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Asian eggplant: Ontario’s newest local food

June 29, 2016  By Lilian Schaer for AgInnovation Ontario

Asian and Indian eggplant Photo by AgInnovation Ontario

June 28, 2016, Vineland, Ont – Chinese long and Indian round eggplant are one of Ontario’s newest locally grown vegetable crops, thanks to ongoing research at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre (VRIC).

Some quantities of field-grown Canadian Asian eggplant are already available at retail stores in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, but researchers at VRIC are also working on developing year-round greenhouse production of the veggies.

VRIC’s World Crops program started in 2008 with a series of projects to evaluate different vegetable crops popular with new Canadians from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Okra and eggplant were ultimately selected as the two most promising crops based on potential volumes and growing ability in Ontario.

“In 2015, over 24 million kilograms of eggplant were imported into Canada,” explains Dr. Viliam Zvalo, a vegetable production research scientist at VRIC working on the project. “This has increased by 32 per cent in the last five years, so by 2030, we expect a market of 50 million kilograms just for eggplant.”

He adds that key markets lie with immigrant communities particularly from South East Asia, but there’s also opportunity created by the changing palates of long-time Canadians.

According to Dr. Zvalo, the project’s objective is to give Canadian growers the chance to participate in the market opportunities created by immigration and changing consumer preferences by developing production systems for these new crops.

VRIC’s researchers are currently working with Chinese long eggplant (a bright purple vegetable of about 30 centimetres in length), Japanese or Taiwanese eggplant that has a similar shape but with a darker colour, and the smaller Indian round eggplant.

“The Chinese long eggplant and Japanese eggplant represent about 85 per cent of the market,” Dr. Zvalo says. “The Indian round eggplant offers a smaller opportunity, but we’ve had some interest from retailers hoping to market it as baby eggplant, so that could grow this category.”

In a greenhouse setting, eggplant vines grow five to seven metres high, whereas they only grow 60 to 90 centimetres tall in the field. Plantings are at a density of 2.3 plants per square metre with three heads per plant for a total of 6.9 heads per square metre, similar to what commercial growers would have.

In a high wire greenhouse, the standard is one crop per year with a yield of 35 to 40 kilograms per square metre of eggplant, which is comparable to greenhouse peppers, whose yield can range from 30 to 45 kilograms per year.

“In the greenhouse, we’ve grafted the best varieties from previous trials onto various tomato and eggplant rootstocks to help us determine the best combination of variety and rootstock,” Dr. Zvalo says, adding that grafting could double yield.

Grafting may also be an option for field eggplant production to help combat soil borne diseases, where fumigation is currently the only tool available to growers.

Also part of VRIC’s field eggplant trials is ongoing selection of the best varieties and best production methods for outdoor production, such as spacing, fertility management, use of floating row covers and plastic mulch, staking, and pruning.

“Our World Crops project has two more years and next year we will be doing a commercial trial in the greenhouse with best variety and rootstock combinations, half in Chinese long and half in Indian round varieties,” explains Dr. Zvalo. “We’re hoping to capture some grower interest in this new crop.”

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