Growing Rice in the Hudson Valley the Jola Way With Ever-Growing Farm
Back in 2013, when Dawn Hoyte’s new husband, Nfamara Badjie, announced that he wanted to grow rice in New York State, she told him, “You are crazy; we can’t grow rice in New York!” Born in Queens, New York, she couldn’t yet envision the potential he held to pioneer a crop in the Hudson Valley. Still, Nfamara was determined. He was originally invited to come here by a musicologist from UC San Diego who had studied Bougarabou in Gambia with Nfamara who, as Dawn explained, “Is one of a few living masters of that type of drumming.” Nfamara arrived in the US on an artist’s visa, performing and giving workshops as a Bougarabou drummer and taught briefly at UC San Diego before moving to the Bronx where he sometimes sold items on the street or did manual labor. In his heart though, he carried a love and knowledge of farming that went back generations. “The Jola (Diola) tribe in Gambia are famous for growing rice,” Dawn explained.
They bought a 6-acre property in Ulster Park with a house just big enough for their combined family. When they realized the land was very wet, Nfamara said it would be perfect for realizing his dream of growing rice. Dawn researched, studied, and learned about a few farmers growing rice in New England. Nfamara and his African circle of sons and friends did not know about growing in this zone, about frost dates or finding and choosing varieties that could be grown here. What they brought, though, was a thorough and ancient knowledge of rice cultivation. The challenge was adjusting those practices to the New York climate. Dawn sourced the seeds, then taught the farmers about things like agribon and hoop houses.
Nfamara worked tirelessly with his wife, their son Malick, a cousin named Moustapha Diedhiou who also devoted himself to the project, and a few African friends who were also musicians and knew how to grow and harvest in their traditional ways. The Ever-Growing Farm was born!
Dawn told Inside+Out, “Because these farmers have grown up in Africa and really know rice, they can simply push a fingernail into a grain and know if we’re doing things right. They know the varieties just by looking. After so many years and growing rice for generations and passing on that knowledge…it’s a really big asset we have.”
They have also been supported by their other children, grandchildren, and many volunteers who are now a part of a tradition. “We’ve had wonderful volunteers and allies including Dave Llewellyn who is the Director of a farm business incubator program called Glynwood, an agricultural non-profit in Cold Spring, NY as well as the Rondout Valley Growers Association. There has been a wonderful woman mechanic who has come here to fix things named Sarah Groat. The Bruderhof in Rifton has also been incredible. We have some people who have come every year since the beginning in 2013. That’s been one of the most rewarding parts of this, a true community that has formed with people who have maintained relationships with others they met on the farm.
As explained on the Ever-Growing Farm’s website, “For three years they ran a CSA as they expanded the rice paddies and grew more varieties of rice seed. During the early years, the family did everything by hand, the way they do in Africa. Using a special shovel brought from Senegal called a kajandu, they dug paddies, transplanted each seedling by hand, harvested with sickles, threshed by beating the stalks for weeks, winnowed by tossing the rice in the wind.”
Still, their journey has not been without obstacles.
Dawn said, “You simply can’t buy quantity of commercial seed anywhere in the Northeast. And it takes two years to produce enough heritage seed to grow viably on a small plot roughly an eighth or a quarter of an acre in size. Fedco Seeds out of Maine, and in recent years a few other producers, will sell very small quantities but it is cost prohibitive for commercial growing. The USDA seed bank will only issue a teaspoon of seed because that’s how they test for trial plots and they do have heirloom varieties. Again, though, it was simply not enough.” They have since expanded their seed bank to include varieties from Japan, Korea, South America, Chile, Italy. Dawn added, “We also have black rice from China, varieties from Africa and some Nepalese. We have about 12 varieties of seeds that are viable now. The one that takes the longest to grow, but is delicious, is Koshihikari which takes 140 days from seed to harvest.”
Acquiring and establishing a bank of seeds was one hurdle…and there have been plenty of others.
In spite of being love-fueled, they were underfunded and short on time. “Everyone on our team is farming but they have also been holding full time jobs. They just haven’t had enough time to do it. Also, it’s been very difficult getting or even finding equipment that is appropriate for small farming, especially not really small scale rice farming in the US. So, we’ve been slowly importing equipment from Japan: a rice combine and a milling machine.” They were able to do this after meeting another small-scale rice farmer in Vermont, named Erik Andrus of Boundbrook Farm, who also gave them some seedlings. When the friendship first emerged, they would drive their harvest all the way “…to Andrus’s farm to mill on Erik’s machine. Each year, all of the profits went back into buying equipment. Unlike much of the world, in America, equipment for small-scale rice farmers is unavailable as rice cultivation is in the hands of agribusiness. Andrus sourced and imported used equipment from Japan for the farm.” That connection would eventually lead to making some of the arduous and time consuming processes a bit easier. “Erik has been a real source of help over the years. He spent time living in Japan and was then importing used equipment so we shared a container with items he sourced there.”
When they started they did absolutely everything by hand…now only most of it.
“We start the seeds in a greenhouse or protected environment. After 4-6 weeks, we hand transplanted the seedlings. That meant standing in 2’ of mud, then pushing the seedlings in. Now there’s a transplant machine, very small scale, but first we experimented with making our own versions.” When asked if all their homemade machines worked, Dawn said, “Well, they worked but not optimally and it was all still very time consuming. One was like a 4-wheeled bicycle thing.” This was inspired by one Josh Brill had designed and made in America: “A bicycle powered thresher for rice made specifically for small scale farming because,” Dawn explained, “There are threshing and milling machines available in the US for wheat but not for rice. Now that we have a threshing machine–which is a small rice combine from Japan–it’s changed our life. We previously spent 1000’s and 1000’s of hours just banging the rice on the ground or beating the rice on the walls. We had a metal shipping container with wires on the wall and the men would be beating the rice for hours and hours. My living room had a fringe of rice around the edge of the room to dry it on the heater. We screened in the porch to keep the birds out. Our sons bedroom was full of rice threshing. Some of the long time volunteers would come up for the weekends and sit around the bedroom beating it and on metal lawn furniture. It was really crazy. We hand stamped muslin bags and the kids all participated in packaging and weighing it all,” Dawn said, laughing about their adventures, but then got serious about more of the hurdles.
“One year our greenhouse collapsed which was really expensive to rebuild. And there’s no kind of weeding machine, so that can be a big problem. Ducks are great for weeding, but the job always requires so many ducks to do the job we need, that they become unmanageable. Then we have to harvest most of the crops by hand because the areas are too wet for a combine (harvester) and it gets stuck. So we work mostly with sickles, the old-fashioned way. After the rice is cut, then you have to thresh it by pounding it, or you put it in a combine.”
She continued, “We used to drive all the way to Vermont to a friend to get the husks off. It’s all a very long and labor-intensive process. Cutting and drying it, pounding it. Threshing is a very hard thing. We also tried to create other machines for threshing since there are no small-scale rice threshing machines. We repurposed a wood chipper, then created a different machine from a ceiling fan inside a shipping barrel!”
They recently got a transplanting machine, which has helped tremendously. That machine, “has tweezers and puts in all in the ground- and you can even set the density and distance between plantings- but because of the mechanism the plants have to be a little older than we would normally plant by hand.” But as she explained, “Hand transplanting is really labor intensive: you’re bending over for hours, your boots get stuck in the thick knee-deep mud, so you have to be barefoot, but still, you often fall over….” On top of all that, to get white rice from brown, “You need to polish it which takes even longer.” One of their current needs is a bigger polisher for greater efficiency.
And still, there is so much passion…
In Nfamara Badjae’s words in a beautiful short video about the farm, “I am happy to be a farmer here in America. I came all the way from Africa, Gambia to get here to be a farmer. This is what we know. Grow what you eat; eat what you grow. Bend down, check this, turn the soil. That’s how our parents teach us to live, that’s why we never forget this.” And that wisdom has the potential for great benefits to the earth and the farmer alike- especially if well supported.
In the same video, Erika Styger of Cornell Cooperative explained how growing rice in the Northeast and much of America, “…is a novelty. But for immigrants, it’s like, ‘Let me try the crop I know in a different environment.’” She has worked closely with Nfamara and his family for many years, helping them to receive a SARE grant, working as a technical advisor, and establishing most effective practices by closely monitoring and comparing Jola styles of farming with Japanese traditional ways. She added, “And out of one grain you can create a big harvest with less water and less seeds–sometimes 90% less seed and 30-50% less irrigation water. So they can produce more with much less.” The sustainability implications are important to take notice with this type of hybrid-farming practice. We can learn a lot from many cultures around the world.
Come one, come all!
There were only three core farmers on their team until now: Nfamara, Malick (one of his sons who has also caught the rice growing passion) and Moustapha (who has a house painting business). They had all been fully employed elsewhere. They used to spend every night and weekend working on the crops. Dawn is now retired from the full-time work she did in Program Services in three different prisons where she supervised two counseling units. She is now engaged in criminal justice reform. Still, she has always helped whenever and however she could on the farm. Other friends have supported me in important ways, including drumming on planting and harvest days to keep the energy high and honor the crops. Dawn said, “It’s a lot of work to process it all, and we just don’t have much time. So there are volunteer days and we welcome community support. We make harvest and transplant days fun community events. There’s drumming, dance and we teach the traditional African ways of harvesting and planting, as well as the songs, which are all some of the most important tools that have carried over.”
In the NPR story about the farm, Karen Michel described her experience at the farm this way: “Drummers accompany the harvest, celebrating, encouraging the scythe-wielding workers to keep cutting. Dawn Hoyte and I are walking, mucking, through the squishy, slightly raised areas between the 15 or so paddies, waterlogged patches of rice plants, their tassels protruding. This isn’t your supermarket generic rice.”
Dawn had said, “With climate change now, the Northeast is getting warmer and wetter. And we have a lot of land that would be considered marginal land that would be perfect for rice paddies.” Still, the yield can be uncertain and hasn’t garnered enough financially to allow the team to grow full time and quit their “real jobs.” In their video, Nfamara said, “I hear people have off days for relaxing but me and Mustapha and Malick, we don’t have those days.”
Still, the family is optimistic, allowing their appreciation for their connection to the land to come through, while also openly admitting their challenges. “It’s fun, but this hasn’t exactly been a sustainable business model,” Dawn said, laughing. On Ever-Growing Farm’s site’s home page are the words, “It was a hard year and we have very limited quantities. Last year we had torrential rains; this year drought diminished yields. We also saved a lot of seed because the good news is that next year we will be expanding and cultivating additional acreage in Kerhonkson!!!”
“We look forward to the day that we can meet local demand for this basic staple. In the meanwhile, we are continuing to grow out seed stocks of heritage rice and expanding our varieties. God-willing, next year we will be offering: black rice, a high-protein Indian red rice, mochi rice, Korean rice, long grain Chilean rice and sake rice.” They went on to say, “We are in debt to our community for the abundant supply of support we have been provided.”
When speaking to Inside + Out, Dawn said with a chuckle, “And now we’re trying to pass this all on to the next generation because we’re old.”
Dawn spoke reticently about her own important roles in growing the endeavor. Eventually, she shared that she, “Has taken care of all the paperwork, networking, ordering, packaging, and planning over the years.” In fact, it would never have happened without her efforts. Now, rather than focusing on work in the prisons as well as being hands-on with the farm, she is, “Supporting our son Malick in becoming a successful independent farmer. I am also focusing on myself…creating, volunteering, writing, traveling, since I raised and took care of eight children.
We’re excited that our eldest son, Malick, has recently taken over, bringing the former family DBA to a new level, starting his own LLC. Thanks to a recent grant, he will be devoting himself full-time to farming this year and not just small patties piece by piece.” There’s another important reason why they need support and to pass on the strenuous physical work: Malick’s father and head farmer at Ever-Growing, Nfamara Badjae, was also the maintenance worker at the Woodstock Day School for more than ten years. Sadly, he was hit by a car in the school parking lot last year and can no longer work. “He’s currently back in Africa recovering with traditional healing ways. We are hoping he will be well enough to maintain the experimental plots on our property soon.” We do too.
Want to come volunteer?
Volunteering opportunities during the transplanting season from May 25th to June 15th and/or Harvest Season around October 1st every year are a great way to get involved in your local farming community and get back to Mother Earth! If interested, please email them at [email protected]. Or, if you would just like to contribute to their cause, please send checks to: Ever-Growing Farm LLC and send to: 115 Union Center Road, Ulster Park NY 12487. Thank you!
Connect with Ever-Growing Farm on Facebook | website
Their rice is also available for sale on their website (during/after harvest season).
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Thank you, Brian, for your beautiful photos!
Brian Coppede: Photographer | Director in New York and San Francisco
Contact Brian for assignments: (917) 620-7014 | bryancoppede.com