STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Papalo is a fleshy-leafed herb similar in taste to cilantro, with a slightly bitter, citrus-like zing. Eat it plain, or chop its small, scallop-edged leaves into avocado for a magical guacamole.
The taste is so right-on — and the plant so rare in New York — that Gudelio Garcia last week received an order for 200 bunches to be delivered from his El Poblano Farm to a swank Manhattan caterer, to make the popular party dip sing at a summer gathering.
For Garcia, 46, who rents a one-acre plot at Historic Richmond Town’s Decker Farm, where he cultivates papalo and other varieties of indigenous Mexican crops alongside more common farmers-market staples, the request was yet another sign his three-year-old business is filling a niche in the city.
HERB IN DEMAND
The herb which grew in swaths on the family farm he helped work from the age of 8 in Puebla, Mexico — the region that gives his Staten Island farm its name — is now sought after everywhere, from Port Richmond delicatessens to upscale farmers markets and restaurants in other boroughs.
“It’s extraordinary. I like to be out breathing the air, cultivating, it gives me so much tranquility,” Garcia said over the choppy whir of a lawnmower being used in a townhouse on the perimeter of the Richmond farm. “You have to keep going, keep struggling to get ahead. It’s not easy, but it’s worth all the effort.”
This is the first summer growing season in which the New Brighton resident has been able to dedicate himself entirely to the farm, rather than squeezing in a few hours at daybreak to work the earth, then heading to a construction job before returning to the fields in the evening to tend his plants.
Intrigued by Garcia’s project, the city’s New Farmer Development Project, in cooperation with the microfinance Accion Network, assisted him with his first and, so far, only loan of $1,150. The farm had previously been entirely financed by money he saved from his construction job.
The not-for-profit agencies also helped El Poblano Farm launch a Kickstarter campaign last month, which has already exceeded expectations, bringing in over $7,000 in donations: With the deadline for contributing Thursday, the online appeal on the hub for creative ventures has notched 269 supporters of Garcia’s mission to preserve seeds of traditional Mexican crops such as papalo and epazote (described on the site as “an incredible symbiosis of crisp flavors like mint, cilantro, and garlic all wrapped in one delicious leaf”).
Contributors received boxes of produce, canvas aprons or tote bags with a sketch of Garcia’s mustachioed, smiling face and line drawings of the herbs he sells.
“The ground here is so fertile, everything just grows,” said Garcia, who uses no chemicals in cultivation.
He leaned over bowling-ball-sized chombo, a Mexican squash, nestled under leaves and lying on the earth. Nearby, dozens of stalks of corn, a few crushed and tipped by Sunday night’s windstorm, reached skyward.
There were pickling cucumbers and rows of tomatillos. The petite, green fruit, protected by parchment-like skin, is tangy and candy-sweet, and the key ingredient in green salsa.
MORE THAN 600 PLANTS
Garcia has more than 600 tomatillo plants, which could yield 900 pounds of fruit selling for $3 a pound at the farmers’ markets in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Westchester, where he has stands.
Garcia tenderly snipped stalks of papalo with his pocket knife, then gathered it in a bunch like a bouquet. He cradled the delicate flowers of epazote in his callused palm.
“I’d like to work even more land,” said Garcia, musing about how next year he plans to also cultivate a larger plot in New Jersey. The success of his business is especially sweet for a man who never finished elementary school.
He headed to the Mexican capital as a young man because farming “put no money in the pockets,” he said. He got a job varnishing furniture in a factory, and for many years, sold papayas, wholesale, in the main export market. He sang at night in a traditional band.
Garcia arrived on Staten Island in 2000, joining his brother-in-law in Port Richmond, at a time, he said, when the neighborhood was “dirty and deserted and there were very few people from Mexico.”
Working in the restaurant business, he met Decker farm manager and Historic Richmond Town executive chef David Cavagnaro, who, at the time owned the West Brighton restaurant American Grill.
It was Cavagnaro who pitched the idea of cultivating a section of the 11.2-acre Decker Farm. — knowing about Garcia’s penchant for hard work and his background as a farmer.
The land on Decker Farm is also rented on an annual basis by a handful of other private farmers hailing from Greece and Italy, and Augustin Juarez, who also comes from Mexico and sells his produce at the St. George Greenmarket.
OPEN ON SATURDAYS
“Gudelio tends his plants very well. He takes care of the fields in a husbandly manner,” said Cavagnaro, describing the bustle and activities at the not-for-profit Decker Farm. It is open to the public Saturdays from 9 a.m to 1 p.m. with a farmers’ market, farm animals and an educational plot that will in fall be a pumpkin patch.
“Decker Farm is a unique experience, nobody else is doing it in the city. We are growing and supporting the local community from this farm,” said Cavagnaro. “We’re allowing Mr. Garcia to develop a business that helps support Greenmarkets in the city. It’s the whole process.”
Indeed, the borough is undergoing something of an agricultural renaissance: Two acres are under cultivation at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden in Livingston, with a farm stand open to the public on Tuesdays.