One Farmer’s Journey Growing Specialty Crops in Maryland

Written by Nicole Oveisi, Fair Farms Intern

John Manirakiza is a farmer in Beltsville, Maryland who grows African ethnic crops, also known as heritage or specialty crops, at Firebird Research Farm at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). John first gained interest in this type of production in 2009 when he spent the next five years helping Burundi refugees grow culturally-appropriate food. He was able to continue to develop this interest In 2014 when he was recruited to be the assistant manager for UDC’s Grant on specialty and ethnic crops. 

Under the NESARE (North Eastern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grant, John studied the adaptability of African ethnic crops in the Mid-Atlantic region. The grant allowed him to research whether this produce could grow and survive in Maryland’s climate and whether or not there would be a market demand for these kinds of goods. His research involved outreach to those in the community, including African diaspora populations, to learn about their attitudes toward these specialty crops. He and his team organized food tasting events where community members would try the food they have grown for the first time and provide feedback such as their opinion on the taste and their likelihood of purchasing the products. 

Although many of this food is not widely available, John believes there is a growing demand for these products from immigrant communities. Within the DMV/Washington metro, census data shows that there are around 1.5 million foreign-born residents–with 250,000 to 500,000 of them being African immigrants. John thinks that if these products are grown and put on the market, these will at least be demanded from this community. Along with African immigrants searching for familiar staple foods, John believes that today, more people are willing to try different cuisines. John believes that because more people are traveling around the world and experiencing new foods and cultures, and because more people are interested in eating local and fresh foods, this could also create increased demand for ethnic and specialty crops.

So what is being grown? John emphasizes the importance of a diversity of vegetables in local African cuisine. Some of the crops he is growing include garden eggs ( an eggplant native to many countries in Africa), water leaves, scotch bonnets, amaranth, malabar spinach, and hibiscus. These vegetables are widely used in African cooking, specifically in soups and stews. John hopes with the production of these vegetables, communities emigrating from these countries can enjoy the foods of their cultures.

There are multiple benefits of cultivating African ethnic crops. One of the purposes is to reduce the carbon footprint that comes along with food production. John has found that the heritage crops he grows not only save water, but also are more resilient to extreme changes in weather in the Mid-Atlantic climate. With farmers being on the front lines of climate change, having yields that are resilient to extreme effects can ensure farmers’ livelihoods are not at stake. Comparative analyses of heritage crops and traditionally-grown crops in the region have shown that heritage crops can in fact provide higher nutritional values. Some of the vegetables compared were the African eggplant to the purple eggplant, the waterleaf to the watercress, and other leafy greens to spinach. While preliminary findings suggested the heritage crops to be more nutritional, of course more research needs to be done. 

John is now in the process of helping develop an African food program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He is also helping some farmers in Virginia switch from tobacco production to specialty crops. He is working with local chefs that hope to use his products in their restaurants. Furthermore, to cultivate access and ease in obtaining these types of products, he has created an app, OjaExpress, to provide a platform to buy and sell African foods. Along with providing African crops to the market, John hopes that the availability of these products can change the narrative around African cultures and broaden understandings of race. He believes food links people together, and the more people have the opportunity to try and appreciate different types of food from around the world, the more space is cultivated for dialogue and conversation.