Jun 19, 2007
Exotic Vegetables Cater to Needs of Immigrant Groups

When the price of field corn nearly doubled last year, farmers responded. They added 10 million acres to the planting schedule this spring.

You don’t want to do that with eggplant.

On the other hand, if you grow standard eggplant and are getting $8 a box, why not shift some toward Chinese or Indian eggplant and get $30 a box?

Not a million acres, but maybe five or 10.

“Prices are good if you know what to grow, and how much of it,” said Bill Sciarappa, a Rutgers University Extension agent.

While it’s enticing to think of selling exotic peppers for $25 a box instead of $6 a box for bells – “with not much additional effort,” he said – the other possibility is also real: A grower could invest thousands of dollars to grow a crop that sits on the dock because there’s no demand for it.

Differences can be subtle.

“Every group has its own heritage crops, but it’s the fine differences that determine whether you hit the market or miss it,” he said.

How long should sprigs of cilantro be? Mexicans like them 8 to 10 inches long, while Chinese prefer the 4- to 6-inch bunch, he said.

In 2006, Sciarappa and a team of researchers and Extension specialists from New Jersey, Florida and Massachusetts won a $450,000 grant from USDA’s National Research Initiative to take some of the guesswork out of vegetable production aimed at ethnic groups along the East Coast.

They’re using the money to:

Identify what kinds of vegetables America’s new immigrants want to eat and how they prefer to eat them;

Identify the size of the market so growers produce the right amount;

Plant them in demonstration plots to determine where they fit into the growing and marketing seasons for East Coast producers from southern Florida to Massachusetts, and show growers the practices they need to follow to grow them;

Develop a coordinated approach so the right stuff comes to market in the right amount at the right time and so the north-south production range fills the market for as much of the year as possible.

East Coast farmers have, over the years, been called on many times to respond to the needs of immigrants, and they have done it, said Richard VanVranken, another Rutgers Extension agent who works with Sciarappa and farmers in southern New Jersey. These farmers are situated to take advantage of the new markets immigrants create in large eastern cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia

Responding to the needs of Irish and Polish immigrants a century ago was different, however, because they wanted northern European foods that were fundamentally American. The new groups now coming to America aren’t looking for ordinary cabbage and potatoes.

“With a lot of these products, there’s a very real shortage,” Sciarappa said. “An item may have to be imported from India or China, and when it gets here the quality isn’t good. So our goal is to offer local, fresh produce that will be superior to what few quantities are available in some of these niche markets.

“These markets are growing fast, but they’re not that big yet. We must be careful not to overproduce.”

The researchers are “focusing” on 42 vegetables in their demonstration trials – and even with 42, they’re just scratching the surface. They explored the food preferences of only four groups – Chinese, Indians, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. They didn’t address the needs of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean or South America. There are 50 countries in Africa alone, and there have been a trickle of people from each of them. African vegetables are even less familiar than those in demand by Asians and Hispanics.

Sometimes, the market for ethnic vegetables can quickly expand beyond the core ethnic group.

Chinese or Puerto Rican parsley (cilantro) is the “poster child” for a crop that exploded on the American scene, Sciarappa said. In the early 1980s, a few growers in New Jersey began experimenting with this crop, and in 20 years it became a $3 million to $5 million crop rivaling traditional curly and plain-leaf Italian parsley in that state. Cilantro has cross-cultural demand among many ethnic groups but is probably most noted as the herb of choice in salsa, which has surpassed ketchup sales in U.S. supermarkets.

Sciarappa cites eggplant as another example of a crop that might take off as more people look to immigrant cuisine for new food experiences.

“We picked the worst one,” he said of America’s eggplant choice. “It’s rubbery and black and seedy and bitter.”

Indians, Chinese and other Asians, and people from the Middle East, also eat eggplant, but different kinds. They prefer those of other shapes – long and narrow, or round – and different colors – white, red, striped – and different tastes and textures. Africans eat a completely different kind – small round eggplants called “bitter balls.”

Finding the Foods

The team started with 2000 Census data, which helped them establish good profiles of the size, anticipated growth and location of East Coast ethnic populations. Nearly a fifth of East Coast residents are first-generation Americans.

They homed in on the four largest and fastest growing groups.

The Census found 2.7 million Puerto Ricans in the 16 East Coast states and the District of Columbia, a population that grew by 25 percent during the 1990s. While it’s the largest group, it wasn’t the fastest growing. There were 1.5 million Mexicans, 53 percent more than in 1990; almost 900,000 Chinese, 48 percent more; and 800,000 Indians, a population that has risen by 106 percent in 10 years.

Using interpreters and bilingual surveys, 271 people in each of the four ethnic groups were given choices of vegetables typically found in their community markets and considered potential candidates to grow on East Coast farms, to find how much they eat and what they’re willing to spend.

Chinese selections were edamame, pak choy, oriental spinach, snow peas, oriental eggplant, edible luffa, baby pak choy, napa cabbage, perilla, oriental mustard, holy basil and malabar spinach.

Asian-Indian selections were eggplant, amaranth, bottle gourd, cluster beans, fenugreek leaves, mint leaves, mustard leaves, ridge gourd, white pumpkin and bitter gourd.

Mexican selections were anaheim pepper, calabaza, calabacita, tutuma, chili jalepeno, chili poblano, chili serrano, chili habanero, cilantro and tomatillo.

Puerto Rican selections were aji duice, fava beans, batata, calabaza, calabacita, chile caribe, cilantro, berenjena, pepinillo and verdolaga.

“These specific lists of vegetable preferences were compiled to connect growers to these emerging marketplaces and to direct crop demonstration plots for university partners along the East Coast of the United States,” Sciarappa said.

The 42 vegetables are growing in six demonstration plots, two each in Florida, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

The project involves several people from Rutgers: ag economists Ramu Govindasamy, Venkat Purduri and Kim Pappas, Extension agents Richard Van Vranken and William Sciarappa, coordinator of NJAES International Programs Albert Ayeni, and James E. Simon, specialist in New Use Agriculture and Natural Plant Products.

It also involves Frank Mangan, a crop and soil scientist from University of Massachusetts, and Mary Lamberts and Gene McAvoy from University of Florida.

Making the Links

The work of helping farmers and recent immigrants link up so they can re-establish a familiar food chain isn’t new. Scariappa did an ethnic vegetable study in 2000, the same year Stephan Tubene, the Small Farm Institute coordinator at the University of Maryland, did a study in Maryland.

Tubene wanted to hook Maryland farmers to immigrants from Africa, and did production trials of five West African vegetables – hibiscus leaves, sweet potato leaves, amaranth, Solanum gilo (a kind of tomato), African eggplant and an African pepper.

The next year, he expanded his work to include Caribbean, Oriental, Indian and South American herbs. He has a publication, available online, called the “Ethnic and Specialty Vegetables Handbook.” You can find it and lots more on the subject at www.marylandethnicvegetable.com/.

VanVranken, who has been working on the potential of specialty and ethnic vegetables since the late 1980s, is particularly interested in the wholesale side of ethnic vegetable production. It’s one thing to link farmers and consumers through farmers’ markets or roadside stands, and another to link them in wholesale arrangements that bring consistent supplies of ethnic fruits and vegetables to the small ethnic grocery stores and supermarkets in their communities.

That’s another part of the work – getting growers to lay aside competitiveness and work together as they approach markets that are small but need a steady supply.

West Coast growers face many of the same challenges, he said, but most of the consumers there are congregated in California, not in 16 states. The north to south production range is similar, but within one state.

VanVranken has worked with Extension specialists at University of Massachusetts and Cornell University to bring information on ethnic vegetables to growers through a Web site called www.worldcrops.org.

Rutgers has a series of fact sheets available online at njaes.Rutgers.edu/pubs.

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