Photos by Tom Wallace
Well, we knew the writing was terrific, so it's no surprise Rick Nelson's story on the Kenyan farmers near Lake Pepin landed in "Best Food Writing 2011," edited by Holly Hughes. You can read the story, published last September, below or, of course, in the book.
From Kenya, with love // To feed themselves and their community, a hard-working East African couple raises their native vegetables on a Wisconsin farm.
MAIDEN ROCK, WIS.
From the road, the small farm resembles its neighbors, at least at first glance: a weathered red barn, a well-kept yard, a few hard-working vehicles parked in the gravel driveway.
But unlike the rest of the fields lining the hilly river valley a few miles east of the Mississippi River, this acreage is tended by elegant African women, their figures wrapped in vividly patterned fabrics to keep the insects at bay. Look closer and you'll see that bedrock of American agriculture's neat-freakishness -- strict, militaristic rows of monoculture crops -- has been willfully cast aside for a melange of plants seemingly spreading out, willy nilly. Look even closer and wonder: Just what the heck are they growing, anyway?
Chinsaga. Rinagu. Egesare. The Kisii-language names of these East African greens roll off the tongues of farmers Albert and Sarah Nyamari like operatic lyrics. The couple, aided by an extended clan of fellow Kenyan family members and friends, are cultivating a dozen or so greens and other vegetables that may be unfamiliar to American eyes and taste buds but, "are like hamburgers to us," said Albert.
To the uninitiated, it's tough to discern what's a weed and what isn't, at least until one of the women working nearby starts quickly plucking finger-sized leaves off a knee-high plant, deftly stuffing them into paper bags.
"Chinsaga," said Albert, passing a handful for a taste. It's chewy and slightly bitter, and while the leaves can be eaten raw, they're usually boiled until tender, and often sauteed with onions and tomatoes.
"For Kenyans, nothing is cooked unless it has tomatoes," said Sarah with a laugh.
Teardrop-shaped rinagu looks and grows a bit like basil, and for Kenyan cooks it's the most versatile of the three staple greens. "It's tastier, more tender," said Sarah. "You can get more recipes from it."
A stretch of egesare, its diamond-shaped leaves a favorite for sweetening soups and stews, is the farm's prettiest field, each plant forming a gentle green dome; hundreds of them create a kind of bubbled carpet. "This is how I see it in Kenya," said Albert. The plants' root structure thrives when it has room to spread out, rather than forced into neat rows, so its haphazard beauty only accentuates the dull predictability of linear, by-the-book agriculture. Grant Wood would have never painted this farm. His loss.
A growing market
Albert estimates that there are 7,000 to 10,000 Kenyans living in the the Twin Cities, far away from their native home, their families, their foods. Many are gardeners, but no one, at least locally, is growing beloved Kenyan staples on the Nyamaris' scale, and certainly not on a commercial basis.
The couple don't sell through traditional farmers market channels, or via the Community Supported Agriculture farm-share model. Instead, theirs is strictly word-of-mouth marketing, filling orders from more than 100 customers ("people see me and they see vegetables," said Sarah with a laugh) as conditions on the farm dictate. Demand is so great that there's a waiting list.
Other crops include a variety of spinach called emboga, and dark green pumpkins called omwongo that thrive under a protective canopy of weeds and are prized for their enormous squash, hand-sized leaves and sweet seeds. Amarabwoni, a white sweet potato, could be the farm's Next Big Thing; while his fellow East Africans favor its crunchy root, Albert plans to cultivate a larger crop next year to cater to West Africans and Asians, who prefer its leaves.
Most of the farm's initial seeds were sourced out of an expensive California-based specialist, but Albert cannily supplemented his inventory by foraging, post-harvest, in Minneapolis community gardens, searching for familiar plants among Kenyan gardeners. With permission, of course.
Lake Pepin via Kenya
The farm is a unique partnership. The land, a series of basketball court-sized fields tucked up against steeply wooded hills, belongs to Marge Lorayne and her late partner Helen Johnson. The two couples met several years ago when Albert, then a hospice worker, was caring for Lorayne's dying son. At the time, Albert was farming a small rented plot near Zimmerman, Minn., but the arrangement wasn't working out. Lorayne's son asked his mother to find a place on her underused Wisconsin acreage for the part-time farmer who was making his last days comfortable.
She agreed, but was unsure how to proceed. "I knew that there would be a lot of cultural things that would come up," said Lorayne. "We sit down and talk about them, and then we laugh. We laugh a lot."
This is how close the families have become: the Nyamaris' three children call Lorayne "Grandma," and Sarah calls her "Mum." "We're close," said Lorayne. "We're family."
Their first encounter was something of a baptism by fire. Lorayne and Johnson returned from a party at midnight to unexpectedly find 15 Kenyans crowded into their kitchen, using every knife in the house to carve a goat on the kitchen table. "What else could we do but join in?" said Lorayne with a laugh. "It was fabulous. There was singing and dancing and they wouldn't let us go to sleep without eating their food. That was our opening with them, and since then, there have been a thousand wonderful, delightful things."
That was three years ago. With each growing season, Albert has ambitiously expanded, tilling more land, adding more crops. He handles the planning, plowing, planting and weeding (their produce isn't certified organic, but the Nyamaris steer clear of chemical fe
rtilizers and pesticides), while the painstaking picking process is strictly women's work. "Men are more slow," said Sarah with a laugh. "They don't have the patience to get one leaf at a time."
Many of the women harvesting at the farm are the mothers of Sarah's friends, visiting from Kenya. "They're used to doing this every single day at home," said Sarah. "It's a pleasure for them. Watching TV is not their thing."
That the industrious Nyamaris find the time to farm at all is something of a mystery. Along with raising their three young children, Albert, 34, who grew up on a farm, just launched Kastone Mobility Services, his own patient transport business. Sarah, 32,
works as a nurse and is also in school, working toward an advanced nursing degree.
Their carefully planned commute to the farm from their Brooklyn Park home is a 90-minute drive, although they make the trip so frequently that "it now feels like 10 minutes to me," said Albert with a laugh. Still, any time in the car is time not tending to the land, and each trip is viewed as an escape from the pressures and sounds of urban life. The family's long-term goal is to relocate to their own farm in the Lake Pepin area and expand the business they are so carefully nurturing.
"I don't want to let this opportunity pass me by," said Albert. "Always my blood is at the farm."