Hukama in Shona, a native language of Zimbabwe, means “relationships”—it’s what local farmer Tina Chitura says is at the root of all her work. Nestled in the quaint town of Ramona sits Hukama Produce, a four-acre plot of land leased by Chitura and her husband Alex.
Chitura, her husband, and her three children emigrated from Zimbabwe to the United States in 2005. “In my country, things were really bad at that time. The economy was bad and my kids were ready for college and they could not do it in Africa. I decided to move,” Chitura explains. The Chituras settled just outside of Philadelphia in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where they lived for two years before moving to San Diego in 2007.
Once in San Diego, Chitura reconnected with her sister Idzai Mubaiwa who had been receiving agricultural training from the International Rescue Committee (IRC). A lover of gardening herself, Chitura joined the IRC weekly trainings to learn how to build raised beds, tend to an organic urban garden, and bring the final products to market. Together the two sisters opened African Sisters Produce to bring sustainable and unique produce to San Diego.
Chitura found the plot where she still farms today in 2013 by knocking on neighbors’ doors in Ramona until she found a willing landowner who allowed her to till the land and use his water to grow her produce. Soon after, Chitura began to speckle the landscape with varieties of Zimbabwean collard greens, maize, zucchini, okra, carrots, and kale.
“I just don’t like to eat things from the store, that’s my thing. Even here [San Diego] I could not even buy a tomato until I grew my own tomato,” Chitura says.
Her dedication to sustainable and pesticide-free farming requires significant labor. Chitura starts her days at 5am, leaves the house by 6, and is at the facility where she picks up her compost when they open their doors at 7. She is a one-woman show, sowing the land, shoveling and laying down compost, trapping pesky gophers, planting her vegetables, weeding, harvesting, and cleaning all her produce by herself. Occasionally three of her grandchildren will visit the farm and compete to race cabbages to the harvest bin the fastest, and her husband lends his support when he’s not off at art shows showcasing his stone and wooden sculptures of African safari animals.
Chitura prides herself on planting a mix of local and southeast African produce for her clients to enjoy. She recently grew Bambara beans, a popular variety of Zimbabwean groundnut that grew surprisingly well in Ramona, a microclimate that she says reminds her of her home village near Bulawayo.
“People grow a lot back home but they use fertilizer and that is what I cannot stand. I try to educate them on not putting fertilizer but they won’t listen. So I grew corn and I didn't use fertilizer and it grew small, but they tasted it and said it was so good,” Chitura recounts, having grown produce organically since she began farming in 2013.
The sister duo doesn’t need to convince customers of the quality of their produce. African Sisters Produce at the Hillcrest Farmers’ Market is frequently bustling with regulars choosing their favorite bunches of kale, carrots, and okra. Chitura or her sister will happily explain their favorite recipes to customers: a favorite being sautéed tender pumpkin leaves with green onions creamed with peanut butter, a Zimbabwean specialty reminiscent of creamed spinach.
After the market, which is open Sundays from 8am to 2pm, Chitura aches from her long week on the farm. “I’ve taken my chair several times and I’ve never sat down, I’m standing all day. I get back to the farm at 5pm and I’m so worn out,” she shares.
“When you’re doing what you love to do, even if I’m in pain, I consider the pain a good pain.”
A few tents down from African Sisters, Ivo Fedak lets the beauty and variety of his Mindful Mushrooms speak for themselves. Chitura and Fedak have a friendly arrangement: Chitura takes excess spent mushroom substrate that is Fedak’s waste and upcycles it to enrich the soil on her farm in Ramona.
Fedak grows some of San Diego’s most prized mushrooms. Each week Mindful Mushrooms produces 500 pounds of mushrooms that range from their most popular lion’s mane to hearty chestnut and blue oyster varieties.
A funghi aficionado since the age of 14, Fedak spent his summers inspired by generations of Dutch mushroom growers just outside of his hometown of Kiel, Germany. In high school he grew mushrooms out of a makeshift pressure cooker under his girlfriend’s bed before turning his passion into a career in his late twenties.
Following years in the cannabis and real estate industries, Fedak was ready for a change. On a trip back to the forests of Germany to clear his mind and focus on his future, Fedak was captivated by the myriad local wild mushrooms growing in deep shades of purple and green and decided to grow his own exotic mushroom varieties.
Once he returned to San Diego, Fedak went from growing in his uncle’s crawlspace to a four-by-eight-foot tent in his garage, which led to expanding his operation to a warehouse.
In 2018, he retrofitted a warehouse in Spring Valley to support the various phases of mushroom growth, from making the substrate and grain spawns to inoculating and fruiting. He sold his first batch of Mindful Mushrooms to local restaurateurs Davin and Jessica Waite for use in their vegan restaurant menu at The Plot in Oceanside. Fedak’s mushrooms can be found in their “crab” sushi rolls—they also use the stems in their housemade dashi.
Impressed by the quality of the mushrooms they had received from Mindful Mushrooms, chef Waite spread the word to others in the San Diego culinary industry.
“Then we started hitting the farmers’ markets...it really blew up to the point that we were selling up to 100 pounds of mushrooms per market,” Fedak shared. “People now give me death threats if I don’t show up.”
With the success from other farmers’ markets and direct sales to chefs in the area, Mindful Mushrooms reached the production capacity of their Spring Valley facility at the end of last year. Construction is underway on a new facility that will allow for the production of 1,800 pounds of mushrooms per week and the addition of the La Jolla farmers’ market.
“There is always a learning experience, especially when you start scaling higher and higher and higher. Now I’m making 15,000 pounds of substrate and 400 bags of grain—I’ve got to do it to support the construction of the new place,” Fedak explains.
The star of Mindful Mushroom’s production is the lion’s mane variety; it is especially popular in the vegan community for its meat-like texture and its versatility in recipes such as vegan crab cakes or BBQ-Pulled Lion’s Mane with Slaw.
“It excites me. It makes me happy to see someone proud of something they cooked with something that I made. That’s why I do it,” Fedak emphasizes.
Fedak plans to keep his existing warehouse to solely grow the lion’s mane variety and to dehydrate and pulverize it into medicinal mushroom powder, which is said to have neurotropic benefits.
Following a challenging year of market and restaurant closures, which reduced his profits and threatened the expansion of his business, Fedak is optimistic of what the future holds for Mindful Mushrooms. New restaurants are opening, and menus will need to be inventive in order to attract guests. He believes that his unique mushroom varieties can inspire new dishes.
Fedak aims to grow an environmentally responsible business built from a diverse team of employees. All of the bags used for Mindful Mushrooms’ production are compostable, and mushroom waste actually helps decompose trash at a faster rate. Some varieties of mushrooms, such as the blue oyster that he grows, even eat plastics.
At your next visit to the Hillcrest farmers’ market enjoy the bounties of Mindful Mushrooms and Hukama Produce. After all, supporting our local food system is all about building hukama.