Bringing a taste of home much closer


Let’s say you’ve moved to a new country that doesn’t offer your favorite food, or even some of the staples that have comforted and nourished you for much of your life.

How far would you go to taste the house?

Rex Bernardo has learned that for some, the answer may lie across the country. Bernardo, a professor of corn breeding and genetics at U of M’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS), learned that some African immigrants regularly drive from Wisconsin, Dakota from the North and even from Seattle to the farmers markets of Twin Cities to buy African products. vegetables grown and sold by Hmong-American farmers. These vegetables are rare here, and in many parts of the country they are not available.

So Bernardo, director of CFANS’ plant breeding centerdecided last year to launch a new vegetable working group to identify some indigenous vegetable options for local immigrant farmers and consumers, and to grow test plants in the field.

“When the Center for Plant Breeding started, I thought it might be a good thing to do, and why not make it a student-led project,” says Bernardo. “We are starting from zero and we knew absolutely nothing about these vegetables. We had no idea what they looked like, what species they were, or how they were used. So it was a huge learning effort for the students. They were so good at hatching this vegetable breeding program.

“For me, I was interested in a more applied approach [educational] experience, but also something that directly serves the community I live in,” says Hannah Stoll, PhD student in Applied Plant Science. As the project evolved, she focused on building relationships within the immigrant farming community.

Growing African vegetables in a radically different climate (with an abbreviated growing season, no less) presents a host of challenges. The first task was to determine the cultural and horticultural relevance of various crops, says Michael Burns, who, like Stoll, is a doctoral student volunteering his time for the effort.

The group of approximately 7-8 graduate and post-doctoral students work with crops like Fluted Pumpkin, Bitter Leaf, Juicy Mallow, Spider Wisp, and Holy Basil. They tend to a small plot of trial plants in a field near the St. Paul campus.

“We’re still in the early stages,” Burns says. “We’re starting to move into the phase of ‘How can we actually grow them in the field?’ Should they be harvested very early, should they be transplanted? There are a ton of questions that we don’t have answers to. So we do a lot of miniature experiments to make sure we grow these plants the best we can. »

Chidi Chidozie is a master gardener from Hennepin County with roots in Nigeria, so he brings elements of a consultant, grower and educator to the group. Since he works with community gardens and with people of diverse backgrounds in the county, he appreciates the University’s efforts to identify vegetables that immigrants will warmly embrace, since not everyone wants to grow tomatoes.

Chidozie hopes the group will be able to document in detail the process of growing these new vegetables in Minnesota. “In this way, the immigrant communities who are going to use these plants can get the roadmap [for how to grow them],” he says.

Stoll says that ultimately the group can serve as an educational resource for master gardeners as well as the communities they serve.

“Right now we’re testing a lot of things,” she says. “At the end of the day, we want to do more breeding work, but right now the most important thing is just to try things out, build community and make sure we learn.”

In addition to pleasing the palates of new immigrants, Bernardo knows that these indigenous foods will satisfy a universal desire.

“For immigrants,” he says, “the foods you grew up with, they are a strong and powerful reminder of home.


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