UMass Project Helps Central American Vegetable Find Home In New England

A tropical vegetable from Central America is beginning to make its way onto a growing number of farms and kitchen tables across New England, thanks to a UMass-Amherst research project. A leafy green beloved among some immigrant communities is being grown locally. Chipilin is a plant native to central America. And according to Frank Mangan, it is considered a staple in the cuisines of El Salvador, Guatemala and southern Mexico.
“It’s a legume. It looks very similar to alfalfa. It’s used in soups and it’s used in tamales.”
Mangan, a professor who directs the Ethnic Crops Program at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass, says chipilin is among several non-native crops that have been grown and tested at a 200-acre research farm in Deerfield before being introduced to commercial growers.
“Production here is very expensive in Massachusetts, and we basically take the risk away from a grower. And so once we feel that we’ve got a crop that we have viable production and there’s a good market, then it goes on to a commercial farm.”
The response has been quite positive. Mangan says until recently chipilin was only available frozen. But this summer farmers are selling about 2,000 pounds a week of fresh, locally grown chipilin in the greater Boston area, home to a significant Central American population.  Two weeks ago, Mangan says, the project expanded to western Massachusetts, and chipilin was made available in a couple of stores in Springfield and Holyoke. Boosted by a promotional campaign on Spanish-language radio, he says the stores sold out of the crop the first week, and ordered more for immigrant families hungry for a taste of home. “These are crops that are very much part of their culture and something that some of them have not seen since they’ve been here. We’ve come in contact with people from different countries that have… hadn’t seen these crops for 10 or 15 years, and it’s very emotional.”
Mangan says he hopes to expand to even more stores in western Massachusetts and Connecticut next summer.