Ethnic Crops program expands
Meet Frank Mangan, a professor of plant, soil and insect sciences and the Johnny Appleseed for vegetables. He has spent the last 16 years finding ways to grow non-native crops so Massachusetts farmers can diversify their fields, immigrant groups get a taste of home, and those hungry for exotic foods can satisfy their palates.
His latest venture culminated in a new collaboration between UMass Amherst and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, the country’s top agricultural research agency. The agreement, signed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and UMass President Robert Caret, during a trade mission to Brazil in December, will not only bring Brazilian produce to grocery stores in Massachusetts but also recruit Brazilian graduate students to UMass Amherst. “We are very interested in bringing in researchers from Brazil who have expertise we don’t have,” says Mangan ’86, ’91G, ’98PhD.
During their growing season, Massachusetts farmers will supply popular Brazilian vegetables such as abóbora, a species of squash, jiló, a type of eggplant, and taioba, a leafy green. In the dormant season, the vegetables will come from Brazilian farmers as will tropical fruit and root crops. “By supplying consumers with fresh produce through the collaboration, it keeps demand for these crops year round, which will benefit Massachusetts farmers,” explains Mangan.
Mangan relies on international students for the Ethnic Crops program at the UMass Amherst Farm in South Deerfield. Through experiments, they determine the conditions needed for growing non-traditional vegetables. Once the science behind growing non-native vegetables is established, results are turned over to commercial farmers who use the new crops to boost their bottom line. The Ethnic Crop program includes marketing to immigrant groups and grocery chains such as Whole Foods Market.
Joseph Czajkowski ’80, a Hadley farmer who supplies the UMass Amherst dining services with local produce, says growing Brazilian squash has been good for business. In fact, he plans to double his acreage of organic abóbora next season.
In another initiative, Wes Autio ’82G ’85PhD, professor of pomology, in the department of plant, soil, and insect sciences, and Mangan are working on exporting Massachusetts apples to El Salvador and other Central American countries. This project grew out of the research from one of their graduate students and has been funded with a $40,000 grant from the state’s agricultural resources department. “We’re hoping to sell more than $1 million of apples a year in Central America,” says Mangan.