Succulence and Surprise at the Taaru Askan Farm in Senegal

The first time I met Nicole, she was giggling with delight as she waved packets of organics seeds in front me. Imported from the USA.

“You wouldn’t believe what will actually grow here!” she exclaimed, “we’re trying out all sorts of things!”

Some of those ‘things’ include vegetables like kale and swiss chard – two hot items that are highly sought-after by most Americans, Canadians and Western Europeans in Dakar.

Let’s face it, for long-termers in Dakar, there are only so many ways to get excited about the local vegetable options available in the city. Spinach is usually the only leafy green around, and unfortunately, I have never seen “boro-boro” outside of Casamance. (Boro-boro resembles something like a kale-spinach hybrid.)

As happy as Nicole’s kale was making me and a bunch of other drooling expats, I had to ask my puritan farmer self, who was this Vermonter? And what did she think she was doing – introducing non-native plant species to Senegal? I finally got to see for myself just what she, and her husband Mamadou, are up to. And it is enchanting, exciting and enticing!

Since it always important to me to know where my food comes from — and because we want to provide that peace of mind for our Abracadabra customers — off we went to Taaru Askan in the bliss of traffic-free roads at 6am. Two hours later we were there.

 

The farm manager and team washing our greens

Even bugs are gorgeous

“We are visitors on this planet,” says the Dalai Lama.

Never have I felt this to be more true than while walking around the organic Taaru Askan farm. I was a warmly welcomed visitor, but one with selfish motives to get some kale and enjoy the fresh air. Every other animate or inanimate object at Taaru Askan had a real purpose.

Take all the pollinating insects I saw. The farm was abundant with them – most of which I cannot identify in Senegal beyond “grasshopper” or the more generic “bug.” But each one got me excited. I thought “go go go, little insect!” I thought of all the creepy crawlies under the soil, doing their thing. They’re epecially important if you want to run a farm organically.

Feed your soil not your plants is a line I’ve heard many times from organic farmers.

While I have not yet talked to Nicole, Mamadou or the farm workers about feeding the soil, they must be doing it – as all the plants looked so healthy (and everything tasted delicious!).

I smelled the fragrant yellow flowers of fennel, and thought about summer salads and winter soups. I saw the robust-looking green papaya and thought, mmh…spicy Som Tum. The sunflowers promised seeds to toast for crackers, salads and soups. I got hungry – so grabbed some basil leaves to chew on and a tomato still ripening. Yum!

The best part was when the young and energetic farm manager, Assane, uncovered the baby plants from their netting so I could get a better look at them. Wee little kale and swiss chard looked up at me. Quite a nursery. In just a month, I thought, shoppers at the Dakar farmer’s market are going to be grabbing wildly at you! Enjoy your peace here at the farm little ones…

I was there to grab some early kale for the Trio Toque dinner we were co-hosting, and to see what other ingredients Abracadabra might be able to incorporate into our lunch deliveries in the coming season.

 

Baby swiss chard about to outgrow their nursery

« Retournons à la nature pour nous retrouver »

Once I saw how healthy those little plants looked, it was easy to forgive them for being non-native species. The seed snob in me thought: if it’s either this or watching chemical sprayers and Chinese monoculture take over Senegal, I’d rather the introduction of non-native species be managed organically and carefully by Taaru Askan.

The rich biodiversity of the farm and all its natural balance is already a promise that kale is not going to suddenly rampage through Senegal and take over. As for how kale and other non-native plants work with local insects and soils, after seeing, smelling and hearing the farm’s biodiversity, I have full confidence Nicole and her husband Mamadou have all that in mind and sight.

Taaru Askan’s tagline roughly translates into “we return to nature to find ourselves.” I would say the farm is helping people do that, even those not lucky enough to go for a visit!

Sure…kale may not be bringing Senegal back to its plant roots exactly. However, the way in which Nicole and Mamadou approach agriculture, and their customers, is surely helping Senegalese and expats alike to be more deeply connected to their food and to appreciate organic agriculture, and knowing your farmer and where your food comes from.

What is this?! Corossol! Yum!

How does the farm balance tradition with innovation?

Beyond organic farming practices, Taaru Askan has got the whole solar power thing going. One of my favorite moments of harmony was when a small lizard popped up over the solar panels to take a better look at me. He certainly didn’t seem to mind these foreign structures on his terrain, and I am sure he and his distant cousins would mind more the pollution from other energy sources.

Abracadabra’s favorite kick – the Thai pepper!

What’s next to drool over from Taaru Askan?

Though the farm is in its early stages, you can easily imagine the bounty it will produce.

Assane toured me around even the unsown areas, laying out before my imagination which crops will go where. His enthusiasm was unbounded.

“Rows of broccoli here, an entire area for kale and swiss chard there, more hot pepper bushes, and some corn and watermelon,” he says, looking out over the empty field. Indeed, all of these and more are coming up in the next months!

“And where will the goats go?” I teased.

“Ooooh, me, too, I want goats,” says Assane, “we are trying to convince Nicole.” He smiles. Nicole?

What charismatic mega-vertebrates are there? Well, there’s the guard dog, SySy. Whose bark and girth give no hint to his cuddly core. There are mosaic murals of elephants who once tread this ground. And just beyond the farm gates is a nature preserve, meaning troops of small monkeys are there watching your every movement from across the path. Adorable.

As I pulled out of the farm’s gates, with our cooler full of fresh goodies, I thought about how lucky I was to be a visitor to the Taaru Askan farm. How lucky are we all that Nicole and Mamadou are visitors to this planet as well!

Vision, care, curiosity and excitement. What more can you ask for in your farmers?

Since I am not lucky enough to be a steward of Taaru Askan or even of a terrace garden right now, I can contribute to the farm’s great work by sharing it here. I got my kale and a few hours reprieve out of sultry, polluted Dakar. Most importantly, I got the deep satisfaction of knowing where my food comes from. From a good, good place.

You can enjoy the delicious farm goods from Taaru Askan every month at the Dakar Farmer’s Market, or get a taste of just how fresh and scrumptious their crops are in our Abracadabra lunches.

Nicole Dewing, a former lobbyist and director of cultural exchange programs come farmer, is half of the Taaru Askan duo. The other half of this heartfelt endeavor is Mamadou a long time hobby farmer and currently director of Corps Africa Senegal, a version of the US Peace Corps but embodies “Africans helping Africans.”