Demonstrating the Feasibility of Producing Culturally Preferred Vegetable Crops in Underrepresented Urban Areas

Progress report for FNC23-1373

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2023: $14,690.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2025
Grant Recipient: City Sprouts
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Aaron French
City Sprouts
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Aaron French: Mr. French brings 13 years of professional vegetable production experience to City Sprouts having worked on commercial vegetable farms, in the non-profit agricultural sector and having managed a seven acre farm business incubator program. Mr. French will oversee the operations of this program and help facilitate all aspects of the grant. The demonstration aspect of the grant will take place on the seven acre City Sprouts Community Urban Farm, located north of downtown Omaha in the historically underserved Sherman neighborhood. City Sprouts utilizes a variety of sustainable production methods including reduced tillage, cover cropping, integrated pest and weed management programs and the use of conventional and walk-behind tractors with implements meant to reduce tillage impacts on soil health. The farm produces diverse vegetables, herbs and flowers.

Edgar Romero Gonzalez: Edgar joined City Sprouts in 2021 as the City Sprouts South Manager + Education Assistant. Edgar’s education background is in Horticulture, Land Systems, and Management. A graduate of the 2019 Growing Growers apprenticeship program at Stoney Crest Organic Urban Farm in Kansas City. Edgar will be assisting with the planning, production, and distribution aspects of the grant.

Laura Simpson: Laura joined the City Sprouts team in 2020 as the Programs + Distribution Coordinator. Their role is to develop and maintain partnerships with community organizations to distribute culturally preferred produce. Prior to City Sprouts, Simpson completed the Aspiring Farmer Residency Program in Omaha growing seasonal produce on 5 urban farm plots, CSA program, and market vending. Laura also completed the New Roots Internship with The Big Garden.

Mia Webb: Ms. Webb participated in the City Sprouts Urban Farming Internship in 2019 and returned in 2020 as an intern team leader, managing interns on City Sprouts’ urban farm. Ms. Webb was hired on as a permanent staff in 2022, facilitating educational experiences for and managing interns.

Urban Farming Interns: A crucial part of both the production and planning aspects of this grant program, the City Sprouts Urban Farming Interns are a diverse group of young people, primarily from Southeast Asia, Central America and Central / East Africa. Interns assist with the selection of culturally important crops for production as well as the planting, harvesting, and distribution of those crops.


Omaha, like many similar sized cities, continues to face rising levels of food insecurity and an increasing population of immigrant and refugee families. These two issues often intersect, leaving vulnerable populations in need of governmental and nonprofit assistance for basic needs like housing, employment and most acutely, food. From 2010-2019 Nebraska resettled approximately 10,000 refugees, with over half settling in the greater Omaha area. By many estimates, this rate of resettlement has and will continue to increase following escalated conflicts around the world. Food banks are providing these communities with food services that help address base levels of food insecurity but often lack in fresh vegetables and specifically culturally preferred vegetables and herbs. According to a 2020 report from a state agency, over ⅔ of refugees in Nebraska report eating a vegetable less than once per day. Many of these preferred produce items are not available in traditional or culturally specific groceries or farmers markets, leaving new Americans with little to no access to important cultural and culinary resources. Another limiting factor in the availability of produce is the lack of knowledge amongst most urban and peri-urban farmers in the production practices of culturally preferred produce and herbs.

Project Objectives:

In this demonstration and education project, City Sprouts will lean heavily on its large network of volunteers, staff, interns, community partners and associated urban farmers to identify and select three preferred crops from each selected culture (Burmese, Afghan, Iraqi, Somali, Sudanese / South Sudanese and Ukrainian) to grow on its seven acre farm. Crops will be identified through in depth interviews with current and former interns who represent these cultures as well as surveys distributed to community partners actively engaged with refugee populations. Once selected, a one-sheet production guide for each crop will be created by City Sprouts for distribution to other urban and peri-urban farmers in its extensive network as an educational resource.

City Sprouts has designed and delivered a survey to former interns, staff and community partners to gauge which culturally preferred crops would be most beneficial to study and create a growing guide for. Additionally, City Sprouts staff have conducted in-person interviews with growers and members of the identified communities to assess where market shortfalls exist in terms of produce availability. After assessing capacity and based on initial survey results, City Sprouts staff have decided to reduce both the number of crops and cultures to focus on, in order to provide higher quality growing guides. City Sprouts will engage with members of the Burmese, Burundian, Sudanese/South Sudanese and Afghan communities and have identified two crops per culture. The crops are as follows:

  • Burmese (Karen, Karenni, Chin): 
    • Sour Leaf / Sorrel: A type of hibiscus cultivated in Burma, Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia, primarily for it's young, tender and bitter leaves. Used heavily to make stews and soups. 
    • Thai Eggplant: Called Thai eggplant but popular through parts of Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia these small, spherical green eggplant vary wildly from Italian and French eggplants most commonly cultivated in the United States. 
  • Burundian:
    • Burundian Eggplant: A small white eggplant that ripens to a deep orange grown by Burundian refugees in Omaha. Seed gifted to City Sprouts by a grower in our network and sold at the Maranatha Market, a Burundian owned and operated grocer in Omaha. 
    • Pumpkin Leaves: Harvested when young and tender, the leaves are stewed and served as a relish (of sorts) with many dishes, known as muboora. Also commonly cultivated by Burmese growers in Omaha. 
  • Sudanese / South Sudanese:
    • Molokhia: Referred to here using the name of a dish commonly made with this plant in the mallow family. Also referred to as jute, the tender leaves are harvested and stewed with seasonings to create a mucilaginous stew common in both Sudan and South Sudan. 
    • Black Eyed Pea Leaves: While black eyed peas are commonly cultivated, particularly in the American south, grower in Nebraska rarely harvest the leaves from these leguminous crops. Stewed in a similar way to molokhia, these are known in South Sudan as nyete. 
  •  Afghani:
    • Persian Cucumber: Small, smooth and seedless cucumbers are common in Afghan cuisine and valued as a snack or to prepare doogh, a yogurt and cucumber drink. 
    • Tinda / Apple Gourd: A small, round curcubit. This green gourd is harvested at a slightly immature stage and generally stuffed and steamed. 

Not all the above listed crops were able to be grown during the 2023 season, so additional trials and production data will be gathered during the 2024 growing season. Crops that were grown during the 2023 season italicized above. 

The production guides will include information on seed sourcing (from organic / sustainable and BIPOC-owned sources, where possible), propagation and transplant management using minimal plastic, minimal and/or no-till field preparation, transplant / direct seeding guidance, irrigation requirements (with a focus on water conservation), integrated weed management, the use of both organic (leaf litter, straw, etc) and biodegradable, MATER-BI based mulch. Proper harvest and post-harvest handling instructions will also be included, as well as any understood pest issues.

In addition to the production guides, which will be available online and at public outreach events, City Sprouts will host a field day in conjunction with two partner organizations: Refugee Women of Nebraska and the Global Roots Refugee Partnership focused on exposing urban growers of all skill levels to hands-on experiences with planting, management and harvesting of the selected crops. Growers will learn the cultural importance and culinary uses of each selected vegetable crop from members of that culture, as well as production techniques necessary for growing it using sustainable techniques in the Midwest. 

Through publicly demonstrating the sustainable production of these culturally preferred crops, creating and distributing production guides and hosting a field day with refugee led community partners, City Sprouts will provide an example to other growers in the area that the production of culturally preferred crops is not just possible, but also potentially economically beneficial to their farm operation. Through its partnership with the Food Bank for the Heartland, City Sprouts is actively creating marketing opportunities for small scale farmers to be compensated for growing and distributing culturally preferred produce through the Food Bank’s network of partner pantries. The demonstration and education portions of this program will lead directly to an increase in both availability and accessibility of that produce while also increasing the economic viability of producing it for local growers.


  • Demonstrate the use of five sustainable production techniques in growing culturally preferred vegetables (Ex: integrative pest and weed management, cover cropping, compost applications and sustainable tillage implements (Spring-Fall 2023)
    • City Sprouts demonstrated these techniques for culturally preferred vegetable crops in 2023 and will continue to demonstrate, record and promote these techniques in 2024, particularly within the growing guides. 
  • Produce 5,000 - 7,000 pounds, annually, of selected culturally preferred vegetables at the City Sprouts Urban Farm for distribution to local food pantries (Fall, 2023)
    • City Sprouts produced over 15,000 lbs of produce for distribution to the Bountiful Harvest Food Pantry through it's partnership with the Food Bank for the Heartland. Of those 15,000 lbs, 7,307 were categorized as culturally preferred. 
  • Complete 10 interviews and receive 20 survey responses to identify culturally preferred produce from select populations (Spring, 2023)
    • City Sprouts received 8 survey responses regarding culturally preferred produce from select populations in 2023, a lower number than expected. However, City Sprouts staff engaged with 14 community members and growers to gather information regarding culturally preferred produce items. Survey responses will continue to be collected as City Sprouts still seeks to continue to learn and educate growers on the production of culturally preferred crops beyond the grant period. 
  • Create and distribute ten culturally preferred vegetable production guides to the large network of growers in the Omaha area (Spring, 2024)
    • City Sprouts has collected data, photos and practices and will continue to identify best practices to include on the production guides. The guides will most likely be ready for production and distribution by Fall, 2024.
  • Engage 15 Omaha area farmers through a hands-on, production focused field day (Fall, 2023)
    • City Sprouts hosted two large tours and field days in 2023. The first of which was in conjunction with the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society and brought 27 farmers and food system professionals to the farm to learn about City Sprouts and the farms production methods, particularly as they relate to specialty, culturally preferred crops. City Sprouts also hosted 45 growers and food systems professionals at our first annual Soil Health Field Day. While the focus was not explicitly on this project, all attendees were extremely interested in our production methods and crops and the field day spent ~1.5 hours discussing and touring the related fields. It was also an extreme pleasure to host members of the NCR-SARE Administrative Council and staff to our farm to learn about our work. 


Materials and methods:

City Sprouts conducted interviews and distributed a survey to community partners, former and current interns and other members of our community to gather information around which culturally preferred vegetable crops members of Omaha's Burmese, Sudanese, Afghan, and Burundian communities desired greater affordable access to. Several crops were identified and grown by City Sprouts in 2023. Information regarding the successful propagation, maintenance and cultivation of these crops were collected and recorded by City Sprouts and will be, along with information from the 2024 growing season, condensed into one page growing guides for 8 culturally preferred vegetable crops that all grow well in our region.   

The 2023 season, maybe like all growing seasons, didn't go exactly as we planned and so we were not able to produce out all 8 varieties selected, nor were we able to host a specific SARE project related field day. However, we purposefully built an additional season into our project and so will be trialing all 8 varieties in the spring and summer of 2024 to further fill out the growing guides we will produce and distribute in fall 2024. 

Participation Summary
5 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

45 Consultations
4 On-farm demonstrations
9 Tours
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

40 Farmers participated
45 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

As previously mentioned, City Sprouts hosts numerous educational events, field days, tours and workshops on our farm every year. With all of those events, we take special care to mention each project currently happening on our farm which includes this SARE Farmer-Rancher grant program. Since we were in year one of this project, we mostly informed visitors to our farm of what we had accomplished so far and what we were hoping to continue to accomplish with the rest of the grant period. All tours, workshops, field days and educational events were conducted by City Sprouts staff and most included some hands-on activities in the field. We have found the mix of tours plus hands-on activities to be most effective in learning both production practices and about specific cultural varieties. 

Moving into 2024, when we can expect more specific results (and will have far more capacity to promote this specific project) City Sprouts will host a field day specifically about the production of the 8 selected varieties and hope to draw 25-30 growers to the farm for that field day. We will promote this project in local media, to our social media / newsletter and are planning on presenting the results of our work at the next Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society conference. Additionally, using our large network of urban agriculture growers and professionals, we will distribute hundreds of copies of our growing guides in an effort to increase production of these vital, culturally preferred vegetable varieties. 

Learning Outcomes

21 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

Roughly halfway through this project, the City Sprouts team has learned much about the successful, and sometime unsuccessful, production of culturally preferred vegetable varieties for distribution to area markets (in our case a food pantry associated with the Food Bank for the Heartland in Omaha, Nebraska). In year one we successfully identified several cultural crops that grow extremely well, even under less than ideal conditions. We learned a significant amount regarding the in-field management of those crops and perhaps our biggest takeaway so far is the harvest and post-harvest handling of these crops. Many are incredibly time consuming to harvest in significant quantities by hand and our team will be experimenting with new and innovative ways to bulk harvest during the 2024 growing season. 

Project Outcomes

4 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 New working collaborations
Success stories:

I would love to include a success story at the time of our next reporting! Apologies for not having anything inspiring at the moment! 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.