Julian Barbosa was raised on a farm where he learned to cook with vegetables grown in his backyard. When he moved to Martha’s Vineyard four years ago, he continued cooking, both at home and later at Zephrus Restaurant in Vineyard Haven where he is the sous chef.
But Mr. Barbosa had to tweak his favorite recipes since many of the ingredients grow only in his native Brazil. He used spinach or kale in sautÃ©es instead of the traditional taioba leaves, enormous to look at and bitter to the taste. For salads, he bought cucumbers, but remembered the lemony flavor of the maxixe, a vegetable with a prickly skin.
For four years Mr. Barbosa did without.
And then, a week and a half ago, he tasted again the familiar taioba. “In Brazil, we eat it a lot. In my home there, we have it. But here, there is no taioba,” he said. “This was my first time. For four years I saw no taioba. I was excited. It was good, very, very good. I can’t put it into words.”
The taioba was part of a meal made possible by the work of many hands.
Along with executive chef Robert Lionette, Mr. Barbosa sauteed the green that night with shallots and olive oil. The two served it to Elio Silva, a Brazilian native who has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for 19 years. Earlier in the day, Mr. Silva held a taioba plant sale at his Tisbury store, FogaÃ§a. Drawing crowds of Brazilians who, like Mr. Barbosa, had not tasted taioba in years, Mr. Silva sold 70 plants the first day of the sale and 20 more the following morning.
When organizing the sale, Mr. Silva had help from Ali Berlow, executive director of the Island Grown Initiative, and Frank Mangan, a University of Massachusetts (UMass) professor who for the past 12 years has worked with state farmers to grow, market and sell produce native to the many immigrant groups in Massachusetts.
In 1996, Mr. Mangan helped a group of Hispanic farmers from Holyoke grow ajicitos, a popular Puerto Rican pepper. Certain adaptations had to be made, but soon, the peppers flourished in the Massachusetts soil. The experiment left the professor intrigued. Upon further research, he learned that 40 per cent of all grocery sales nationwide are made by Africans, Latinos and Asians. In the Northeast, these groups, along with Arab immigrants, represent more than 10 per cent of the general population, according to data from the 2000 census.
Mr. Mangan figured this was a population which local farmers could tap into if they knew the size of their market and how to grow the crops. “They need to know how to grow it and how much to grow and what price they can ask for it,” he said in a telephone conversation last week. “Since we started this work, we have done $2 million in sales of crops that have never been grown in Massachusetts.”
In 2004, he turned his attention to the Brazilian community. With a population estimate of 250,000, Massachusetts has the largest Brazilian community in the country. Mr. Mangan began helping farmers to grow maxixe, jilo (a type of eggplant) and abobora japonesa (a hard squash). He brought jilo and abobora japonesa plants to the Island, where they grew at Morning Glory and Norton farms. On the mainland, the vegetables sold at farmers’ markets, which routinely attracted Brazilian immigrants from as far as 200 miles away.
Earlier this year, Mr. Mangan prepared to receive 15,000 taioba roots to plant and study throughout the state. The root had never before been grown in the country and the shipment would allow Mr. Mangan to begin preliminary research on growing conditions and market size. But, due to complications, only 800 plants arrived.
The limited crop size caused Mr. Mangan to think of the Vineyard. “The advantage of the Vineyard is that Brazilians won’t travel to buy [the taioba]. You have a captured audience,” he said. “We can get a pretty good idea of the size of the Brazilian population through this, between what Elio says and the churches.”
On June 12, Mr. Mangan came down to the Vineyard with the plants and a Brazilian graduate student working with him. The following day, Mr. Silva held his plant sale. “Thursday was a big surprise for people. A lot of people hadn’t seen taioba in five or 10 years,” Mr. Silva said. “People were very, very excited.”
Customers at the sale received a five-minute DVD which, in Portuguese, gave growing instructions adapted to the Massachusetts climate. “It’s a perennial in Brazil, but we have four months here. They like to grow in the shade in Brazil, but here, they will need sun,” Mr. Mangan said. Customers were also asked to complete a survey, answering where in Brazil they were from, how long they had lived in the states, if they grew taioba in Brazil and how often they ate it there.
And they were asked to list their contact information so Mr. Mangan can be in touch over the course of the growing season. “At the end of the season, we want to know how popular the crops are with the farmers and the consumers,” he said.
In the next few days, Mr. Mangan and Mr. Silva delivered taioba transplants to Whippoorwill and Norton farms. When the plants went into the ground, the Island became the only place in the nation where the leafy vegetable is growing commercially.
In addition to the root, Norton Farm is growing jilo this season, and Mr. Woodruff of Whippoorwill Farm has planted maxixe and abobora japonesa. Morning Glory Farm is also growing maxixe and abobora japonesa transplants.
It is an opportunity which will allow the farmers to expand their production and hopefully tap into new clientele. “It’s exciting to have a new crop on the farm,” Mr. Woodruff said this week. “It would be nice to have more Brazilians coming out to the farm. I do not have any that I know of in the CSA [community supported agriculture] program. It would be nice to reach out to that community. I don’t know if this would be that stimulus, but it will be interesting to find out.”
Mr. Silva agreed. “It’s important because it brings a crop that Island farmers can diversify their income with. The main goal is to keep the farmers farming.”
To conclude their Island tour, Mr. Mangan and his graduate student stopped by Zephrus to show Mr. Lionette and his sous chef how to cook with the crop. Dinner was not initially on the agenda. “They came in to talk to [Mr. Lionette] and he just started pulling things from the shelves,” said Mr. Silva. “He said, ‘I’ve got this and this and this. What can you make from it?’ It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.”
Mr. Silva hopes the experiment will not only provide him with the vegetables he loves to eat, but will deepen the connection between UMass and the Island farmers. “This is a good opportunity to start up a relationship between UMass and the Islands and to look deeper into our other immigrant groups,” he said. “This is something the farmers here should be very proud of. Other state universities aren’t doing this.”
He continued: ”Massachusetts is at the forefront with all of these crops. Jilo has been growing here for the past four years and it is just now being introduced into New York and Florida.”
For more information on these crops and the work of Mr. Mangan, visit worldcrops.org.
The Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society is reminding all farmers and growers who intend to enter their poultry in the August agricultural fair to schedule blood-tests for their birds. All poultry except waterfowl must test negative for Pullorum-typhoid. Tests must be current each year. Free tests can be scheduled by calling state inspector Alex MacDonald by July 11 at 617-872-9961. Mr. MacDonald will be on Island for testing on July 21 and 22.
All livestock entered in this year’s fair must have a copy of a current health certificate attached to their entry form. Coggins certificates are required for horses, mini horses, mules and donkeys.
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agricultural activity and farm life on the Vineyard. To reach Julia Rappaport, please call 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail her at email@example.com.