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World crops

We used to call them ethnic crops, but the new name shows just how big the hottest trend in food is growing

Eggplants and a wooden crate.

The face of Canada is changing, and it may mean new market opportunities for farmers. According to the 2011 Canadian National Household Survey, one in five Canadians was born in another country.

While in the past, newcomers had to adapt to traditional Canadian foods, increasing global trade means “new Canadians” are now able to source familiar foods, especially vegetables, from their home countries.

It’s such a hot phenomenon, there’s even a new label for it. Although older terms such as “ethnic” or “ethno-cultural” linger on, these crops that are not traditionally grown in Canada are increasingly referred to as “world crops.”

It isn’t a uniform trend across the country. Although cities in every part of the country have witnessed increased cultural diversity, it’s still true that most immigrants to Canada settle in Canada’s major urban centres, mainly Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. In 2011, almost half of all the residents in Toronto were foreign born.

Within these cities, as well, immigrants tend to cluster in certain sections. For example, in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), 72.3 per cent of Markham’s population is a visible minority compared to 54 per cent for Mississauga.

This immigration pattern is expected to continue. Statistics Canada estimates that by 2031, 63 per cent of Toronto’s population will be a visible minority.

But as mentioned, the 2011 National Household Survey also shows a trend towards more immigrants settling in regional centres like Halifax, Winnipeg and Saskatoon.

In 2009, University of Guelph researchers Glen Filson and Bamidele Adekunle along with Sridharan Sethuratnam, program manager of the non-profit organization FarmStart, attempted to put a dollar value on the potential market for ethno-cultural vegetables. They surveyed a random selection of people from the three largest ethnic groups represented in Toronto: South Asian, Chinese and Afro-Caribbean.

The researchers pegged the potential market for vegetables consumed by these three groups in the GTA at $732 million per year. The crops included okra, bitter melon, amaranth, yard long beans, cassava and various varieties of eggplant.

At present, such ethno-cultural vegetables are mostly supplied by imports from California, Mexico and South America. Displacing just 10 per cent of this imported vegetable product with Canadian-grown produce would create a new market worth $73 million per year.

There is also potential for export to nearby population centres in the United States which have similarly diverse populations and demand for vegetables.

Not only do immigration patterns contribute to a demand for world crops, but Canadians of European heritage are increasingly consuming non-traditional vegetables. Canadians in general are becoming more adventurous in their eating, says Michael Brownbridge, director of horticultural production systems at Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, who has been researching ethno-cultural crops for the past five years.

As Canadians travel more and eat more at ethnic restaurants, Brownbridge says, they become exposed to these vegetables and will buy them to cook at home.

Brownbridge has focused his research on okra since it was ranked No. 1 by two of the three ethnic groups surveyed in the University of Guelph study. In his trials, Brownbridge tested 15 varieties with the most potential out of the hundreds available.

Brownbridge also ran trials with both long and round eggplant, which are also in demand. “There is a market for other vegetables but we had to focus where the greatest opportunities are,” he says.

Almost all the okra consumed in Ontario is currently trucked in from Florida or flown in from Nicaragua, says Brownbridge, who adds that Canadian farmers supplying the local market will have reduced transportation costs and superior freshness, so produce should last longer and taste better.

Having successfully grown okra and round and long eggplant, Brownbridge is continuing his research to get more reliable yield and cost-of-production figures. Data from 2013 showed a return above variable cost per acre for okra of $1,404/acre (based on one-year data only).

Such ideas aren’t entirely new, says Filson. He points out that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada did extensive work 30 years ago, and as a result many Asian greens such as bok choy and pak choy are grown successfully in Ontario, especially in the Holland Marsh. The Chinese have a long history in Canada, he says.

However, Filson and Evan Elford, new-crop development specialist at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, believe the conversation surrounding import replacement with domestic production has become more sophisticated, taking better account of the nature of that particular business sector. 

Even when markets exist, there are still many hurdles for farmers, warns Elford. He says farmers should be cautious and do their background research on markets and marketability. They need to find out who their customers are, what they want, what variety they are looking for, what growth stage the vegetable should be harvested at and how it needs to be packaged.

Elford recommends farmers determine the demographics of their local market and visit stores to get a better understanding of the local marketplace. “A grower in one area could easily have a market for a non-traditional crop, while another 30 minutes away may be unable to sell their crop,” Elford says. “I’ve seen it first hand.”

Brownbridge agrees. It’s essential that farmers have a good understanding of what the market wants. “Understanding the consumer mind has been an important part of the research at Vineland,” he says. Representatives of the retail sector have been closely involved with the research since they understand what the consumer is looking for in terms of appearance, taste, and quality. “You have to grow what the consumer wants,” emphasizes Brownbridge.

There may also be challenges in growing these crops. For example, many of these crops require a long growing season. It may be necessary to use greenhouses, hoop houses or other means of extending the growing season, says Elford.

Weather variability is also an issue. 2012, which was hot, was a good year but 2013 which was cooler, was not, says Brownbridge.

Farmers with European ancestry often lack experience growing these ethno-cultural vegetables, while new Canadians with an agriculture background are keen to grow them but may lack access to land.

Debby Claude, manager of operations at the Saskatoon Farmers Market says she has seen new immigrants try to grow these vegetables, but they are often surprised by the harsh conditions and they have a high failure rate.

These crops are very labour intensive during the harvest season because they require hand harvesting every day or every other day for several weeks during peak production.

Without solid yield and cost-of-production data for Ontario, it’s also difficult to know how profits for these non-traditional crops compare with more traditional crops, cautions Elford. Vineland Research Centre will be starting to gather cost-of-production data in 2014.

The lack of solid economic data for growing these crops in Canada may make lenders reluctant to back the venture, and the lack of crop insurance may also be a stumbling block.

Growers also need to consider how well the crop fits in their operation. “Just because they can grow it doesn’t mean they should,” advises Elford.

For those wanting to explore some of these ethno-cultural vegetables, Elford has the following advice. Try growing a small acreage, says Elford. And start with cross-over produce. For example, a grower could get some experience with European eggplant first, and then could try growing world varieties of eggplant, he says.

Some farmers who sell direct to consumers through farmers markets or CSA shares are successfully growing some of these world crops. Brownbridge is aware of a number of growers around Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal who are growing non-traditional crops such as okra on a small scale now. He expects these farmers will scale up production as they gain more experience and more economic data becomes available.

Government funding may be available to help growers grow new crops and access new markets, adds Elford. For example, in Ontario the Growing Forward2 Program and the Local Food Fund may provide support to growers.

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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