Meeting a market opportunity
High adaptability and consistent demand: a new project highlights the potential in ethnocultural vegetables.
April 3, 2023 By Kaitlin Packer
If there’s a market for it, why not grow it? The more information Johnny Kashama discovers from his project on the adaptability of ethnocultural vegetables in northern Ontario, the more he sees this market as a unique opportunity for growers.
“The population is shifting,” says Kashama, agricultural manager at Collège Boréal in Sudbury. With more newcomers in Canada, there’s more opportunity to market vegetables that are not traditionally grown here. “The demand for ethnocultural vegetables is considerable,” he adds.
“Monthly spending on ethnocultural vegetables by only three ethnic groups in Toronto – Chinese, South Asian and African Caribbean – is estimated to be $61 million per month in the greater Toronto area alone.”
After seeing such a high demand for them, Kashama started this project last year by testing multiple varieties of amaranth, okra, yardlong beans, hibiscus and African eggplant in an on-farm trial. “When I came to Canada, […] I said to myself, […] most of the people from Africa, they really struggle […] to find the right food that they are used to.” This motivates him to not only find a solution for consumers, but also to show Canadian growers how they can benefit from getting involved in this market.
Many ethnocultural vegetables can take months to ship frozen. Even so, they sell for a premium. “African eggplants, sometimes it goes up to $10 per pound,” says Kashama. That’s significantly higher than some of the most popular produce grown in Canada, such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. “When you look at one pound of tomatoes, it’s maybe, I don’t know, two dollars,” he says. “Why can’t local farmers see that this is an opportunity?”
Taking advantage of similar production practices
It’s not that production practices are significantly different for growing ethnocultural vegetables. Many Ontario farmers already grow eggplant – and African eggplant is comparable. Others grow basil. “Basil has the same requirement as amaranth,” says Kashama. “If you grow basil, you can grow amaranth.” Hibiscus might have some differences, but it is a good option for those who can grow it outside.
In the on-farm trials planned for this year, Kashama hopes they’ll gain even more data to help growers plan the best time for harvesting amaranth leaves when they’re tender enough to eat. “[Looking at] the impact of the age, and the time we harvest, on the tenderness of the leaves when you cook them is something that hasn’t really been done,” he says. Harvest timing and taste are also important data points he needs for other vegetables like okra and yardlong beans.
Building expertise through on-farm trials
Last year, Kashama mainly collaborated with one grower – Tara Hamilton, in St.-Charles – to see which varieties adapted the best to northern Ontario conditions. “They did very well,” he concluded. He plans to use the most well-adapted varieties in three trials on farms throughout northwestern Ontario this coming season.
Hamilton, who farms with her husband Denis Turcot on La Delle Vie Farm in St.-Charles, saw her collaboration with Kashama as a mutually beneficial partnership. Originally, they reached out to the college to inquire about co-op students; that opened the discussion on hosting an on-farm trial.
While they mainly function as a specialty fruit operation with a haskap orchard, Hamilton and her husband also grow herbs on the farm. “We are interested in trialling other things, and if something ends up taking good root, then we would definitely move forward with it,” she says.
“Amaranth in particular is interesting to us, as is hibiscus.”
She’s curious to see amaranth grown for something other than grain. “The northern farmers, when we grow amaranth, we don’t grow it for greens,” she says.
Kashama’s project reveals the opportunity to use different parts of the plant than usual – and amaranth is only one example. “We also wanted to show people how you can also consume pumpkin leaves,” says Kashama. “Pumpkin leaves are in very, very, very high demand.” Being sold at $8 per pound, the leaves are another option for growers wanting to take advantage of a premium market.
The focus of La Delle Vie Farm is to feed the local population as much as possible. “I would say that we are definitely interested in growing crops for the diversity that we are seeing in northeastern Ontario,” says Hamilton. “We’re seeing our demographics change here [and] we would like to meet the cultural demands of the populations that are in our region.”
Marketing to the masses
Beyond the already massive demand for ethnocultural vegetables, part of Kashama’s goal for this project is to raise the awareness of their benefits to all Canadians. “That’s why we started a cooking show,” he says. The project team produced one episode on how to cook amaranth and another on how to cook hibiscus.
This coming season, Kashama plans to partner with two restaurants interested in including ethnocultural vegetables on their menu. “We also have recipes that we have designed for people who want to know exactly how to cook them,” he says. They hope to include those recipes with the produce they sell at the farmer’s market.
Part of the appeal of these vegetables is the nutritional benefits. “You can’t even compare with tomato, pepper and cucumber,” says Kashama. “Amaranth is packed with antioxidants.” He says hibiscus functions as a good diuretic and an excellent source of iron. “This is one of the marketing strategies also – to show all those health benefits.”
Once consumers know the nutritional benefits of these vegetables and how to cook them, it’s important to ensure they are easy to find at traditional grocery stores. With the shifting population, you can already find vegetables like eggplant and bitter melon in Walmart. “The goal of the project is just to try to see […] ethnic vegetables in Walmart, in Food Basics, in No Frills, and all other places,” he says. “Right now, it is only in those small African grocery stores that you’re going to find them.”
Multiple benefits for growers
For those interested in growing ethnocultural vegetables, Kashama says the risk is minimal. The opportunity extends beyond the local Canadian market, since the United States also mainly relies on imported ethnocultural vegetables. “A Canadian can take that opportunity,” says Kashama.
With amaranth, there’s even more incentive since you can either cut the leaves biweekly or uproot and replant them each month. “In four months, or three months, when people have one harvest, you will have three harvests,” Kashama says. That means greenhouse growers could harvest frequently all year long. “If they also do out of the season in greenhouses, they will make more money,” he adds, considering out-of-season vegetables also sell at a higher price.
At the La Delle Vie Farm, their key concern for branching into a new market is knowing that the demand is there. “We’re interested in anything that is profitable and if there’s a market for it,” Hamilton says. She’s hoping this year’s on-farm trials allow for northern expertise to continue to develop in this area. “I’m glad they’re coming back, and we’ll see what ten years brings.”
While there’s more to discover in this year’s trials, there’s little doubt in Kashama’s mind that ethnocultural vegetables are a significant opportunity for growers in Canada. They adapt well to a northern environment; they have good nutritional value; and they are extremely profitable – all key selling factors.
“We’d say it was really important to go forward and start producing them,” he says, “because the demand is very, very high.” The question to growers is simply this: Who’s going first?
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