Why choose an ethnic crop

“Helping feed people in a way they wish to eat, bringing them food that holds a place in their culture, that to me is the joy of growing ethnic crops,” says David Dumaresq.

Dave Dumaresq with a CSA share.
Photos by Kathleen Hatt.

Dumaresq lives in Dracut, Mass., a suburban community of 29,500. On 80 acres of parts of five farms, Dumaresq and around 30 full and part-time employees grow vegetables to sell at his farmstand, his CSA and at 12 farmers’ markets serving different ethnic populations. Ethnic crops are grown on 6 acres and account for 5 to 10 percent of Dumaresq’s gross sales.

Who are the customers?

Interested in ethnic crops since his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, Dumaresq started growing them on his Brox Farm 11 years ago. Beginning with crops grown in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, he next added Asian, then Brazilian, then Central American specialties. He found Asian crops unprofitable and no longer grows them. Current ethnic groups who purchase from him include Italians, Central Americans and Brazilians, as well as Americans inclined to trying new flavors. The latter account for approximately 25 percent of his customers. Only about 5 percent of all ethnic produce grown at Brox Farm is wholesaled, and it is sold to a few stores that cater to certain specific ethnicities.

What crops for whom?

“It’s hard, if not impossible, to predict what will be popular each year. Best sellers vary widely, and wholesale is always a crapshoot,” says Dumaresq. “To grow a successful ethnic crop takes both interest in the crop, in the ethnicity and in ethnic crops in general, and passion, the desire to bring people a product traditional to them.”

From passion to product

After assessing his own interest in a crop, Dumaresq next considers where and to whom he will be able to sell it, in what geographic area he will market and which groups from what part of the world will be his customers. He also decides if he will sell the crop retail or wholesale, or both. He suggests being careful to distinguish among Hispanic groups since each may have different food preferences.

Throughout what is ideally a yearlong information-gathering process, Dumaresq considers crop needs and market potential. He visits farmers’ markets in which he hopes to sell, and asks corner store owners if they need a crop they have been unable to find.

After a light frost, a worker at Farmer Dave’s picks shell beans.

With that information, he determines whether his ideas about growing and marketing a new crop are viable. He may discover that what he needs is not a new product, but a new market for one he already grows. For instance, he found that cousa, a nutty-flavored squash he had been growing for Lebanese customers, is also popular among Central Americans.

Testing and evaluating

With projected costs for growing and marketing a new ethnic crop, Dumaresq considers whether the numbers will actually work for him, such as whether the crop will fit into the rest of his farm business, and if the market is viable. Since many of the ethnic crops he grows come from tropical areas that have a longer growing season, he starts them in one of his seven greenhouses. A typical crop is aji dulce, a sweet pepper, which he starts in a greenhouse the first of March, four weeks before he starts regular green peppers. Calabasa, a large, pumpkin-like winter squash favored by Latinos and some Asians, is 120 days to harvest and is also started in a greenhouse. When the season is done, Dumaresq saves the seeds to try again.

Avoiding overproduction

“Small ethnic crops can easily be overproduced,” says Dumaresq. “First, people don’t believe they can be grown here. Then when they do, they flood the market.” He cites aji dulce and jiló as examples. aji dulce, popular with people in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, is imported from the Dominican Republic most of the year. Since he started growing it 11 years ago, he has learned not to market more than 40 boxes a week. “If I do, I’m flooding my own market.” The retail market price of aji dulce varies significantly by location of market:

Retail Market Price of Aji Dulce per Box (12 pounds)
Miami $8
New York $12
Boston distributors $18
Direct to store delivery $22
On-farm retail $42
Farmers’ market $42

Prices fall each year as supply increases, but they rise dramatically following a hurricane in the Dominican Republic. Prices also tend to fall year by year as supply increases, and Dumaresq plans for this by reducing his yearly production. He also attributes a decline in demand for aji dulce to second-generation assimilation. “The second generation of people from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico are just not as attached to aji dulce as the first generation.”

Jiló, an eggplant popular among Brazilians, is another example. The first year Dumaresq grew it, it commanded $4 a pound. The second year, the price fell to $2 a pound, and the third year to less than $1 a pound as commercial farmers began growing the crop, and Brazilians discovered they could grow it in their own backyards.

Workers at Brox Farm in Dracut, Mass., transplanting pipiana squash in early May.

Handling bargaining

Knowing that haggling is part of his customers’ shopping experience in their countries of origin, Dumaresq is prepared. While “standing strong” on the posted price, he does offer an alternative: “If you want to buy the whole case, I’ll give you a better price.” Because customers generally don’t want to spend that much money, this usually ends the conversation; if a customer finds friends interested in splitting the case, the deal is on.

Requests for a lower price rarely happen at his farmstand, which Dumaresq attributes to the different atmosphere of farmers’ markets.

Money isn’t everything

While ethnic crops have not been extreme moneymakers, Dumaresq finds other advantages. Ethnic crops add to his crop diversity and thus reduce risk. At farmers’ markets, they’re a lead-in. Customers seek out his booth first, select ethnic produce and then also buy tomatoes, corn and other standards. Some of his CSA people also appreciate the diverse selections.

Ethnic Crops at Brox Farm

  • Cilantro: All Latin Americans and Southeast Asians in general
  • Peppers:
    • cubanelle: Latinos
    • jalapenos: Mexicans
    • serranos: Mexicans
    • poblanos: Mexicans
    • chiltepe: Guatemalans
    • aji dulce: Puerto Ricans and Dominicans
  • Eggplants:
    • jiló – Brazilian
    • Dominican eggplant
    • long, thin Asian eggplant
    • Thai eggplant
  • Beans:
    • Cranberry shell beans: many Latino groups
  • Winter squash:
    • Calabasa: Latinos and some Asians
  • Baby corn: Asians and Central Americans
  • Corn leaves: (as wrapper for tamales) Central Americans
  • Asian greens (bok choi, mizuni, Chinese broccoli, Chinese water spinach) Tried but not very profitable

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Growing. She resides in Henniker, N.H.