful are jute mallow, spider wisp, and Ethiopian cabbage, Bernando said.
Vitalis Tita, a Minnesota farmer who grew up in Cameroon, came to see how the research team was doing. Tita raises African crops on his land in Montrose and Otsego.
The shorter growing season is a challenge, Tita said. He grows cassava, a tuber plant similar to yuca, but can’t get the actual tuber to develop by the end of the season. People buy and consume the plant’s leaves as well, but he’d like to develop it fully, which may take a greenhouse, he said.
Tita grows waterleaf and bitterleaf. But he was impressed by the U of M’s bitterleaf, which he said is a variety with a green stem that delivers the deep bitterness craved by many in the African diaspora. He hopes the research will help him and others learn how to extend the growing season to make more species thrive.
His crops are sought after, and he makes trips to Madison and Chicago to sell produce. Tita fields calls from all over the country seeking a taste of home, and will often blanch and freeze vegetables for customers who are far away.
“There’s a high, high demand for it,” Tita said.
Natalie Hoidal, a vegetable specialist with University of Minnesota Extension, said the biggest barrier for African farmers here is access to seed. Having seeds available in Minnesota can prevent people from getting in trouble if they try to bring seeds from abroad back into the United States. United States Customs and Border Protection has strict regulations on agricultural products entering the country, and will arrest and cite people who carry undeclared seeds.
The Plant Breeding Center is hoping to take on that risk of trial and error, and give people good information on what can do well and how to grow species from other parts of the world in Minnesota.
“It can be a lot of money for a lot of failure,” Hoidal said.