On the first Saturday in October, under an azure blue Hudson Valley sky, about 15 volunteers have assembled on the six-acre Every-Growing Family Farm for its annual rice harvest led by Nfamara Badjie. Badjie is dressed in the green, gold, and dark red colors of Africa and wears a ceremonial straw-plumed hat embellished with shells and pom-poms.
He introduces himself and the traditional African way of community harvest to the group: “Getting to know each other, meeting, and chatting—as long as we’re together, it’s a good thing, it’s the number one thing in life,” he says. “We cook, we dance, we eat together as family. Family is community . . . that is how we live in Africa.”
The event is unusual for several reasons. First, because rice is not a traditional staple grain of the U.S. Northeast, but an increasingly viable one due to its ability to withstand both the heavier rains and drought caused by climate change. Second, unlike the very few other small-scale rice growing enterprises in the region, it follows the traditions of master rice farmers from Badjie’s Jola tribe of Gambia and Senegal. Most strikingly, it features the persistent, hypnotic beat of the sabar, kutiro, and djembe drums during the harvest, as well as ringing voices from solo or call-and-response singing punctuated by a piercing whistle.
Badjie shows the group how to handle the small hand-scythes that have been distributed to everyone, demonstrating how to grab a bunch of rice stalks in one hand, and with the other, sweep the scythe across the stalks as close to the ground as possible in one smooth, strong movement. He takes the lead, demonstrating a powerful, sure stroke that no one is able to match. A line of three or four drummers stands alongside the field, or at times follows behind him like the musical contingent of an army regiment, elevating the group’s esprit de corps and helping them work to a rhythm.
Ever-Growing Family Farm is a test case for transplanting the agricultural practices of a foreign culture into fertile new ground, a win in a world increasingly transfigured by climate change, political instability, and the refugees that both create.
At Ever-Growing, the yield can vary from 500 to 1,800 pounds of rice per year, which the farmers sell to their neighbors. The four family members who work part-time on the farm find they cannot keep up with the demand, says Badjie’s wife, Dawn Hoyte.
To sharpen their technical, business, and marketing skills in this experiment, staff members have taken part in the farm incubation program at Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming. Glynwood, in turn, sees the farm as part of a new network of grain and staple crop producers it’s fostering. On this harvest day, a Cornell agronomist has lent her technical expertise, and a crew of aspiring farmers, food systems change advocates, chefs, and even a Japanese home sake brewer have volunteered their labor.
Traditional African Rice Farming
The Jola tribe has long been recognized for its rice-growing expertise. In the 18th and 19th centuries, slave traders were willing to pay a premium for West African Senegambian farmers, who maintained sophisticated agricultural practices along what earlier European mariners called the “rice coast” of the African continent, as well as among inland swamps. There, farmers constructed irrigation systems, dug paddies, and harvested, threshed, and winnowed rice by hand. In the pre-Civil War U.S. South, exploitation of their slave descendants’ expertise helped turn Carolina rice into a massively profitable cash crop.
Growing up in Gambia, drumming was as much a part of Badjie’s life as rice farming. He began to learn to play the búgarabu drums when he was four or five, first practicing on empty tomato paste cans covered with paper moistened with the juice of the baobab fruit. Today, he is one of the few masters of the búgarabu drums still living. In 2000, Badjie travelled from his home village of Sitta, which had no cars, running water, gas or electricity, to perform in Germany. In 2005, he arrived in America at the invitation of a University of California musicologist, eventually settling in New York City.
In 2008, along with his cousin Moustapha Diedhiou, also a drummer and rice farmer, Badjie visited New Paltz, New York, to play at an African dance class. There, he met Hoyte, a former African, Brazilian, and Afro-Caribbean dance instructor who had farmed organically in Barbados and the Hudson Valley.
Bonding over their shared interests in dancing, music, and farming, less than a year after meeting, Badjie and Hoyte married. Soon, they brought Badjie’s sons from a previous relationship to the U.S.
The move was a shock to his sons. “They had never seen a refrigerator,” recalls Hoyte. “They were afraid to touch the sink.” The two youngest boys began crying at the sight of pizza, which looked nothing like food to them.
Starting from Scratch
After moving to America, “farming was in my head all the time,” Badjie recalls. “Back home, everyone is a farmer. I wanted to teach my kids how we live there. I want a rice-growing community here, to grow what we eat and eat what we grow. It’s the healthiest way.”
“Back home, everyone is a farmer. I wanted to teach my kids how we live there. I want a rice-growing community here, to grow what we eat and eat what we grow. It’s the healthiest way.”
He knew that the land they found in 2013 in Ulster Park, a town north of Poughkeepsie, was very wet and would be well-suited to growing rice. In 2015, Badjie, Hoyt, and Badjie’s son Malick and cousin Diedhiou started a community supported agriculture program (CSA), which included traditional African vegetables. They also began farming rice, narrowing their focus to this culturally important crop in 2018.
Since their farm income is not enough to support the family, they all work off-farm jobs. Badjie works as a maintenance man for a local private school; Hoyt supervises state prison counselors; Diedhiou runs his own house painting company and teaches drumming; and Malick farms, makes wine, and performs other duties at nearby Red Maple Winery.
At first, they did everything by hand in the traditional Jola way, digging paddies with a metal hand shovel attached to a 12-foot long wooden handle. They have since added farm equipment including a small combine, tractor, milling machine, and rice polisher.
Sourcing rice seeds has also posed challenges. The germplasm repository at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued them a scant handful of seeds, which did not do well. Then they learned about a Vermont rice farmer named Erik Andrus.
On a visit to Andrus’ operation, Boundbrook Farm, they saw the small-scale equipment he had sourced from Asia and his approach to rice farming, which relied on both low-tech farming methods (releasing ducklings in the paddies to eat harmful insects and weeds) and modern ones (using lasers to level his fields). Eager to share his hard-won knowledge, Andrus also sent them home with seeds for a cold-tolerant Japanese variety. Since then, Badjie, and Hoyt have added European, African, and other Asian rice varieties to their repertoire.