A Farmer Reclaims Liberian Roots in New Jersey
July 20, 2015
Morris Gbolo spends a lot of time thinking about the home-cooked dinners he and his wife, Ernestine, used to enjoy before they fled their home amid civil war in Liberia 12 years ago.
For Mr. Gbolo, 55, memories of mealtime in West Africa, where he was a farmer, have become a source of entrepreneurial inspiration and a way to make friends: As owner and operator of Morris Gbolo’s World Crops Farm, a 13-acre parcel in Buena Vista Township that he bought in January to grow the produce of his homeland (bitter ball, cassava), he hopes to help fellow transplants connect and feel closer to home.
“We love our native vegetables,” Mr. Gbolo said recently from the kitchen of his farmhouse, where Ms. Gbolo stirred a fragrant Liberian stew of chicken with farm-grown okra and hot peppers. “There’s a big Liberian community in the area, and I want to get them here. I want to feed them.”
Ethnic crops are a thriving business for small farmers in New Jersey, said Brian Schilling, an extension specialist in agricultural policy at Rutgers University’s Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics in New Brunswick. Farmers often focus on “high-value crops” like peaches and blueberries to remain “economically sustainable,” he explained, but niche markets, like West African produce, are also becoming more viable.
Richard VanVranken, a Rutgers agriculture agent in Atlantic County, said that word about the university’s ethnic crop work was spreading, in part from referrals by the state’s Agriculture Department. “I now get on average a call per week from new farmers or established growers exploring new ethnic markets from around the state and way beyond,” he said.
Mr. Gbolo said he considered Mr. VanVranken his mentor. “Rick has given me my courage,” he said. But Mr. Gbolo’s energy levels are all his own: In addition to his long hours of work on the farm, Mr. Gbolo still works full time as a night-shift counselor at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter.
Among the crops currently being cultivated at his farm are Liberian kittley, an eggplant the size of a cherry tomato whose leaves are also flavorful; bitter ball, a white eggplant about as big as a goose egg that, true to its name, has a bitter taste; and jute leaves, a green cooking vegetable to which Mr. Gbolo said medicinal properties are attributed in Africa. The ethnic produce, and about a dozen more common vegetables like tomatoes, will be ready for picking the first or second week of July and available until October, or until the first major frost stops production.
African vegetables are the newest on the ethnic crops scene, said Mr. VanVranken.
“Most of the farmers who settled in the Vineland area were of Italian descent,” he said. “They grow vegetables like escarole and endive.”
But in the last 20 years or so, New Jersey farmers started catering to expanding Chinese, Indian, Puerto Rican and Mexican immigrant communities with vegetables, fruits and grains, including baby bok choy, fenugreek, amaranth, purslane and habanero peppers.
Mr. Gbolo is one of the few farmers in the ethnic-crops business who allow the homesick to come and pick their own vegetables. Most farmers sell their produce directly to wholesalers and ethnic restaurants.
Mr. Gbolo first started welcoming customers five years ago, when he operated a small piece of land on B&B Farms in Egg Harbor City. Last summer was his first season on the Buena Vista Township farm, which he was then leasing. Fellow West Africans flocked to the fields, and he almost broke even after the first picking season, he said. “What happens is people tell other people. That’s how it takes off,” said Mr. Gbolo, who charges $1 per pound for his vegetables.
“I go to churches that African people go to in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania, in New York, and I leave my business card or a poster, and everybody finds out about it and they come and load up with big trucks,” he said.
And not just big trucks from the Northeast.
Victoria Marbey, of Manassas, Va., found out about Mr. Gbolo’s farm through her local farmers’ market last summer.
“I’m from Liberia, and I’m always looking for ways I can get the fresh vegetables I used to get,” Ms. Marbey said in a telephone interview.
“A lot of Liberian vegetables are grown in Jamaica, where they have the right tropical temperature and the right soil,” she said. “Then they fly them here,” a practice Mr. VanVranken confirmed.
“But they’re not as good as the ones that you can go pick right in the area,” she added.
Ms. Marbey, 49, used the pounds of bitter ball, kittley and peppers she bought at Mr. Gbolo’s farm last year to make a traditional Liberian vegetable gravy served over rice for her family. She also made a traditional bitter ball stew.
“I do a lot of stuff with bitter ball. You can bake it, or serve it with potato,” she said. Nigerians, she added, often eat bitter ball raw, with peanut butter. “Can you believe that?”
What non-African visitors to Morris Gbolo’s World Crop Farms might have a harder time believing is how his land, when it is teeming with customers, resembles Africa itself.
Mr. VanVranken said it was not uncommon to see women balancing full straw baskets on their heads in the fields.
“It’s a community for us,” Mr. Gbolo said. Those who cannot cook or are unfamiliar with the crops are not excluded from joining.
“If you don’t know what to do with something, you just go inside,” he said, pointing from the fields to his house. “Ernestine will give you a recipe.”
Source: By Tammy La Gorcejune - New York Times