Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Muirkirk Farm: Specialty and Ethnic Crops

Two of the largest and most popular Muirkirk Farm programs is Specialty Crops, which began in 2013. As defined by the USDA, specialty crops are fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops that are cultivated or managed and used by people for food, medicinal purposes, and/or aesthetic gratification to be considered specialty crops. They include: 

  • Collards
  • Hybrid Kale
  • Hybrid Pac Choi
  • Hybrid Patty Pan Squash
  • Hybrid Smooth Leaf Spinach
  • Mini Broccoli
  • Specialty Salad Greens
  • Swiss Chard
  • Red Romaine Lettuce
  • Mustard Greens
  • Bunching Onions
  • Arugula
  • Red Russian Kale
  • Baby Peppers
  • Asian Yard Long Bean
  • Spearmint
Muirkirk is the home for many herbs and spices from Ethiopia, as well as several species of vegetables from West Africa. Being located in Beltsville, Maryland, with a humid subtropical climate allows us to grow these "ethnic crops," as was discovered after testing a variety of crops to test their growth.

The Ethnic Crops program exists to meet the needs of the rapidly changing ethnic makeup of the region's consumers. Working with area community gardeners, Ethnic Crop Development Specialist, Yao Afantchao, advises residents on how to grow and cook a variety of flavorful international menu options. He also introduces commercial growers to expanding ethnic produce marketing opportunities.

A BBC Report1 stated that Washington, D.C. has the largest population of Ethiopians in the US: about 250,000 people--second only to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Therefore, there is a large market for Ethiopian food products in the DC Metro Area. Growing Ethiopian herbs and spices on the farm to further expand our reach into this market. 

"Ethnic produce presents a significant opportunity for Mid-Atlantic farmers as high-value alternative crops and an excellent source of income," states Mr. Afantchao.  

Ongoing research in plant varieties and cultivation techniques is also a part of the Ethnic Crops program. According to Afantchao, ethnic food products in North America account for more than 12 percent of all retail food sales, and are projected to grow 5 percent annually. The ethnic crops grown at Muirkirk include:
  • Nug (Ethiopian Seed)
  • Netch Azmud (Ethiopian Caraway)
  • Tikur (Black Cumin)
  • Tena Adam (Rue)
  • Besobila (Sacred Basil)
  • Gboma (African Eggplant)
  • Sawa Sawa (edible flower)
  • Jamma Jamma (Huckleberry)
Afantchao has also partnered with DCPS and DC Central Kitchen to introduce international foods to District youth. Last year, for instance, he was the featured guest at Walker Jones Education Campus for their African Food Day celebration. He has also served as a featured speaker for workshops and events, including the Ethnic Greens and Herbs Workshop, which brought together including producers, produce wholesalers, distributors, brokers and retailers from across the country.

He recently sat down for an interview with Pan African Visions. Read more about his background, his involvement with the ethnic crop movement and his thoughts on the link between food and cultural identity.

Watch Yao Afantchao discuss ethnic crops on CAUSES TV. He can be contacted at

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