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African farmer grows rice paddies in N.Y.'s Hudson Valley

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Rice farming is new to the Northeast. What's thought to be the first commercial rice farm in New York, the Ever-Growing Family Farm, was started less than a decade ago by a Gambian musician and his American wife. With the help of volunteers, the farm has survived, though it's a ways from thriving and it's not certain they'll be able to keep going. This year's harvest is nearly done. Karen Michel reports.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Nfamara Badjie wears an outfit printed with red, green and yellow maps of Africa and meandering gray elephants topped by a hat festooned with juts of gray sheep hair.

NFAMARA BADJIE: All right. Morning, everybody. Thank you so much for coming. My name is Nfamara. So we are very happy to...

MICHEL: Most of the rice harvest is done by hand, lots of hands. On this day, there's Badjie, his wife, Dawn Hoyte, two sons, a cousin or three and a bunch of either barefooted or rubber booted, mostly youngish volunteers.

EVAN HANDLER: My name's Evan Handler (ph).

RACHEL BROTMAN: I'm Rachel Brotman (ph).

MICHEL: This is the couple's third harvest at Ever-Growing.

BROTMAN: It's truly one of the most joyous experiences we had of last year.

MICHEL: Pre-pandemic, Handler had a restaurant in Brooklyn. He's still got one in Tokyo. He knows rice. And this rice...

HANDLER: Yeah, it's really delicious. It's so good (laughter).

MICHEL: Nfamara Badjie came to the U.S. in the early 2000s as an artist, a drummer, performing and giving workshops. That's how he met his future wife, Dawn Hoyte. By 2013, they'd married and found what seemed like an unlikely place with a large enough house for their combined family and a swamp - OK, a wet one. He wanted a place to grow rice, as he and his Jola ancestors in Gambia had done. His Queens-born wife was skeptical.

DAWN HOYTE: I told him he was crazy. We can't grow rice in New York.

MICHEL: Cornell University agronomist Erika Styger, who had spent 15 years in West Africa, assured the couple it was possible.

ERIKA STYGER: There's all the different environments where you can grow rice, yeah. You won't find the same environment here, then you will find it in Gambia. But because they know the crops so well, they can adjust.

MICHEL: Though some traditions persist.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARVEST MUSIC)

MICHEL: Drummers accompany the harvest, celebrating, encouraging the scythe-wielding workers to keep cutting. Dawn Hoyte and I are walking, mucking, through the squishy, slightly raised areas between the 15 or so paddies, waterlogged patches of rice plants, their tassels protruding. This isn't your supermarket generic rice. There are varieties from West Africa, Asia and the States.

HOYTE: This is a rice that, supposedly, enslaved Africans carried in their hair to South Carolina, Trinidad. And then people brought some seed to Philadelphia. So this...

MICHEL: A couple of years ago, after drying and milling, the crop yielded about a thousand pounds, priced at $8 a pound. This year's harvest isn't quite done, but the family knows that none of them can give up their day jobs. The yield is much smaller. Torrential rainfall's the suspected culprit. Dawn Hoyte figures that may ultimately not be so terrible.

HOYTE: And with climate change now, the Northeast is getting warmer and wetter. And we have a lot of land that would be considered marginal land that would be perfect for rice paddies.

MICHEL: Still, going from pioneer to permanent rice farm is a daunting prospect that's, given the many hours and the few financial returns, a challenge that, like the farm's name, is ever-growing.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in New York's Hudson Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.