Not everybody loves okra. But those who do enjoy the fibrous green seedpods are often at a disadvantage when a hankering for them hits. Certain varieties of okra, like other vegetables not closely associated with American diets, can be hard to find. Just ask Ramu Govindasamy, a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. When he arrived from India 20 years ago, he used to look for certain vegetables and grains from his native country. “You couldn’t find them,” he says.

Denied the joy of coming home to pots simmering with scents redolent of India, Govindasamy came up with an idea. “I thought that we needed to find a way to make ethnic produce available to consumers, because they are really looking for these products and they are willing to pay a premium,” he says. In addition to okra, certain varieties of the grain amaranth, also a staple in Indian dishes, can be hard to track down in the northeastern United States. Govindasamy, who is also an extension specialist with Rutgers’ Cooperative Extension, envisioned a new breed of local farmers: those who used their land to grow crops that brought immigrants a little closer to the kitchens they left behind

The idea, if successful, would open a pipeline to the amaranth and okra that he prized—and it would also help small farmers, who have been squeezed economically. “Small farmers are really struggling,” says Govindasamy. “To survive, they need to find niche markets.”

“Land values are so high in New Jersey that small farmers, as a survival strategy, often produce only high-value crops. They have to produce more  revenue from their land to be economically sustainable,” says Brian Schilling, a specialist in agricultural policy in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics. One way of doing that is to grow pricey foods like peaches and blueberries. But an alternative is to cater to local niche markets.

About 10 years ago, Govindasamy rounded up Schilling and other Rutgers researchers and extension specialists to form a coalition—the Ethnic Produce Production and Marketing Working Group—dedicated to matching farmers with the crops craved by the growing wave of ethnic groups in New Jersey. By last year, it had swelled to 11 Rutgers reps plus researchers from Cornell University, Penn State, the University of Florida, and the University of Massachusetts. The team has received more than $2.3 million in grants in its efforts to get local immigrant groups back in touch with the foods of their homelands, and small farmers back in touch with a sense of hope.

Ramu Govindasamy and Brian Schilling


Ramu Govindasamy, left, a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics, is pictured with Brian Schilling, a specialist in agricultural policy in the department, which is part of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Nick Romanenko

Govindasamy has carried out most of his work in New Brunswick and the surrounding area, conducting focus groups and orchestrating extensive surveys to determine which local ethnic groups are growing fastest, where they buy and how much they spend on fresh produce, and what vegetables and grains from their homelands they miss most. Other members of his team have taken the project further afield in  New Jersey.

Richard VanVranken, a Rutgers agricultural agent based in Atlantic County, says that the biggest problem for farmers is not so much producing the crops as it is understanding the market for them. VanVranken has helped growers cultivate scores of exotic ingredients such as fresh fenugreek, purslane, and baby bok choy. Fenugreek, which produces spicy seeds, appeals to Indian palates. Purslane is an herb commonly used by Mexican and Puerto Rican cooks. And baby bok choy is a staple of many Chinese recipes. They’re all examples of crops that Govindasamy’s research revealed to be among the most valuable to the four ethnic groups that have a significant presence in New Jersey—Asian Indian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Chinese—and whose population growth and spending on the produce of their homelands have ballooned most rapidly since the start of the project. Before local farmers started growing ethnic produce, most settled for vegetables and grains shipped from Caribbean nations to ethnic markets and grocery stores, which were once few and far between.

To a certain extent, local farmers have always catered to ethnic groups, VanVranken points out. “Many of our vegetable growers in New Jersey have been growing specialty crops for years,”  he says. “Most of the farmers who settled in  the Vineland area, for example, were of Italian descent, and they brought their heritage with them. So they grow vegetables like escarole and endive.”

Some of those Italian farmers are now making room in their fields for vegetables like Mexican chard and Indian fennel (among VanVranken’s colleagues is John Formisano, a farmer he calls “the fennel king”). Other growers are of the same ethnicity as the niche markets they’ve begun serving. Larry Liu, the owner of Evergreen Produce, in Buena, New Jersey, grows the same Chinese broccoli, bok choy, and mustard greens that his own Chinese family wanted, but could not find, when they came to the United States 15 years ago. Liu worked directly with VanVranken to increase his production of those crops and find nearby wholesalers who want them.   

Govindasamy and VanVranken say it’s impossible to tally the number of farmers who have benefited from the Rutgers group’s research, because they have no way of knowing how many have come to talks on the subject and have gone home to plant the crops that they deem to be in demand. But sometimes the connection between the Rutgers team and a grower becomes personal. Morris Gbolo bought his farm in Landisville, New Jersey, in 2013 after conferring with VanVranken on how  to make the 13-acre property economically sustainable. Gbolo, who longed for the produce of his Liberian homeland, wanted to supply his fellow African immigrants with the ingredients for traditional dishes, crops like bitterball eggplant and sweet potato leaf.

Last year, he began a pick-your-own operation, offering the  exotic eggplants, peppers, and greens he grew on the farm for $1 a pound. Word-of-mouth traveled great distances. “People came from as far away as Massachusetts and Ohio,” says

Gbolo, who ran a farm in Liberia before immigrating to the United States in 2002. “They loaded up huge trucks.”

Gbolo didn’t get rich his first season, but he hopes to make a living off his new land within a few years. Already, there is ample evidence of his work: African women can be spotted balancing baskets of Gbolo’s crops on their heads as they comb the fields.

“There’s a big Liberian community in the area, and I wanted to feed the people,” says Gbolo. “This is more important to me than the money.” And he is grateful that VanVranken and the Rutgers team “gave me the courage to do it. They really helped me.” •