ROBERT SIEGEL, host: For the last 10 years, farmers and tobacco-growing states have been slowly saying goodbye to the old leaf in favor of other crops. There's a lot of corn and soy. But some farmers are also trying out less familiar plants, crops that appeal to immigrants.
NPR's April Fulton visited one farm in southern Maryland that is growing African vegetables.
APRIL FULTON: Drive just over an hour down the back roads south of Washington, D.C., and the landscape gets greener.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR)
FULTON: I pull into a gravel lane off a winding road in Charles County, Maryland. There's a wooden sign in a clearing. It says: African produce. An arrow points the way.
Hi, are you George?
GEORGE BOWLING: Yes.
FULTON: I'm April.
BOWLING: How are you doing?
FULTON: I'm good...
George Bowling leans on a shed, smiling and squinting in the sun. It's a steamy August morning and he wears a faded baseball cap. He takes me on a tour of his fields.
BOWLING: Well, I've had African eggplant. I've had the hot peppers, yellow tomatoes, red tomatoes, okra, and potato leaves, watermelon and cantaloupe.
FULTON: George and his wife, Julia, got into African crops just recently, after some customers started asking for sweet potato leaves to cook with.
JULIA BOWLING: We'd never heard of anybody that ate sweet potato leaf. And when we plowed our sweet potatoes last year, that's when they first started coming in. And they begged him to plant the African produce and that they would come to his farm.
FULTON: It's George Bowling's first year with the new crops, but certainly not his first year farming. He's been working corn and tobacco fields for a big part of his 70-something years.
But as cigarette taxes and foreign competition have gone up, the tobacco industry has faded. Bowling doesn't miss it. He pours a bucket of fiery African peppers onto his scale.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEPPERS POURED ONTO SCALE)
FULTON: This year, he planted seven acres of his 60-acre farm with African vegetables. There's a big market, potentially. Nearly 120,000 people from Africa live in the D.C. area.
A group of women in colorful headscarves, long pants and long sleeves gets out of a car. Gladys Fontem from Cameroon is here to pick hot peppers, the key to her spicy stews. She pulls on surgical gloves to protect her hands.
GLADYS FONTEM: It's that hot. You need to put on gloves, trust me.
FULTON: She says the kind of peppers she wants are hard to find at stores. They can be dried out or very expensive. They're shipped from far away. Bowling charges just 80 cents a pound, all you can pick. Customers come and pick and go tell their friends. This time, Fontem brought her sister, Ara.
ARA: We come to the farm because it gives us a taste of home. Yeah, the smell, the fields, it's like we're back home.
FULTON: In other parts of the U.S., the foods of home are different. A recent study by Rutgers and other universities showed that the demand for Mexican, Indian, Chinese and Puerto Rican produce is worth more than a billion dollars on the East Coast alone. Yao Afantchao is an ethnic crop specialist and something of an evangelist.
YAO AFANTCHAO: Not in the true sense of evangelization, but I am really trying to help people discover new foods.
FULTON: He immigrated from Togo to Maryland 20 years ago. The University of Maryland hired him to explore whether African crops could even grow in the state. He tried peppers and melons and things like edible hibiscus and jute leaves. Turns out, they grow fairly well, but it takes some adjustments.
AFANTCHAO: We have few problems. We have a weather problem. This is a temperate zone and so the growing period is shorter.
FULTON: He works with farmers like George Bowling. Bowling shows me what's left of his melon patch.
BOWLING: You had three rows of cantaloupes from here to the woods and the sun cooked them all, a total loss almost.
FULTON: How did the African crops do with the heat? Do they fair a little better than some of these things?
BOWLING: Not really because what they call the African eggplant, when it gets real hot, like, they turn red and they don't want them.
FULTON: These red eggplants are actually supposed to be green with white stripes. I asked George if he makes any money.
BOWLING: I probably got a net return of a dollar an hour now.
FULTON: A dollar an hour. It doesn't sound like much, but he tells me he's technically retired, so he can afford to experiment. Maryland has given many farmers an incentive to experiment. Back in 2000, the state offered them money to stop growing tobacco as long as they kept their farms going. More than 80 percent of the Maryland farmers who qualified took the buyout. Some are now growing wine grapes, some are giving farm tours and Halloween hayrides and some are taking African vegetables even further, introducing them to new customers at farmers markets and fancy restaurants. April Fulton, NPR News, Washington.
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