Growing new produce for new Canadians

Canada’s changing demographics are creating new market opportunities for farmers looking to expand their businesses.

Researchers at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre are exploring the market potential of vegetable crops popular with South Asian and Afro-Caribbean consumers and how to successfully grow and market these new vegetables in Ontario.

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World crops – from left: Okra, Indian round eggplant and Asian long eggplant – on display at Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.

“Canada is a land of immigrants and as demographics evolve, so do tastes and markets. People eat what they know, so as the consumer base changes, it’s only natural that demand for foods will change right along with it,” says Vineland’s Dr. Michael Brownbridge, who is leading the project.

And the demand is significant. A study completed in 2010 by the University of Guelph showed major ethnic groups in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) spend more than $61 million monthly on fresh produce – predominantly on vegetables that aren’t grown in Canada. For example, Canadian okra sales have increased more than 50 per cent since 2008, the bulk of which is imported.

Vineland’s researchers have worked with a variety of potential crops, including Asian long eggplant, round eggplant, okra, Indian kaddu, Chinese red hot pepper, yard long bean, callaloo, fuzzy melon, maca, tomatillo, bottle gourd, daikon radish and Indian red carrot.

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Indian round eggplant

And although understanding which varieties can be successfully grown in Ontario is important – they have to be cold hardy and disease tolerant too – that’s only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to developing new produce markets.

Equally important are knowing which vegetables are most in demand, the value of that demand, and what retailers want; and understanding the needs of the end-consumer: whether they’ll buy Ontario-grown and at what price, and what kind of taste and look the veggies should have.

After looking at all of these factors together with consumers, farmers and retailers since 2010, Asian long eggplant, Indian round eggplant and okra have been identified as showing the most marketplace potential to date.

Okra

Grower and retailer interest is high and success is already evident. Fresh, “Grown in Ontario” ethno-cultural produce is available on supermarket shelves in the GTA and several hundred acres of land are already in commercial production.

Longo’s and Loblaw’s, for example, are keen to increase the ‘local’ content of the ethnic produce sections in their stores and are encouraging farmers involved in field trials and already shipping produce to their distribution centres to include selected new crops with their shipments.

“We understand what consumers want and we’ve been able to bring together growers and buyers to help make the right connections so farmers can sell what they grow,” Brownbridge explains.

“This is a real opportunity for growers and we are only at the beginning with supplying the GTA. Can we supply Canada or even large ethnic populations in U.S. cities that are only a truck drive away? In five years, we hope to see a lot of farmers growing these crops and getting full value for what they produce,” he adds.

Asian long eggplant

Asian long eggplant

The crops can be an attractive proposition for farmers, with long eggplant showing an estimated net return of around $3,000 an acre, for example, which ranks highly even within specialty crop production, Brownbridge says.

In late July, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada announced a $1.1 million investment in Vineland’s world crops work through its AgriInnovation Program (AIP).

The research investment will be used to build seasonal field production capacity of these new vegetables and investigate the feasibility of greenhouse eggplant production.

The AIP is supported through Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.

When it was first launched, the world crops initiative at Vineland was also supported by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program (CAAP) and by the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

Click here to watch a video about the World Crops project.