Natnl star world crops
By NICHOLAS KEUNG
Special to SAF
For many newcomers, ethnocultural foods are not only a reminder of their homeland, but part of the diet they grew up with.
For a long time, they had to put up with pricey and often stale produce imported from abroad and sold at ethnic grocery stores, or growing them in their own backyard.
But as immigrant markets grow in major urban centres, especially in the Greater Toronto Area, an increasing number of commercial farms, with help from the Ontario and federal governments, are experimenting with locally grown ethnocultural crops to meet the changing demands.
Some of these domestically produced “world crops” — such as Asian long eggplant, Indian round eggplant (both also known as brinjals, or baingan), okra (ladies’ finger, or bhindi), yard long beans (string bean, or chawli), amaranth, Indian red carrot, tomatillos and edamame — have slowly taken up shelf spaces that were once dominated by imports from Asia.
In Toronto alone, says a study by University of Guelph professor Glen Filson, consumers from the South Asian, Chinese and African/Caribbean communities spend approximately $396 million, $252 million and $80 million respectively each year on ethnocultural vegetables.
Every month, about $62 million worth of imported vegetables are sold to Ontario consumers. If locally grown world crops displaced just 10 per cent of imported ethnic vegetables, the shift could create a new market worth more than $6 million a month for Ontario farmers, the study notes.
This month, the Ontario government announced a $30 million local food fund to market and promote domestically grown food, including the development and commercialization of world crops.
Jason Persall, a fourth-generation farm owner, introduced edamame — a green soybean used in Japanese and Chinese cuisine — in his 400-hectare Waterford farm, southwest of Brantford, three years ago to supplement his production of traditional crops such as corn, wheat, sunflower and soybean.
Today, his annual edamame production has grown from 450 kg to more than 13,600 kg.
“The opportunity for these niche products is evident. The market demand is high,” said Persall, owner of Pristine Gourmet and Persall Fine Foods Co, which is also Canada’s second-largest edamame grower.
“Locally produced crops are not always cheaper. The issue comes down to how we are competing against China.”
For instance, a pound of Ontario-grown edamame costs anywhere between $3.49 and $3.99 in stores, but those from China may only cost about $2.80.
Jim Brandle, CEO of the Niagara-based Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, said the emergence of new crops in the province is driven by changing market demographics and an increasing interest in local production.
According to Statistics Canada, almost 6 in 10 recently arrived immigrants today come from Asia and the Middle East, who generally have very different diets than traditional European immigrants in the past.
“People talk about the opportunities created by Canada’s immigration. We talk about it, too,” said Brandle, whose centre was launched in 2007 with partial funding from Ontario and Ottawa to deliver innovative products and solutions for the horticulture industry.
“With the population growth and change, we are seeing a shift in what people eat.”
One of the focuses of the centre is to help Ontario growers identify, develop and market ethnocultural crops that are commercially profitable.
Evan Elford, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food’s lone new crop development specialist, works with academics and farm operators to develop some of these crops. Part of his job is to gather the agronomics of growing the crops and disseminate the information to interested growers.
Researchers and farmers have had numerous successes, but there is a limit to how non-native crops can adapt to the Canadian climate and soil. Maca, a root vegetable grown in the Peruvian Andes, and chia seeds, for example, are two crops that have failed to transplant.
While the frenzy over growing ethnocultural crops has come and gone in the past, Elford predicts a more lasting interest this time around because of the critical mass reached by some immigrant groups and Canadians’ exposure to international and fusion cuisines through TV such as the Food Network.
“Import replacement helps farmers explore new markets and diversify what they grow on their farms,” said Elford, whose office has published online guides since the spring to help farm operators grow commercially viable “specialty crops” in Ontario.
“Economically, if one crop is not doing well, their income can be helped by another crop.”
Jason Verkaik, owner of the Carron Farms in Holland Marsh, just outside Newmarket, is a pioneer in locally grown East Indian red carrot when he introduced it on his 120-hectare farm 10 years ago after a family friend from India planted the idea.
“You look at immigration and the East Indian population in places like Brampton. They’re bringing in the carrot from India because that’s what they want for making certain food,” said Verkaik, a third-generation Dutch grower, whose traditional carrot and onion farm produces 118,000 kg of the Indian carrot a year on a three-hectare plot.
Experimenting with new crops is not always easy, not to mention something non-native, he said. It took Verkaik some time to pick the right variety of Indian red carrot for the conditions in Ontario and to perfect the skill to develop the consistency of the crop.
Three years ago, Verkaik experimented with tomatillos, a staple of Mexican cuisine, but stopped because it was too labour intensive and delicate to grow and make commercially profitable.
This year, his harvest of the Asian eggplant, a weather-sensitive crop, has dropped to about 450 kg from about 3,000 kg last year.
“It’s difficult at the beginning. You can’t do everything and there are always risks involved. You have to do little trials,” he said. “But we are tapping into a new market that we weren’t able to get into with our regular products.”
— Torstar News Service
Natnl star world crops