ROCKVILLE — It was pitch-black in the early morning after the Washington region’s first snowfall, when the Nigerian farmer went to check on his crops. Olaniyi Balogun pushed open the fence, took two steps, then stamped his boot against the soil. He bent over the rows of kale and gently touched the underside of a palm-sized, sprouting leaf.
“Hm,” he grunted, frowning. Just like he thought — frozen.
Most farmers in the Maryland suburbs stop growing their crops by mid-January, but Balogun wants to stretch out the season as far as he can. His wife says it’s because he’s a workaholic; he disagrees. In the rural towns outside Akure, the city in southwest Nigeria where he was born, people farm year-round.
“For me, this is the only thing I know how to do,” said Balogun, 53, a stocky man with a deep, steady voice. Every time he steps out onto his farm, he said, he remembers himself as a boy, leaping off a crowded pickup truck into the cornfields, slingshot in hand.
“This is what makes me happy.”
Agriculture was once the driving economic force of Montgomery County, now a booming suburb of 1 million people. But after World War II, rapid industrialization drew residents and resources away from the land, leaving just several hundred farmers in what is now the county’s protected 93,000-acre agricultural reserve.
As the county’s demographics change, another shift is underway. Immigrants, many of whom grew up farming in their home countries, are taking over small pockets of the land — part of what advocates say is a national trend that is most pronounced in West Coast states such as California and Washington.
In the United States, farmers have been — and are — predominantly white and male. A third of them are over 65, and as they march toward retirement, many struggle to find successors, contributing to a crisis within the industry that has seen rises in bankruptcies, loan delinquencies and suicides.
From New York’s Hudson Valley to California’s Central Coast, public and private organizations are trying to connect immigrants with the resources they need to start their own farms or cultivate land owned by others, hoping to infuse the industry with new energy and traditions.
The U.S. agriculture census does not track farmers based on national origin, but judging by its data on race, the growth of immigrant farmers seems likely, experts say. From 2007 to 2017 (the most recent time the census was conducted), the number of farms with Hispanic producers grew about 30 percent, from 66,000 to 86,000. Those who study the census note that since many land-leasing contracts happen informally, these figures may undercount the number of foreign-born farmers who are bringing their agricultural traditions to U.S. shores.
In her recent book, “The New American Farmer,” Syracuse University professor Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern says that immigrant farmers often introduce new crops and their own, more sustainable farming practices — complementing a growing U.S. “food movement” that urges consumers to take back control of what they eat.
Some immigrant farmers in Maryland have become their neighborhood’s local producers, reviving fading relationships among buyers, farmers and landowners.
“These farmers, their heart and soul are in the land,” said Caroline Taylor, a Maryland farmer and the head of the nonprofit Montgomery Countryside Alliance. “It’s something people miss.”
TOMATOES, A TURKEY AND A SIGN
The alliance runs a program, called Land Link, that matches potential farmers with landowners who don’t want to farm but want to keep their land active. The goal, Taylor said, is to revitalize the agricultural reserve and in turn fend off down-county developers hungry for the land.
Since it started in 2011, the Land Link program has helped to lease out nearly 500 acres. It has gained more momentum in recent years, Taylor said, in part because of increasing demand from immigrant and minority farmers, who constitute the majority of applicants. Alliance staff members receive a growing number of inquiries each week on the program, Taylor added, some from people not even in the country yet.
Before he moved to the United States, Balogun ran his own farm in Nigeria that spanned more than 120 acres.
In 2016, he married Tope Fajingbesi, a self-described “city girl” who left Lagos in the early 2000s to study, and later settle in College Park as a lecturer at the University of Maryland. They agreed that he would join her if — and only if — he could farm. But in wealthy Montgomery, buying land, even renting, seemed impossible.
“I said to him, ‘Yes, of course we will do it,’ but inside, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, there’s no way,’” Fajingbesi, 42, recalled. “What was the plan? I don’t know. We had no plan.”
When Land Link first matched them with Brookeville landowners Dorothy and Brad Leissa, Fajingbesi crunched the numbers. “$500 a month,” she told her husband. That’s all they could shell out. At an introductory meeting, the Nigerian couple nervously asked the Leissas how much it would cost to rent the acre of land around the their 19th-century farmhouse. When the landlords asked for a dollar, Fajingbesi thought she had misheard. One dollar, the Leissas repeated.
“We’re happy to share,” said Dorothy, a soft-spoken schoolteacher. “Really, we’re happy to let them use it.”
Slowly, Balogun began to build up Dodo Farms, spending 11 — sometimes 12 — hours at the site each day. When he harvested his first tomatoes, he brought a bag to the Leissas’ farmhouse at the top of the hill. At Thanksgiving, he turned up at their door with a 25-pound turkey.
Last year, the couple brought him a gift: a wooden sign for the dim-lit shed where he does his administrative work. On it, the words “OFIISI NIYI” — Yoruba for “Niyi’s office.”
They wanted to show Balogun that he belonged on the farm, Dorothy said.
And that it belonged to him.
NEW CROPS, ‘OLD SCHOOL’ TACKS
Minkoff-Zern, the Syracuse professor, interviewed 70 immigrant Latino farmers for her book. Nearly all showed a preference for a specific farming style, she wrote, “one where they are able to regain control over their daily labor and reproduce a specific agrarian way of life.”
They limit use of chemicals, opting for natural alternatives that were used in family farms in their home countries. They go out of their ways to ensure the crops are safe and healthy. As one Mexican farmer in New York told Minkoff-Zern: “We were organic (in Mexico), we just didn’t know we were.”
Balogun is similar: Instead of commercial fertilizer, he uses cow manure, which he gets free from a nearby cattle rancher. He avoids pesticides, picking out weeds and insects by hand.
“These farmers are working with natural systems, using quote-unquote old school conservation techniques,” Taylor said. “These are folks that have things to teach us.”
Immigrant farmers also offer different crops. In the summer, Balogun grows a type of spinach often used in Nigerian stews but not easily found in this country. Another Land Link farmer, Tanya Doka-Spandhla, 54, almost exclusively grows crops native to South and West Africa — vegetables that grew in the backyard of her childhood home in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Doka-Spandhla, who came to the U.S. two decades ago, said she started her farm in 2015 because she missed food from home. She wanted the mustard greens, “tsunga,” that are sautéed with peanut butter sauce, and the pumpkin leaves, “mubura,” that are boiled and eaten with porridge. She craved the jelly-meat of the bright yellow horned melon, called “kiwano.”
On summer weekends, her three-acre farm in Gaithersburg is a buzzing hub for Montgomery’s expanding West African population.
“It just makes sense,” Taylor said. “We have a million people in the county now. They aren’t all people who want to eat baked potatoes.”
Dodo Farms, too, has earned a loyal following — and not just among immigrants. Among the more enthusiastic fans is Alexa Bely, a 50-year-old biology professor who not only gets most of her household’s produce from Balogun, but has persuaded her neighbors in College Park to do the same.
For those who cannot make it to the College Park farmers market, where Balogun sells produce on the weekends, Bely picks up their vegetables and delivers them herself.
“I’ve become a bit of a nut about this,” she admitted, laughing. “But he’s doing something that I really believe in.”
“And,” she added, “his carrots are the best I’ve ever tasted.”