“The local food movement has energized vegetable, small fruit and artisan grain farming in the Northeast,” Robert Hadad, Regional Vegetable Specialist, Cornell Vegetable Team, said. “The interest in ethnic food is also coming from increasing or shifting groups of immigrants or refugees into some of the urban areas.”
It’s an age-old tradition: people who migrate want to bring their food culture with them. New England has seen an influx of ethnic populations in recent years, including a large Brazilian population around Boston and a diversity of Asian ethnicities, as well as Eastern European, African and Central and South American groups. While some of these immigrants may be farmers themselves, the demand for ethnic foods also creates market potential for the existing farm community.
“There are farms moving towards more ethnic crop production if they are close enough to a large metropolitan area like New York City or Boston,” Hadad said. “Interest is also probably greater nearer the cities, though there has been a number of refugee relocation programs bringing people into the smaller cities in Northeastern and Midwestern states, so the potential for more farms to adapt to new potential markets is increasing.”
While many crops can grow in temperate regions, introducing a crop indigenous to another continent or climate isn’t always predictable. The University of Massachusetts Ethnic Crops Program is a leader in researching the production and marketing of traditional ethnic crops.
The World Crops website, overseen by Frank Mangan, Stockbridge School of Agriculture, University of Massachusetts, lists crops by country, detailing cultivation requirements, seed sources, history and culinary uses, as well as any University trial data.
The University has several acres devoted to ethnic crops at the UMass Amherst’s Deerfield Research Farm. Since 2003, the program has been introducing ethnic crops to area farmers, assisting them not only with production information, but also with marketing data and support.
“Bringing in seed from other countries is tricky because there isn’t a lot of information on how they will do in their new climate,” Hadad said. “We don’t know how these varieties may be affected by pests and diseases. In some cases, crops grown near the equator would have a tougher time due to the amount of sunlight there is.”
Central American corn varieties are often photo periodically sensitive, requiring 12 hours of daylight. In New England, these varieties will grow, but not produce ears. Other crops, such as artichokes, have special requirements, such as timed exposure to cold air, which triggers production. In the Northeast, this can be time-consuming to manage.
“Some crops like more heat, coolness or water that may not match our changing, shifting, climate either,” Hadad said. “But many crops we’re most familiar with have their roots in other countries. Varieties have become more or less naturalized, and plant breeding over the centuries has aided in tropical and subtropical plants becoming habituated to our growing conditions.”
Common crops — tomatoes, eggplant, peppers — have their origins in Central or South America. These have adapted well to North American growing conditions. And new varieties of ethnic vegetables, not previously grown in the state, and introduced to the region’s farmers by Mangan and the Ethnic Crops Program, have resulted in more than $5 million in retail sales.
Not only do these crops appeal to those seeking familiar foods from their home countries, they appeal to “foodies” seeking innovative cuisine, and local food enthusiasts eager for whatever crops the local farm has to offer. They are often a way to bridge communication between diverse groups of people.
“Ethnic crops can be a great introduction to the cultures of other people. Tasting their ‘local’ food and reading the stories about the food you make with these crops is a gateway for breaking down barriers,” Hadad said. “Seeing someone from another country see food they are familiar with and watching their eyes light up is huge. That farmer has made a customer more than happy, and probably will have that customer shopping from them for life.”