Ethnic crop guru goes global

By Mary Reines

University of Massachusetts plants and soils professor Frank Mangan received a phone call about 17 years ago, from Nuestras Raices, a grass-roots agricultural community development in Holyoke.

The community was looking for someone to do presentations on production, and Mangan happened to be fluent in Spanish, a very common language in Holyoke. He went down to see the gardens and was inspired.

“I never realized that there could be an opportunity to grow crops popular with those communities … so that’s what we started doing,” said Mangan.

He began working with Nuestras Raices to grow a type of pepper called aji dulce, and a pumpkin-like squash called calabaza.

“They’ve got funny names, but they grow very well in our climate,” he said.

Today, Mangan is a guru of ethnic crops. He even tried to sell some to Antonio’s Pizza in Amherst.

Mangan brought over an herb called loroco, which is the bud of a type of bush in El Salvador. He recalled how the Salvadorians used the popular herb in cheese, pasta and pizza.

Noting loroco’s “strong” and “interesting” taste, he thought that it would be a great crop for Antonio’s.

But the professor was turned down.

“[Antonio’s] had no interest in it,” said Mangan.

However, there are other businesses interested in Mangan’s ethnic crops.

About two years ago, Mangan and his students started working with organic farmers to supply crops to Whole Foods Market. Looking to target nonimmigrant groups, they grew a popular Brazilian vegetable called abobora japonesa, or Japanese squash.

UMass students worked on the crops promotion, and its sweet flavor and long shelf life made it easily marketable.

“It has a nice taste … that’s what we use for Thanksgiving,” Mangan said of the squash.

Mangan also provides crops to Market Basket, shipping them to the store’s warehouse in Tewksbury. The chain, popular among immigrant groups, has 75 stores throughout Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.

Seabras, a Brazilian chain store, also sells Mangan’s crops. The company is based in Newark, N.J., with stores in Florida and the Northeast of the United States.

About two years ago, Mangan said he worked with a colleague to start shipping Macintosh apples to Central America, where the climate is unsuitable to grow apple trees. One of his students, Mildred Alvarado, is currently evaluating the project as part of her work to earn a Ph.D. She is conducting surveys to see what the natives of Central America think about Macintosh apples. Mangan said the surveys are “going well.”

According to Mangan’s research, the shipping of crops by truck from Los Angeles to Boston uses about 501 gallons of gas, while the shipping of crops by boat from New Mexico to Miami, to New Bedford, uses about 93 gallons of gas.

“Transportation by boat is just so much more efficient,” Mangan said.

Mangan also recalled a New York Times article published on Dec. 30, 2011, which exposed the deficiencies of organic farming. He noted that the workers on a farm in the Baja peninsula of Mexico made only $10 a day. The article also explained that certified organic practices put a strain on water resources in places where it is already scarce, such as Mexico.

This spring break, Mangan, along with one of his colleagues and a couple graduate students, is going to Brazil to negotiate with Embrapa, the Brazilian agricultural research corporation. He hopes to begin importing popular Brazilian crops such as cassava, which is used to make tapioca pudding.

“[Cassava] is one of the most important root crops in the world. We can’t grow it here,” said Mangan.

Mangan hopes that by exporting from Brazil, UMass will sell the crops year round.

Currently, Mangan and four of his graduate students are planning to grow certified organic jalapeno, poblano, serrano and anaheim peppers for Whole Foods. They are also hoping to provide them from July to September, and then work with growers in Vera Cruz, Mexico, to ship the peppers back to New Bedford during New England’s offseason.

According to Mangan, the Mexican workers would use “sustainable practices” and be paid a “living wage.” The crops would also be shipped by boat.

“Whole Foods has been very supportive of our work,” Mangan said.

In addition to these numerous projects, Mangan also founded worldcrops.org, which “provides information on vegetables and herbs that can be grown in the Northeastern United States,” with an emphasis “on crops that are popular among ethnic groups living in this region and can be grown in this region,” according to the website’s homepage.

Mangan hadn’t always planned on working with plants. He originally majored in history and philosophy at Salem State College, and then went with the Peace Corps to Niger to volunteer as an English teacher.

“It was there that I really got interested in agriculture,” he said, noting that the country’s poverty made an impression on him.

When Mangan returned from the Peace Corps, he enrolled at UMass and obtained a second bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in agriculture.

Mary Reines can be reached at [email protected]