Israel Hertzler isn't the sort of man who usually bucks tradition. On the rare occasions when the Amish farmer leaves his home on dusty Woodpecker Way, he drives a horse and buggy. He is partial to straw hats with wide brims and homemade trousers held up by worn suspenders. And for lunch most days? Meat and potatoes, of course.
So Hertzler was more than a bit leery when a businessman from Mali asked him three years ago to plant n'goyo, a bitter type of African eggplant with green ridges, in a part of Southern Maryland better known for tobacco barns and oyster-shucking houses.
"I said to him, 'You must be funny,' " said Hertzler, 32, of St. Mary's County. "I don't know the first thing about growing African eggplants."
But he does now. Hertzler and his brother have transformed their patch of Amish country into a United Nations of horticulture. Down the road from the half-acre of n'goyo grows another type of eggplant, known as njilu in the Congo Republic. Nearby is a plot of habanero peppers, highly prized in Latin America.
The patches of international vegetables are the latest example of how immigrants moving into the Washington region are reshaping the economy. As growing enclaves of ethnic groups, from Salvadorans to Ethiopians, hunger for fresh produce from their homelands, increasing numbers of farmers like Hertzler are trying to meet their needs.
The eagerness of some farmers to cast away traditional crops and turn instead to vegetables with names difficult for English speakers to pronounce underscores a growing desperation in the agricultural community, in which longtime growers are struggling to stay afloat.
Faced with falling crop prices and rising operating costs, more and more area farmers are accepting multimillion-dollar offers from developers and getting out of agriculture. Across the region, fields of tobacco and soybeans are giving way to a new crop: sprawling subdivisions.
But on quiet Lomax Road in Charles County, Lana Edelen is determined to keep her farm going. Part of the key to her success? The mix of ethnic fruits and vegetables she sells to Jamaicans, Latinos, Asians and Africans. Down past the rusty tobacco barns and rows of sweet corn, Edelen drives from patch to patch in a gray station wagon caked with mud.
She points at a green leaf known as callalou to Jamaicans. Then the Asian variety of eggplant known as ichiban. But Edelen runs into some trouble when she tries to describe a spherical yellow vegetable speckled with white. She calls it a garden egg.
"I don't know how you say it in their language because I don't speak it," said the 54-year-old former tobacco farmer. "I just know Africans like to eat it."
When she has to write down the vegetable's name, she writes it phonetically: B-O-M-A. Yao Afantchao, a Togolese immigrant who buys her vegetables and distributes them to local specialty stores, tries to correct her.
"He says, 'That's not the way it's supposed to be spelled. It's supposed to start with an H. And I say, 'Well, that's the way I spell it,' " Edelen said, looking exasperated. "What's the point of having an H if it's silent?"
The bitter-tasting vegetable is actually spelled gboma by West Africans. Afantchao is just pleased that the Edelens, whose ancestors farmed tobacco for generations, tried a new and exotic crop.
Afantchao is on a crusade to increase the number of local farmers growing ethnic vegetables. He and Stephan Tubene, a Congolese immigrant who runs the Small Farm Institute at the University of Maryland and its fields in Upper Marlboro, started working together in the 1990s when they realized that immigrants craved the fresh produce they ate in their homelands.
"My kids can eat the fast food Monday through Sunday, but I can't," said Tubene, 43, of Glen Burnie. "I need to eat my fufu or my egusi."
He's not the only one with a hankering for fufu (a type of African porridge) or egusi (ground melon seeds used as seasoning). Ethnic foods are part of the $25 billion specialty food industry, whose sales jumped 16 percent between 2002 and 2004, according to the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.
So the two Africans began researching which tropical vegetables could best be grown in the soil around Washington. In December, Tubene published the 20-page first edition of the "Ethnic and Specialty Vegetables Handbook." They constantly tell growers about this burgeoning market.
On a recent sun-baked afternoon at an Upper Marlboro research farm, a few dozen curious farmers showed up at the quarter-acre plot to gaze at the unusual produce. Tubene held up what looked like a watermelon shrunken to the size of a golf ball.
"Anybody recognize this?" he said.
The farmers looked puzzled. "Tomatinas?" someone finally guessed.
"They are eggplants!" Tubene declared. "The Thai variety."
Some farmers are skeptical of growing plants they've never heard of. But Christine Bergmark, director of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, said she anticipates more growers will turn to ethnic vegetables if they can do it profitably.
"You've got to remember that Southern Maryland was founded on a crop that no one knew much about: tobacco," she said. "That was a new, novel crop back then. But it worked pretty well for almost 400 years."
Although there are no precise statistics measuring the number of farmers growing ethnic vegetables, experts say the number is steadily increasing. Immigrants also are starting to grow their own vegetables. The New York-based National Immigrant Farming Initiative estimates that 60 percent of farm workers in the United States are foreign-born.
Haroun Hallack, 39, who was born in Sierra Leone, grows ethnic vegetables on his farm in West Virginia. He sells to customers throughout the Washington region who want their African produce fresh, not canned or imported.
"We cannot satisfy the demand," he said.
As he toils in his St. Mary's field, Hertzler doesn't give much thought to the culinary preferences of West Africans. He grew n'goyo for a year before he tried it, and he doesn't plan on cooking it again.
"They don't actually taste good," he said. "I gave it to people, and they said it was terrible."
But as he took a bite of a tennis ball-size n'goyo on a recent morning, Hertzler noticed something strangely appealing about the vegetable, picked fresh in the field. It may not be sweet like an apple, he said, but there's something about it that makes you want to keep chewing.
"I'm not sure that I like it," Hertzler said, taking another bite. "But I'm going to keep eating it."
Stephan Tubene, coordinator of the University of Maryland's Small Farm Institute, picks a variety of habanero peppers.A Thai variety of eggplant often called bitter balls or garden eggs grow in the field.