Growing a Taste of Home

Jacob Okam shows off his latest failed crop of Nigerian corn in his garden in Far Rockaway.

The middle-aged woman in the backseat of Jacob Okam’s car had bought spinach from the Food Dynasty Supermarket in Far Rockaway. It was warm and sunny July, and he was driving her home for a couple of bucks. A Nigerian, she wanted to feed her three children something that reminded her of home. Spinach most resembled the dark green leafy vegetable called ugu that Okam ate lightly cooked in stews with rice twice a day as a child. “Everyone in Nigeria knows ugu,” he would say later with a touch of pride. But the American substitute just wasn’t the same.

“Listen, there’s a place where you can find ugu,” said Okam in English. He was Nigerian, too, but the two came from different ethnic groups and spoke different languages. She came from the northern Hausa and he came from the southeastern Igbo. Today, though, they spoke the common language of expats.

“Fresh?” she asked. African food stores in the five boroughs sometimes sold ugu and other Nigerian vegetables and herbs, like eggplants, ukazi, uzizza or bitter leaves. Merchants, however, had to dry or freeze the produce so it would last the long voyage from West Africa. Okam would always shake his head when describing this transatlantic trip to whomever seemed interested, grieving the loss of nutrients and taste. The 62-year-old has a kind face, with flat black moles on the top of his cheeks. His short curly hair and the stubble on his upper lip and chin are a balanced mix of salt and pepper. He is about five-foot-five, and everything about him seems squeezed horizontally — his face with its wide smile, his short and thick neck, his chubby belly.

“Fresh. I’ll take you.”

In the summer, he wore what he called his “dirty clothes”– short-sleeves and jeans – exactly for this purpose: a surprise detour to his garden. For the first time this summer, he was growing the vegetables he had always experimented with in friends’ backyards at a large community garden. This took him one step closer to the dream of vegetable farming that first brought him to the United States.

He turned his blue Nissan minivan, bought with cash his family sent him from Nigeria, onto Beach 45th Street. Pastel-colored, wood-paneled houses sat tidily behind rows of white picket fences. The air smelled salty from the ocean that lapped at the sandy Rockaway beach a third of a mile away. A hand-painted wooden sign hung on a ten-foot-high chain link fence declared in fat yellow letters “Farmstand.” The half-acre parcel, called Edgemere Farms, held a chicken coop, beehives, a compost pile and tidy rows of tomatoes and other vegetables. On its website, the place called itself a farm incubator.

Okam steered the woman towards his plot in the garden. Stalks with bright green leaves in two twenty foot rows reached up to his torso. The leaves were wide and splayed, with clear white veins, and green fruit as long as his fingers hung from the stalks — Nigerian eggplants, another specialty. He liked eating the eggplants raw, the green-pea sweetness of the first bite dissolving into earthy bitterness.

The woman immediately recognized the ugu, with its smooth, elongated leaves, in a corner of the plot. She seemed overjoyed.

He cut the woman a handful of the leafy vegetable and handed it to her. It wasn’t much, but he didn’t have much. And she wasn’t the only Nigerian looking for fresh vegetables she recognized. Through word of mouth, the news of fresh ugu had spread fast in New York City that summer. A man from an African food store in the Bronx had called him begging for 100 pounds of fresh ugu each week. Okam had to decline. He harvested a dozen handfuls of the ugu leaves, and around 150 pounds of the Nigerian eggplants, during the whole summer. He sold the eggplants at $2 a pound, and gave most of the ugu away to friends. He had decided to give the most people possible the smallest taste possible, granting each person’s request only once. He was a businessman growing his clientele.

Nigerian vegetables are what New York City farmer’s markets call specialty produce: locally-grown food for a specific community, particularly the city’s many underserved immigrant groups. For example, El Poblano Farm, Staten Island Family Farm and other Mexican farmers in that borough saw the gap between demand from the borough’s sizable Mexican population and supply for fresh Mexican produce and herbs like epazote or papalo. They have sold successfully in Staten Island farmer’s markets for a decade. Okam doesn’t mention his specialty produce counterparts explicitly, but his plans are to follow in their steps. Though, sometimes his own constituency can’t believe it, like that woman he took to his garden.

“How can this be?” she asked, standing in front of the rows of green

“This is soil. There’s soil in Nigeria,” he said simply.

It wasn’t actually that simple.

It had taken him 10 years since moving from Nigeria to the U.S. before he could feed his fellow displaced countrymen this summer. And though farming is all he talks about, he’s not really a farmer at all right now. He spends most of his days waiting for phone calls from acquaintances asking him to drive them and their groceries home. Charging a few bucks per trip, he sometimes makes $40 a day — not enough to live by.

Sometimes, his old flip phone rings with a call from his farm manager or his wife in Nigeria. He fumbles it open, leaving it open on speaker in his lap as he drives through the streets of Far Rockaway. He still makes the final decisions for the palm oil farm he set up thirty years ago near Abiriba, his hometown in southeastern Nigeria. He asks his family to wire him the money he needs. They pay the $600 rent on his shared apartment and donate in his name to the projects Nigerian expats finance in Abiriba, like a hospital. “I didn’t come to America to get rich,” he said while waiting in his car in the near-empty parking lot at the low concrete Food Dynasty supermarket.

He came to the U.S. to study farming. The United States Department of Agriculture first planted the idea of vegetable farming in his mind when program ambassadors held agricultural training for top businessmen in southeastern Nigeria. Okam had spent decades traveling the world for an import-export business. His passport from those years shows a smooth-faced Okam in his 20s with an Afro and stamps from Switzerland, Hong Kong, Germany and the U.S. But he had dropped all of that to set up his palm oil farm in Abiriba, and was ready to drop all he had again for a new vision. The principles taught by the USDA, like irrigation, started germinating into an idea. He wanted to teach Nigerians to farm vegetables efficiently.

Okam flew to the U.S. on a business visa, leaving behind his wife, three daughters and three sons. He expected to return soon after acquiring some skills. Friends from Abiriba found him a place to stay in Atlanta and in New York City, where he moved eight years ago. He studied landscaping at online college Stratford Career Institute, composting at the Queens Botanical Garden, nutrition at the Cornell University Cooperative Extension in New York City, and beer brewing in Brooklyn.

Over the years, his original plan started to change. He only returned to Nigeria two times in ten years and applied for American citizenship this year. “Five months in Nigeria, nine years and seven months in the U.S.A. — what do you think is my home?” he said.

Now, he wants to set up a farm in New York to employ and feed West Africans with food from their homelands, on top of starting a training center for vegetable farmers in Nigeria. He would split his time between the two countries 50–50. He already describes his upstate farm as if it exists, complete with Nigerian dwarf goats and a nice house for himself. He calls the farm his baby, and says it needs time to grow. Though he has no savings himself, the West African friends whose businesses in trading and plastics he helped get off the ground would invest at a moment’s notice, he said.

This fall, he signed up for a class called Farm Beginnings to learn the business of setting up a new farm. Non-profit GrowNYC puts out the class as part of its FarmRoots program to help new farmers get started.

On one freezing November night, he hopped off the subway late and headed over to the turn-of-the-century city building with stained stonewalls in downtown Manhattan where the class took place. He rushed through the elevator doors decorated with golden flowers, relics from the old Emigrant Industrials Savings Bank the building used to house. A middle-aged woman giggled at his shivering. “He and I, we’re not used to this,” she said. “Colombia,” she pointed at herself. He shrugged sheepishly.

Okam sat down quietly in the back of the classroom in a folding chair. He got out thin reading glasses from a gold case and pushed out his chin to pay attention. A bearded young man in a blue plaid shirt and green pants started talking. He was Christopher Wayne, the director of the FarmRoots program. “By now, you’ve set up the financials behind your dream farm,” he said to his dozen students. “Today is an exciting day because we are moving on to marketing.”

The class originally targeted immigrants with particular language and financial barriers to setting up a farm. The Mexican farmers on Staten Island belonged to the first few groups that went through the class. A few years ago, the class opened to anyone with enough farming experience and potential. Out of the 80 or so applicants, the organizers admitted two dozen students. Young men and women in beanies and plaid, with dreams of opening herb nurseries, micro-green farms or pastry businesses, now made up most of the class. The Colombian woman in the elevator with Okam wanted to grow mushrooms in her bedroom.

An hour into the class, Wayne asked the students to design their own logo. Okam studiously etched a landscape in pointillism, complete with rabbits, goats, and a tall ugu plant. He wrote Orbit Horizon Farm in capital letters above the drawing. “I’m bringing in food from another continent, another orbit,” he explained. He thought up the name three years ago.

As soon as the class ended, Okam put down his printed slideshow notes and rushed over to Eric Hessert, a blond butcher with a Scandinavian build. Hessert had spoken to the class about his work selling beef at New York City’s farmer’s markets. Okam took his customary deep breath and couple-second-long pause before jumping in.

“I was wondering, what you did with the skins? Of the cows?”

“Yeah, it’s an unspoken deal with the slaughterhouses. They keep them. They kind of make a back pocket business out of the skin.”

“See, I’m interested in the skins. I eat them. Nigerians eat them. ” Okam’s bluntness took Hessert by surprise and he paused for a second.

“Ok. I don’t really think our guys could give you any skins, but you could look into that.”

Okam’s classmates gathered around the corner of the room where a table offered guacamole and tacos. He only poured himself some warm tea — he had said earlier that he only ate West African food he cooked himself.

Based on the contents of his refrigerator, that seems possible. His kitchen is full of Nigerian delicacies in large containers: dried shrimp, red palm oil, frozen ugu. He buys the food largely from the West African food store not far from the Food Dynasty supermarket. In November, the store had frozen eggplants from Ghana, but this summer, it stocked some of Okam’s own fresh produce, which proved much more popular. Now, Okam’s kitchen held the last of the summer harvest, including the large stringy eggplants he munched on raw as he started to prepare lunch. The week before, with the last of the mid-sized eggplants, he had cooked a stew with onions, tomatoes, beef and palm oil brought over by a friend from Nigeria. He had made more than enough for a few meals, and now he warmed the stew up on his burner stove. The stew bubbled and the half-inch long round eggplants bobbed around, soaking up the red. Next to the stew, he made rice and beans (Nigerian beans from the food store, he specified) with boiled plantain.

He shared his home with a young roommate from West Africa. A yellowed tablecloth with red flowers covered a folding table in the common room. The tiles around the heater in the bathroom were cracked. The walls were empty. The whole set-up in the apartment seemed temporary. But Okam had made his bed tight and neat and wore slippers inside, not the black shoes he wore to his garden or to drive around. Mismatched carpets covered the ground in a colorful mosaic, a sheet covered the sole couch, and a vacuum cleaner rested in a corner.

He didn’t have many belongings. “Life is not what you consume, but what you produce,” he said. In his bedroom, ten years of living were whittled down to a few books on gardening, framed diplomas and dozens of photos from home. Here he stood at his son’s wedding, in a suit with a red tie and sunglasses. He was still waiting for grandchildren. Here was his 97-year-old mother adorned in a bright yellow turban (“She ate ugu and other African vegetables, very nutritious and healthy,” Okam explained). Here were his six children studying computer and mechanical engineering, genetics, nursing and economics. Okam was dressed snappily in all the photos, his hat cocked to one side and his button-down shirts pressed.

In Nigeria, Okam owns two houses, which he built in the early 1980s. One ten-room home in Abiriba near his farm houses his mother and rent-paying tenants. His wife and children live in a seven-room home in Aba, another city in southeastern Nigeria. If probed, he could shyly admit that he missed his family, and his family missed him, but he always turned back to the logistics of his potential farm.

News segments about Ebola blared on the large TV in his room as he sat down to eat, mixing the rice and the stew and the squash in one big bowl. The result was at the same time bland and spicy and greasy. He only drank bottled water. A carbon monoxide detector beeped, its batteries dead. Trucks on nearby Seagirt Boulevard coughed and rumbled.

Tucked away in a drawer of his dresser, Ziploc bags held paper towels carefully twisted around seeds for ugu and eggplants. Okam said he had developed his own particular type of eggplant over the years, replanting the seeds every season, wherever he was. He sent a sample back to Nigeria for his family to safeguard until he returned to start farming there himself. His fingers sifted through the freshest batch: damp yellow seeds he had collected and cleaned the week before. Drying the seeds was one of the last steps in closing out that summer’s growing season before the long cold New York winter.

On his plot at Edgemere Farms that day, his rows were empty of July’s green bounty. Okam waved hello to a tall man with a rake — the “farm manager,” Okam explained — who opened the closed fenced door for him. A fine salty mist turned into droplets on the chain fence and in Okam’s curly hair. He stood a moment in front of empty Bed 21, then turned to the compost piles, where the thick stalks of eggplants and a few bunches of ugu leaves lay. He would turn the pile around every 21 days.

In one corner of the community garden, pressed up against the fence, Okam had managed to plant a row of corn (Nigerian corn.) The dry yellow leaves fluttered with the ocean breeze. He twisted one ear loose now, tearing away the layers to peek at the white kernels. He shook his head, defeated, and walked over to the nearest compost pile. The farm manager stopped him. He asked Okam what he was doing with the corn.

“It’s no good.”

“But it looks good?”

“It’s not big enough.” He said that Nigerian corn kernels grew bigger and juicier than American corn kernels. “I put it in too late this year. Now it’s too cold. Just cut everything down and throw it away to the chickens. Next year, I’ll put it in earlier.”

Okam threw the ear into the compost pile and walked back to his car to head home.