By: Molly Gleason
“If you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” That’s the quote that popped into my mind when I first met Janet, owner and overseer of CHJ-Umoja Gardens, a 4 acre plot of ground dedicated to growing white maize, amaranth, and other traditional and not-so-traditional ethnic crops. Janet is one of those people that radiates warmth. She laughs deeply and smiles often as she leads me through her towering golden corn rows, free-range chickens pecking beneath our feet and scattering out of our path.
“I started this about, I want to say 6 years ago,” she explains, “It was just experimenting. I think for me, my first experience was with the Indian corn. I have a friend, the Raders (Family Farm in Normal), and they grow Indian corn, and when I saw that, I said, ‘wow this is what we used to eat at home.’ So I asked him to save me one whole row, and I boiled it and it was so nice. Typically Americans don’t eat it, but it’s really good. And you know the colors; people say the more colors the more nutrients, and I thought with all those beautiful colors, there has to be a lot of nutrients.” She notes that the flavor of the Indian corn was very similar to that of the white maize that is a staple of the Kenyan diet. “And I thought, oh my goodness, what if I would plant the white maize?”
She stops to pull off an ear of maize and shuck it. “It’s almost like a peanut flavor and it’s chewy. It’s not as soft and sweet as the sweet corn. At this stage you shell it, and then you boil it, and you mix it with beans and it gives you a complete meal, because you have the protein and the starch combined. You can even add potatoes, carrots, cabbage. I like to add butternut squash to mine. This is the stage at which it is beginning to dry up. Beyond this stage you can store it and you can also use it in that same dish,” she explains.
Today Janet’s white maize earns her the beloved name of Mama Mahindi, mahindi being the word for maize in her native tongue. People travel for miles to find Janet and get a taste of this traditional African white corn. What began as a hobby and simple way to stave off homesickness is now a budding full-time enterprise. But like all good stories, Janet’s journey from humble African beginnings to American entrepreneur is not without its ups and downs.
Janet’s story begins in Kenya, Africa, where she was no stranger to the labors and joys of agriculture growing up. “My mom grew vegetables. She had a farm. She grew coffee, tea, bananas and we always worked there on the farm. When school was out, during the holidays, we didn’t have time to play, we always worked in the gardens,” remembers Janet fondly.
In 1979 however, Janet left her family home and traveled half way across the world to attend college in the United States, earning a Bachelor’s Degree from Iowa Wesleyan in Special Education, and completing a Masters in Counseling at Western Illinois University. While she worked hard to achieve her dreams inside the classroom, she also worked hard on her other passion, gardening, outside of the classroom. “I had a friend, I used to volunteer on their farm when I was a student, and every morning I would wake up at 5:00 a.m. and help pull the weeds and harvest, just for fun and to connect with home,” says Janet. “This takes me closer to home: when I’m in the garden, when I’m growing.” At the time, it was simply a means of warding off homesickness; she had no idea that it would one day lead to her citizenship when a new policy change made it possible for agricultural workers to attain green cards. Janet recalls the story:
“President George H. W. Bush came up with a, I don’t know how to call it, but if you had been here and had worked on a farm, and the farmer was willing to sponsor you, you could get your residency. And so I talked to the farmers, and their names are John and Donna Hauzinger of Henderson, Illinois near Galesburg, and they were very willing to sponsor me. And I got my green card and eventually got my citizenship.”
After graduation Janet taught GED classes and continued to find comfort in gardening as a hobby. She rented a small plot of land initially from the Raders, and later from Wettstein Organic Farm where she planted crowder peas, amaranth, lambs quarters, rappini, and tomatoes her first year. Seeing how the vegetables flourished, she continued to grow the garden one year after another on that small plot of ground. It was her desire to share her African heritage and provide cultural crops for Africans natives in Central Illinois that eventually led her to grow crops for market.
“I had been watching the trends of the food. I noticed the Chinese pretty much had their own stores, the Mexicans the same, the Europeans the same. But the Africans, I didn’t see much for Africans. And I thought well, maybe I should start growing African vegetables.
And with that idea in her mind, she planted a small plot of white maize a few years ago. “My husband said, ‘how do you know you will be able to find people to buy, but I had done my research, and I knew that there is a certain tribe from my country that loves white maize. I mean we all do, but there is one particular tribe that really likes githeri, a bean and corn mixture. So when it was ready, they came and within two days it was all sold.” She laughs, “And he said, ‘Oh my goodness, you knew what you were doing.’ So I just saved my seeds and keep re-using them. So this is all from small beginnings.”
Two years later she decided to expand the garden and began talking with the Wettstein’s about renting a larger piece of land, “I talked to him and I said, I just want to see what production I can get out of an acre. And he said,’ oh yeah, we can use this portion.’ And so he measured an acre. And when he got to the post point of an acre, I felt overwhelmed,” chuckles Janet, “and so he made it a little bit less.”
Today, Janet has about 3 acres in white maize and 1 acre in various other vegetables, including kale, collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, onions, swiss chard, sweet potatoes, amaranth, and crowder peas, which are all available for U-Pick at her farm if you are up for getting a little taste of farm life and harvesting your own veggies. She also sells at the East Peoria Farmers Market, with plans to start selling in Chicago next year.
Growing crops has never just been about growing crops for Janet though. She has always seen the bigger picture. She understands first-hand how the simple act of planting a seed can take you back to your childhood home, how finding a vegetable from your home country can bring back beloved memories, and how sharing an ethnic dish from your culture has the power to bring people together. And she knows too, the restful effect that gardening has on the soul, the way it draws people together, and the way that caring for the land can actually be a way of caring for each other. Unity is even the name of her garden, as Umoja is the word for unity in Swahili, Kenya’s national language. The C, H, and J, stand for the members of each person in Janet’s family: C for her son Chiko, H for her husband Henry, and J for Janet, respectively.
“You know, when you are in the garden you have projects to work on together and things to do together, and so, to me, it was bringing us together,” says Janet of the effect that gardening has had on her family. “And beyond that, I envisioned items, or crops, that would bring people together, and it has. It’s drawing people together, uniting people of different ethnic groups. They’re coming together just to enjoy food together, and enjoy what I grow.”
We continue to walk through the corn rows, Janet pulling down ears of white maize as she goes and filling up a box for me of freshly picked ears. “You can take a girl out of Africa, but you can’t take the Africa out of a girl,” laughs Janet as she places the bucket on top of her head and begins carrying it in the typical Kenyan style. I laugh and smile too, because I am very happy for that.
White maize will be available at Janet’s farm until mid-October. Although the ears are becoming tougher at this time, they are still great for adding to soups and stews or making githeri, one of Janet’s favorite Kenyan dishes. To visit Janet’s farm or to pick up fresh produce call ahead at 773-979-1961, and to learn more visit her on facebook or at her blog.