New York’s First Rice Farm Uses West African Farming Traditions
Ever-Growing Family Farm in New York's Hudson Valley was the first commercial rice farm in the state. A true family business, it's run by the husband-wife team Nfamara Badjie and Dawn Hoyte. Nfamara is originally from a small Jola tribe village in Gambia. The Jola are renowned in West Africa for their rice-growing expertise, and when, in 2013, Nfamara and Dawn bought a house and six acres in Ulster Park, New York, they wondered if they could continue that rice-farming tradition on their land.
Their land was naturally marshy, so Nfamara thought they could grow rice. Dawn thought he was crazy: The northeastern United States historically has not been a rice-growing region. However, in recent decades, as the climate has become warmer and wetter, it's now possible. Along with Moustapha Diedhiou, a cousin from a Jola village in Senegal, Nfamara began to explore the idea of growing rice on their land. They started with a few tablespoons of seed they got from a rice farmer in Vermont, as well as a tiny amount of seed from the USDA Seed Bank.
Nfamara, Dawn, their kids, and Moustapha planted their first rice crop in 2015; It was the first-ever commercial rice farm in New York State. In subsequent seasons, they sourced different varietals and heritage seeds from other rice farms in the U.S and around the world. Currently the varieties they grow include red rice, black rice, sake rice, risotto rice, nanatsuboshi rice, and koshihikari rice. They focus on rice that can flourish in New York's shorter, cooler growing season.
The first few seasons they planted, harvested, and milled the rice completely by hand, using traditional Jola methods. These days, they combine those traditional methods with modern machinery as they scale up operations.
During the harvest, the crew plays traditional African drums in the field to celebrate, as is the Jola custom. It's very important to Nfamara to continue these customs and pass them down to his three sons, Malick, Abibou, and Modou.
Ever-Growing Family Farm sells its rice at the farm and pick-up locations around upstate New York and Brooklyn, and they're starting to sell in bulk to restaurants, too. Everyone involved in the farm currently works full- time jobs elsewhere, and tends to the farm on evenings and weekends.
Last year, due to the pandemic, the traditional harvest celebrations were scaled back, and only a handful of people were able to work the fields, but the harvest was still successful. The photos below were taken during the 2020 fall harvest. A portion of the profit from rice sales is sent to the African villages where Nfamara and Moustapha grew up. The remaining profit is invested back in the farm, to buy machinery that will help the farm grow more each season.