An Okra Plant Grows in Brooklyn
It's morning in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Yemi Amu of Oko Farms is tending to her crops as her next-door neighbor releases his pigeons from their coop. "They never bother us," she says of the birds taking flight. "It's the sparrows that are the problem." The smaller birds get into the tall stalks of rice, sorghum, and millet growing on the farm. She wraps the tops with netting to protect them, but she has to stay vigilant.
As the pigeons circle overhead, Amu, the farm's founder and director, carefully examines leaves for insects and feeds the fish that provide fertilizer for the farm: It's an aquaponics system that cycles water between the plants and a pond filled with shimmering koi fish. The concept of aquaponics can seem intimidating, but to Amu, it's a means of bringing together communities and bridging cultures through food. She uses her crops to show that the science itself is not only approachable—it can also help root people to their own histories.
"It's about being able to create all these connections and being able to ground aquaponics in reality for people," she says. "If I'm able to grow people's cultural foods, then aquaponics feels more like farming and agriculture and less like this space-age science weirdness."
When thinking about what to plant, she says: "We're always trying to diversify as much as possible. One of the things that's interesting to me is the relationship between West African heritage crops and Caribbean and Asian cultures. I feel like there are a lot of connections there from the times of colonization," referring to when the British and other colonial powers took seeds and people from different continents, moving them across oceans, leaving behind crops that, in some cases, became staples across cultures. "Okra, for instance, is a staple in the Nigerian diet. Okra soup was my favorite dish as a child." But okra can be found in dishes throughout South Asia, as well as in the Americas, where it was brought via the slave trade.
Born and raised in Lagos, Amu is committed to seeking out seeds that offer a taste of home not only for herself, but also for others in the community she serves. One morning, a volunteer joins her to host a live cooking demonstration on social media to share ways to cook with jute. The leafy green is known as ewedu in Yoruba and mulukhiyah in Arabic, and it adds both body and an okra-like texture to soups. In the comments, followers chime in with their names for the green, as well as their favorite ways to eat it.
By growing crops like jute, Lagos spinach, and lemongrass, Amu delights visitors and farmers-market shoppers who have roots in the Middle East, West Africa, and the Caribbean. "People are so excited to see things from their cultural backgrounds that they never thought they would see again."
For neighbors from the nearby senior center catering to East Asians, it's the shiso leaves; for people from the Caribbean, it might be gandules, also known as pigeon peas. The small legumes are popular on both English- and Spanish-speaking islands, so when Amu found seeds adapted for a northern climate by nearby East New York Farms, she decided to try them out. It was only while researching how best to grow the peas that she discovered how they are used back home in Nigeria to treat patients with sickle cell disease.
As the crops have grown at Oko Farms, visiting Puerto Rican and Jamaican grandmothers from the surrounding neighborhood have shared how they use both the peas and the leaves at home to treat conditions like glaucoma and eczema. "I love when elders come into the space and have so much to share," Amu says of these encounters. "Because food for them is not just food—it's also medicine, and storytelling is integrated into it. It's a way of sharing culture."