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Editorial: October 2011

November 30, 1999  By Marg Land

The day was rainy and grey. A constant drizzle covered everything – plants, people, cars, tractors, delicate camera equipment.

The day was rainy and grey. A constant drizzle covered everything – plants, people, cars, tractors, delicate camera equipment.

It was also cold, something I wasn’t allowed to forget as my advertising manager complained bitterly, her teeth chattering as she huddled deeper into her light fall coat.


We had come to see okra. No, not Oprah, as one of my other colleagues had asked, but okra – also known as lady’s fingers or gumbo – a flowering plant known for its edible green seedpods. And we had driven to a family farm just northeast of the hamlet of Copetown, Ont., to see it.

We weren’t alone. About a dozen other curious souls had braved the weather to catch a glimpse of this new crop being tested by researchers at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre (VRIC) with support from the Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association (OFVGA).

It wasn’t what I was expecting. Not to say that I really knew what to expect. I’d seen the photos of the crop but I hadn’t expected it to be so tall. And I’d seen pictures of the seedpods but I hadn’t expected them to look so similar to the flower buds on my hibiscus. I didn’t want to eat my hibiscus.

Actually, okra didn’t seem to be popular food fare for many of the people there. My advertising manager described it as “quite slimy,” a fact that didn’t make me want to try it. But okra is fast becoming a vegetable in demand within Ontario.

“Several years ago, I began looking at the ethnic diversity in southern Ontario and looking at what we were growing,” said Art Smith, CEO of the OFVGA. “I started to ask myself whether or not there was an opportunity here.”

He met up with some of the researchers at VRIC and saw the work that was being undertaken examining different world crops and whether they could be produced in Ontario.

“We decided then, through the OFVGA, that we needed to pursue this.”

In 2010, cultural trials were started in the province examining five different crops. For 2011, that study grew to more than a dozen crops, including Indian kaddu, Chinese red hot pepper, okra, yard long beans, Asian eggplant (which is banana shaped), amaranth, fuzzy melon, round eggplant, maca, tomatillo, bottle gourd, daikon radish and Indian red carrot. J. Collins and Sons is producing two of the crops – okra and Asian eggplant.

“We’ve expanded this year,” said Smith. “We’re working with Quebec on a much bigger program. We’ve gone beyond the cultural end of it … establishing market paths, and just seeing what the real potential is in Ontario and across Canada.

“Our challenge is to see whether or not we can grow them successfully (and) whether we can make a profit at it, because if we can’t do that, then of course it’s all for naught.”

If production at the J. Collins and Sons farm is any indication, okra has found a new home in southern Ontario. The one-tenth-of-an-acre plot had a lush growth of plants, all about five feet or higher and covered in vibrant yellow flowers. The seedlings had been transplanted in early June and, since starting seedpod production, the plot had yielded more than 2,000 pounds of okra.

According to Joan Beck, farms manager at J. Collins and Sons, the crop is a labour-intensive one.

“The crops we currently (grow) on our farm you go in and clear off and you’re finished,” she explained. “With these crops, you go in a number of times, harvest what’s there and go back in again and again. It’s not the same kind of system we’re used to as far as harvesting. I think that’s an important point to make when you’re considering growing a crop and you want to make it pay, you want to make a living from it. You want to consider a harvesting system that’s going to get the crop in and to the consumer as quickly as possible. It can be done but it’s going to take a bit of planning.”

Currently, the J. Collins crew picks okra every other day. The crop is not being sold on the market. Instead, the operation’s South Asian employees take it home for their families to enjoy, an added benefit of working at the farm.

I pick a small seedpod from a nearby okra plant. It breaks sharply and cleanly from the stalk, a sign it isn’t overripe. I twirl the slightly fuzzy pod back and forth in my fingers and think about the future of vegetable production in Ontario and possibly Canada.

I better get used to eating my hibiscus.

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