How immigrants are restoring crop diversity to America’s urban food systems

On a verdant farm five miles from Newark Liberty International Airport, Jacob Okam struggled to push a shiny, new garden tiller over the bumpy soil last month.

His black jersey was already drenched in the noonday sun as he cut a lonesome, but winsome, figure in the field — at one with the land that is both his heritage and his hope.

Mr. Okam, 63, was growing leafy Nigerian vegetables on American soil with New York City business principles. And a sprinkling of his native wisdom.

My mother always told me: ‘He who makes his hand touch the soil can never go hungry,’ ” Mr. Okam said in his easy, proverbial way, looking upon the one-acre plot he leases here from Kean University.

Mr. Okam, a naturalized citizen from Nigeria, is a recent graduate of New York City’s new 12-week farmer development program, FARMroots, which instructs immigrants with agricultural backgrounds in the industry.

Started in 2000 by GrowNYC — which runs the city’s greenmarkets — the program has evolved significantly over the past three years.

If he grows Ugu then it will sell like wildfire,” said Moses Ufomba, an African foods importer in the Bronx. “It is a very rich vegetable and people would like to eat it fresh. The best they have now is eating it frozen from Nigeria.

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