New program connects new Ontarians with traditional food

By Johnny Roberts
SPARK

A strong potential market exists for homegrown international vegetables, say Guelph researchers. Pictured here with ethnocultural produce popular with Asian, Chinese and Afro-Caribbean communities are (from left) Bamidele Adekunle, Prof. Glen Filson and Sridharan Sethuratnam. Photo by Bruce Sargent, SPARK.

New Ontarians who crave their native country’s fruits and vegetables are frustrated by high-priced imports, or by problems that arise trying to grow them themselves. University of Guelph researchers say Canadian farmers are missing at least a $60-million-per-month opportunity just in the GTA alone by not growing them.

Now, the researchers are also launching a program to help fill that gap. This spring, Prof. Glen Filson, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, Dr. Bamidele Adekunle, project manager, and Sridharan Sethuratnam, FarmStart start-up programs manager, are getting Ethno-Cultural Vegetables Ontario (ECVO) underway.

ECVO is a knowledge translation and transfer initiative by the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development at the University of Guelph. Its goal – “Eat Local, Taste Global” — is to create awareness about the benefits of locally produced ethno-cultural vegetables and help farmers learn how to grow them.

“More and more people want to eat locally grown food,” says Filson. “We found that people are willing to pay more for these vegetables if they’re grown fresh and if they’re in an accessible location.”

To determine the market and demand for ethnocultural vegetables, the research team used a questionnaire with various ethnic groups, at ethnic grocery stores and food markets in the GTA. The team conducted more than 750 interviews targeting the most dominant ethnic groups in the GTA, and discovered ethno-cultural foods were in high demand.

The researchers looked at reasons why particular ethnic groups consume a significant amount of vegetables. Respondents said the foods were healthy, nutritious, medicinal, part of their tradition or culture, offered a preferred taste or were part of their vegetarian lifestyle.

The largest ethnic groups in the GTA were identified as the South Asian, Chinese and Afro-Caribbean communities. According to Adekunle and Filson, South Asian preferences often include okra, eggplant and bitter melon. The vegetables in high demand by Chinese were bok choy, Chinese broccoli and eggplant. The Afro-Caribbean group preferred okra, African eggplant, garden eggs and smooth amaranth.

The researchers estimate the demand per month for these ethno-cultural vegetables is at least $21 million for the Chinese group, $7 million for Afro-Caribbeans and $33 million for South Asians.

Filson says these numbers point to a significant niche market and that Canadian farmers should consider trying to grow some of these commodities.

“Money put into this potential market could also provide support during Canada’s economic repair and regeneration,” says Filson.

Some efforts are indeed underway to grow these vegetables in Canada. FarmStart, an organization that financially helps immigrants entering Canada find farm land, as well as the University of Guelph’s Simcoe Research Station and Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, are attempting to grow these vegetables. They’re trying to determine important growing information, such as crop plot spacing, the amount of fertilizer required and adequate irrigation systems to support these vegetables’ growth.

Canada’s growing season isn’t as long as many of the native climates these vegetables are accustomed to. However, some of these foods can be grown in greenhouses, or started there and finished in fields. And in many cases, local soil composition can be modified in the field to meet the demands that the particular ethno-cultural food requires, says Filson.

Funding for this research is provided by the Ontario Market Investment Fund and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

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