Traditional Rice Farming Takes Root in the Hudson Valley
Farming today is often discussed in terms of how far it has advanced. The industry literature is inundated with tech buzzwords: Hydroponics. Vertical farming. Biodynamics. Yet, farming methods carry a history of the people that developed them and represent traditions that have persevered for generations.
In the Hudson Valley, for example, apples and grapes represent centuries of cultivation. The region is also no stranger to new projects, like budding hemp or hops farms. And then, there’s rice. Not a crop you often hear about in New York — and for good reason. Typically, grown in consistently warm, wet climates, it’s not thought to be adaptable to New York’s much shorter season.
But when Nfamara Badjie, born in The Gambia, and his wife, Dawn Hoyte, bought six-acre Ever-Growing Family Farm in Ulster Park in 2013, “I noticed that the soil was really wet,” says Hoyte. “My husband said, ‘This would be really good for growing rice,’ and I told him it was crazy. You can’t grow rice in New York.”
Before moving to the United States in 2005, Badjie had spent his whole life in Gambian rice fields. Like his distant cousin, Moustapha Diedhou (above), who also works on the farm, Badjie and his son, Malick, are members of the Jola tribe, which has a long, deep connection to rice farming. An ethnic group found in Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau, the Jola have based their economy on wet-rice cultivation for at least 1,000 years. Rice defines many aspects of Jola culture — culinary, social, economic, and even religious, with Jola people believing that, in exchange for their hard work as rice farmers, their deity, Ata Emit, will produce rain to ensure crops grow prosperously.
So skilled are Jola farmers, that, in the 17th century, South Carolina grew to be one of the wealthiest colonies prior to the American Revolution by exploiting enslaved Jola peoples. According to South Carolina archival records, around 20% of the enslaved Africans shipped into the Port of Charleston came from Senegambia. During the height of the slave trade, Africans who could farm rice were worth a higher dollar. “There’s a whole history based on people stolen from that tribe,” says Hoyte.
Convinced that their soil might support rice cultivation, Badjie and Hoyte launched the Hudson Valley Rice Project (HVRP) at Ever-Growing Family Farm. The first challenge wasn’t the climate; it was finding enough seeds. The USDA tightly controls rice as a commodity. “You can’t find the seeds commercially,” says Hoyte. “You can write to the U.S. Government seed bank and they’ll issue you a tablespoon.”
Luckily, Badjie befriended Erik Andrus of Vermont’s Boundbrook Farm at a rice conference, who turned out to be as generous with rice harvesting tips as he was with his supply of seed. For HVRP’s first season in 2014, Badjie and his family planted two paddies and saved everything for the next year’s seed.
Soaking starts in April for each year’s crop. Trays are seeded in protected nurseries or greenhouses a week later, and begin to be transferred to flooded paddies by mid-May. The original paddies were dug and leveled by hand, often using a kajundu, a traditional Jola tool that’s a cross between a spade and a shovel attached to a 12-foot pole.
HVRP has several types of rice currently under cultivation. This includes akitakomachi and koshihikari, popular Northern Japanese varieties enjoyed for their sticky and chewy characteristics. They also cultivate medium-grain arpa shali, Italian favorite arborio, and a beautiful African variety called ceenowa, which turns light purple when cooked. Next year, HVRP plans to try additional seeds, including black rice, a high-protein Indian rice, and sake and mochi rices.
Sharing the Jola’s extensive history is part of the mission behind the project. Badjie and Hoyte use the rice transplants in spring and the subsequent harvests in the fall as cultural lessons for anyone that wishes to join them. “People who come and volunteer eventually become like family members,” says Hoyte. “At all of our events, we try to educate people on how to grow rice, but also about the cultural aspects — sharing the African culture and the history of rice growing.”
The farmers demonstrate different styles of traditional rice cutting, and, in non-pandemic times, the farm hosts a big festival with African drumming and traditional songs. Attendees come from Ulster Park, but also from other parts of the Hudson Valley, New York City, and Westchester, including a Japanese family that’s attended the HVRP harvests for three years.
In February 2020, when Badjie went back to Africa, he found himself stuck there due to the pandemic. Hoyte feared the farm’s production would take a significant hit while he was away. But, with the help of the local community and the Northeast Farmers of Color network, an informal alliance of BIPOC-run farms including Soul Fire Farm, enough volunteers showed up and actually increased production.
All in all, the Hudson Valley Rice Project’s operation is a labor of community and love. They don’t sell commercially, only by word-of-mouth and through their CSA. Hudson Valley restaurateurs have even approached them, asking to buy their entire stock. They are all respectfully turned away. “We are selling to the community first,” says Hoyte.