Sergio’s American Dream

by Gabrielle Langholtz

Once a week an unlikely oasis appears on a stretch of concrete just outside a scrubby park in the Bronx: tables overflowing with produce as fresh as you can find anywhere in America. While the Bronx suffers from some of the highest rates of obesity and diet-related disease in the country, every Tuesday, July through November, shoppers line up at the corner of 192nd Street and Grand Concourse a good hour before the market’s official 8 a.m. opening time. Many are waiting for one farmer in particular — Sergio Nolasco.

Like many of these customers, Sergio grew up on a farm in Mexico. But today he farms in New Jersey, growing standards such as tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, and onions, plus ingredients only recently eaten by Americans — cilantro and tomatillos — as well as herbs that are virtually unavailable in America: papalo, a succulent green that’s often tucked into tortillas; pepiche, whose velvety leaves perfume cemita sandwiches; alache, whose long green leaves are popular in Puebla; quelites, a cousin of amaranth; and epazote, which seasons pots of beans simmering over open fires and uptown hot plates. By September, he’ll harvest a dozen different chiles, from dark green poblanos for stuffing to orange habañeros that should come with a
warning label in English.

Sergio immigrated to New York at age fourteen in search of economic opportunity but was soon working a dead-end sweatshop job in a garment factory. He was desperate for the chance to build a better life.

Sergio in his greenhouse.

He found it in the form of Greenmarket’s New Farmer Development Project (NFDP), which helps immigrants with previous agricultural experience put
down farming roots here.

When a friend of Sergio’s read about the project in an article in El Diario in 2004, Sergio jumped at the chance to empower himself through agriculture and become a small business owner. In 2005 he enrolled in the program’s class for new farmers — and had a lot to learn. Sure, he’d grown up on his grandfather’s farm, but childhood memories of plowing sugarcane fields with oxen have limited stateside application.

So before he was ready to farm on his own, Sergio spent four years learning the ropes under an NFDP partner farm in the Hudson Valley, where he mastered diverse vegetable crops in the few months before spring’s last frost and fall’s first. Through NFDP, he received an eight thousand dollar micro-credit loan that he used to purchase a small tractor, some row cover, and seeds.

Finally he and his family were ready to farm on their own. Now they rent 40 gorgeous acres in New Jersey, farming more than fifty diverse varieties from
Romaine lettuce to Caribbean callaloo.

Sergio and his wife Paz on their farm in Orange County, NY.

Today other immigrants are sharing in the fruits of these labors. Sergio sells at Poe Park in the Bronx and other Greenmarkets in underserved Latino communities: Manhattan’s Washington Heights and nearby Inwood, plus Sunnyside and Jackson Heights, in Queens. For him, selling in these communities isn’t good karma, it’s good business. So-called experts say
low-income neighborhoods have little demand for fresh produce, but Sergio knows otherwise. His customers cook every night, often for big families. And
when they find good produce at a fair price — especially the traditional foods they grew up eating — they line up to buy by the pound.

So while everyone else at Poe Park on this blistering morning is looking for a spot of shade, Sergio doesn’t mind the heat. By 2 p.m., the only thing left on
his table will be the last drooping handful of cilantro, and he’ll have an apron full of cash. Exhausted, he’ll pack up the tent and price signs and drive back to New Jersey to get in a few more hours of farming before dusk. For dinner, he’ll feed his children the foods his grandparents fed his parents almost three thousand miles away, and tomorrow he’ll be up with the sun to harvest.

It may not be everyone’s idea of the American Dream, but it is Sergio’s. And he’s living it.

This story is excerpted from The New Greenmarket Cookbook, by Gabrielle Langholtz and available from DA CAPO PRESS/Lifelong Books.

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