A family farm grows rice in Esopus

The gang at Ever-Growing Family Farm. (photo by Carrie Jones Ross)

It’s a scene that seems perhaps a little out of place — dragonflies chase each other through clusters of lush rice grass, rooted in verdant wetlands.

These rice paddies are not in some Asian river delta or even the “Rice Belt” down south. They’re tucked behind a bend of a country road in Esopus.

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“These paddies really change the wildlife here,” said Dawn Hoyte, owner of Ever-Growing Family Farm, now in its third growing season.

To understand how Esopus got rice paddies, one must first learn about the Jola tribe’s history in Senegal and Gambia. One of the oldest tribes in Gambia, the Jola (or Jolla or Diola) has been cultivating rice for centuries in the Casamance region, a sub-Guinean tropical climate and a marshy, coastal landscape, filled with creeks. Jola is a culture so intrinsically connected with rice that a person’s wealth is measured by it. “Jola” in Mandika means to “pay your dues.” In addition to rice, the Jola people are also known for their music, specifically “Bougarabou” drumming.

Nfamara Badjie, well-known drummer and rice farmer from Gambia, came to the states on a performing arts visa to drum in Nyack. He met Hoyte, a dancer, at a performance, and sent his cousin with better English skills — fellow drummer Moustapha Diedhiou — to go flirt with her for him. Hoyte moved from Brooklyn to the Adirondacks with her three kids, and ran a town newspaper and started a magazine. She then taught dance in a middle school in Albany before moving to Saugerties and Rosendale. Hoyte had run an organic farming coalition in Barbados, selling Chinese cabbage, tropical fruits and basil. After getting married, the couple decided to buy a farm, with Badjie insisting on returning to his cultural, social, economic and spiritual background of growing rice. The couple enlisted his three children to work with him in the rice fields.

Badjie works during the day at the Woodstock Day School on the grounds and Hoyte is a counselor at a men’s prison. Diedhiou — a drum maker, drum teacher and housepainter by day — also works at the farm. The men, who are now American citizens, drum regularly in the Hudson Valley, including workshops and performances in and around Kingston.

Though one might not attribute rice-growing to Esopus, Badjie said the land was not a bad choice for rice farming once they filled it with top soil. The area is beneath the Shaupaneak Ridge and collects rainwater in marshy flats. The hard clay dams and retains the water from draining, and keeps the water-intensive plant hydrated.

Badjie, Diedhiou and the other farmers use a “kajandu” — a handmade fulcrum shovel designed by the Jola — to turn the earth by hand and form the ground into the paddy berms.

The farmers explained that in Africa, seeds are sewn directly into the ground during their wet season. Not such a practical or high-yielding practice here, said Badjie, who explained the seeds are too vulnerable to birds, bugs and the environment.

Obtaining the first rice seeds was easier said than done, said Hoyte, and the first year of operation involved propagating rice in green houses and a nursery rice paddy, from the less than two tablespoons of seeds allotted from the USDA Seed Library. “Rice is a commodity,” Hoyte explained, “and buying rice seeds is not as easy as if you were buying tomato seeds. The USDA tightly controls rice.” The entire first season was about creating enough rice seed, Hoyte added.

The seeds are first soaked, then sprouted in greenhouses. Once they are tall enough, they are then cultivated in a paddy “nursery” using permeable, floating row covers that allows sunlight and rain to enter, but not the invading bugs and birds. Rice is an annual plant, and typically requires being re-sewn each season, though Africa has some varieties that reseed themselves.

The farm has four different varieties growing: Akitakomachi and Koshihikari, two short-grain varieties from northern Japan; Duborskian, a sweet, nutty, short-grain rice from upland Russia, and a red amaranth quinoa, for which the Jola are known.

The grass blades resemble wheat or other grains. The rice grain grows quickly, turns yellow and is ready to be harvested around mid- to late September.

Harvest season requires many hands, and feet. The grains are harvested and bundled together to be hung for drying. It’s a challenge keeping the grains away from hungry birds, so even the living room is filled with the bundles of drying grains. The farmers use various techniques to thresh it from the hull, including pushing it through a ceiling fan, but threshing it by stomping on it as it’s been done since time immemorial is still the most efficient way.

Last year, the farm was forced to job out milling to a Vermont rice farm, but thanks to the proceeds of a Gofundme campaign and a USDA loan, Ever-Growing Family Farm was able to purchase their own milling machine. Hoyte and Badjie experimented with brown rice (leaving the hull on), and polishing it. The finished cooked product has a both a natural earthiness and sweetness, and a stickiness too.

“I have doubts every day,” Hoyte admitted. “It’s a lot of work.  Everything is up to God.”  Hoyte said not having the infrastructure and the money is sometimes discouraging, but there’s a deep well of knowledge to draw from. “These guys know what they are doing,” she said. “They had a village rice harvest.”

In addition to the regular Hudson Valley crops of zucchinis, squashes, basil, watermelon, beets, onions, garlic, okra, corn, potatoes, herbs, radishes and other various nightshades, Ever-Growing Family Farm also grows Japanese greens Tokyo Bekana, Tat Soi, Yokatta, Migune and more. There’s African eggplant and a Senegalese herb related to sorrel called Bissap, which is very popular in West Africa. The farm will host a community harvest mid or late September for the community with an education component, and of course, lots of drumming and singing to keep the harvest pace.

Ever-Growing Family Farm will be hosting a community education event at harvest time that will possibly have a fundraiser for the farm tied to it. For more information on where to how to buy the rice or the farm’s other produce, please visit the farm’s Facebook page (facebook.com/evergrowingfamilyfarm/) or call Dawn at (845) 750-7168.

There is one comment

  1. Ken McCarthy

    Very well researched and written article on this subject. I’ve read several about this project and this was the most detailed and informative.

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