Food from home is one of the things immigrants miss most, and newcomers to Massachusetts, host to an estimated 150,000 transplanted Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Mexicans, are no exception. Recently the campus’s Ethnic Crops Program, which has brought dozens of crops popular among many ethnic groups to markets across the state, added chipilín, a leafy green loved by Latinos from many lands.
Frank Mangan, director of the ethnic crops initiative at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, says farms in Methuen, Dracut, Lancaster and Amesbury shipped 2,000 pounds of chipilín in recent weeks to farmers’ markets, bodegas and supermarkets in the Boston area, particularly East Boston and Chelsea, where the fresh, locally grown greens are snapped up by immigrant families hungry for familiar vegetables and produce.
“Figuring out how to grow something that hasn’t been grown here before, especially crops that people want, the healthy home-country food they really miss, is exciting,” says Mangan. “It’s a challenge, and some crops have been a complete bust. But then we have a success like chipilín and it is really fun. Now we have several growers producing it at farms around Boston. We found the farms and the markets and set up all the connections. The farmer can rely on us for that. ”
Now the Stockbridge School’s ethnic foods project is expanding to bring chipilín to immigrants in Western Massachusetts. This month Zoraia Barros, a Brazilian doctoral student, launched a promotional campaign to introduce chipilín grown at the Deerfield Research Farm to markets in Holyoke and Springfield. She helped to produce a commercial for a popular Latino radio station announcing its availability in two stores. Mangan reports, “They sold out the first week and have ordered more, which is a great sign of success. Plans are already underway to increase production on local farms to supply these markets for 2013 and beyond.”
The extension professor estimates that since 2002, more than $5 million worth of crops never before grown in Massachusetts have been introduced to commercial farmers in the state by the ethnic crops program. These include foods popular among Brazilians, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans such as jiló, calabaza, maxixe and water spinach, plus several prized by Asian immigrant groups.
Mangan, a fluent Spanish speaker, recalls first learning that immigrants yearned for favorite foods from home when he was working with Nuestras Raices (“Our Roots”), a Puerto Rican community group in Holyoke in 1995. He and colleagues started small then, planting ají dulce and calabaza at the 200-acre Deerfield Research Farm to test for best varieties and growing conditions. Since then more than 50 different varieties of ethnic crops have been evaluated by the crops program.
In the case of chipilín, Mangan began studying it in 2006 after a visit to an El Salvador farm. Back in Massachusetts, he found it offered only frozen in Latino markets, and customers told him they’d love to buy it fresh. Starting with just five plants he brought from El Salvador with permission of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mangan and several graduate and undergraduate students began experiments at the research farm to discover whether this truly tropical plant would grow in New England. They also studied it to learn its soil, water and nutrient requirements, best pest management and fertility rates.
At times since those first plants arrived in 2006, there have been as many as 40,000 chipilín plants growing at the research farm where students grew, harvested and packed the first crops for market. Meanwhile, Mangan had made connections with inner-city outlets for it and other ethnic produce. After determining the viability of both production and market for chipilín, it was introduced to commercial farmers.
At present at the Deerfield farm, students continue to conduct experiments to see if this legume will grow symbiotically with a nitrogen-fixing bacterial inoculant, Rhizobia, which could provide nitrogen to the plant’s roots and dramatically reduce the amount of fertilizer needed.
With Massachusetts cities home to many immigrant groups, Mangan and colleagues have taken the lead on collaborative projects to research and market crops used by Latino, Portuguese-speaking and Asian populations here and in the region. “With the growing diversity in the demographics of the state, growers are interested in taking advantage of these trends,” he points out. “This matches the needs of farmers who are searching for new marketing options.”