GAMBIER, Ohio — Jute isn’t really grown in Ohio. But on Aug. 7, in Gambier, Ohio, Chernor Bundu stood in the middle of a field of jute, almost shoulder-height.
“You see how tall this is?” he said. “Isn’t it amazing?”
Many people have never heard of the plant, or if they have, think of it as a fibrous plant that can be used to make things like rope. But in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, people also eat jute leaves.
Bundu was born and raised in Sierra Leone, in Africa, but came to Ohio in 1998. There is a large immigrant community in Columbus, where Bundu lives. Bundu realized that much of the produce they eat, including jute, is not grown in Ohio. With help from Ron Hord, a life-long farmer and a close friend, Bundu is changing that.
“I just wanna be able to do something that we’re all used to.” Bundu said. “Back home, we don’t eat stuff grown through commercial farming.”
Bundu is new to farming, but Hord had a farm near Mount Hope for many years. He worked with many of the Amish farmers in that area. So, he started introducing Bundu to those farmers.
Bundu’s children call Hord “Grandpa Ron.”
“He’s like my son. I wanna see him successful,” Hord said.
Bundu’s goal is to run an international grocery store in Columbus, supplied entirely with Ohio-grown products. Right now, it’s tough going. He’s still learning about farming, and he opened the store during a global pandemic.
But he’s optimistic. He knows who his customers are. He is growing produce, making connections and running his grocery store.
Bundu came to the U.S. from Sierra Leone, in Africa, seeking opportunity. After six months in Maryland, he moved to Ohio in February 1998. He has been in Columbus since then and has worked as a production supervisor, a photographer and a delivery driver over the years.
After the company he worked for as a delivery driver went out of business, he started thinking about doing something that would help his community, and something he would enjoy.
He settled on growing and selling fresh produce that was hard to find in Columbus.
Farming is new to Bundu. He was born and raised in a city in Sierra Leone.
That’s where Hord comes in. He isn’t financially involved, but he mentors Bundu and helps him make connections with other farmers.
Hord was a farmer and an entrepreneur for most of his life. Bundu and Hord met years ago, when Bundu was worked in a photography studio next to a farmers market Hord frequented. Bundu started buying hot peppers from Hord. Hord helped him get farm-raised chickens for his family, and the two became close friends over the years.
“I like working with this guy,” Hord said. “He’s a challenge, and as I get older, I wanna be active.”
They started out with a half acre of hot peppers and some jute in 2019, growing at an Amish farm in Gambier, Ohio, owned by Jonathan Mast.
Jute was the only crop Bundu wanted to grow that Hord wasn’t familiar with, and it didn’t do well last year. They didn’t realize how much water they needed. But Bundu and Hord were quick to learn from their mistakes.
This year, they got drip lines to keep the jute watered, and it is doing much better. On Aug. 7, Bundu, Hord and Bundu’s sister, Neneh Bundu, arrived at the farm in Gambier in a truck with baskets to pick jute. Bundu showed off a basket full of harvested jute.
The hot peppers, on the other hand, grew well the first year. Neneh Bundu has a lot of connections in the community and sold the peppers for him.
“People were coming to her house … all day, all night, just to get the peppers,” Bundu said.
With plans to grow more this year, Bundu quickly realized that he needed a place to sell from.
“Just as I was thinking about this, an opportunity presented itself to us that we couldn’t let go,” Bundu said.
An Asian market in Columbus that had been around for years, was being sold. The owner, a woman from Vietnam, was retiring. Bundu was quick to jump on the opportunity.
Hord worried at first that Bundu would be taking on too much if he bought the store. But the store was in a good area and already had everything Bundu needed, including a cool room for the produce. After seeing it and talking more, Hord came around.
So, Bundu bought the store and opened his grocery store on April 1. He named it Freetown Supermarket, after the capital city of Sierra Leone.
This year, Bundu is growing about three acres of produce in Gambier, and another two acres at a farm near Mount Hope, where he is also buying farm-raised chickens. Bundu buys other meat, like sheep and goats, from the Mount Hope auction, and gets yam leaves from another local farmer.
He pointed out garden eggs growing in the field in Gambier, describing the taste — a little bitter, but really nice. They are popular among the African community, and, Bundu said, most people like eating them before they are ripe.
Up until a few weeks ago, he had to order jute and some other produce from California. It was usually almost a week old by the time it got to him. But in the last few weeks, he has grown enough to stock his store.
Knowing he is offering something unique to the community encourages Bundu. Recently, some customers came into the store just as he was unloading jute that he harvested that morning.
“They were so happy to be able to get fresh, just-picked jute,” Bundu said. “And that makes me feel good.”
The goal is to eventually supply the grocery store entirely with products grown or made in Ohio. That includes things like jute, hot peppers and other produce, as well as farm-raised chickens, goats, sheep and other meats and animal products.
The store gets diverse groups of customers. So the goal is to also carry as many diverse items as possible.
“There’s a lot of immigrants here that need their own products, stuff that they’re used to, so we’re gonna do our best,” Bundu said.
Right now, Bundu is working seven days a week, for 14-16 hours each day. He is at the store and the farms almost every day. The previous owner of the store agreed to work for him part time on weekdays to help him get started, but she is leaving soon.
The long hours are hard, Bundu said, but it’s what he needs to do right now to get started. The pandemic hasn’t made things any easier. Right now, people are still hesitant to go out to stores in his area.
But he has gotten positive feedback from people who have come in. The store is clean and in a good area. These things, plus the success he’s had with farming this year, make him optimistic.
“I’m struggling as we’re speaking … but I do have a lot of confidence that it’s going to get better,” Bundu said.
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