Market-driven research in Massachusetts

Throughout the country, roughly 40 percent of sales of fresh fruits and vegetables are crops popular with Latinos, Asian-Americans and African-Americans, and that percentage is growing as the immigrant population rises. Massachusetts farmers grow approximately 25,000 acres of vegetables, and an estimated 70 percent of those crops are from the tropics. Crops like sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes and eggplants may seem like New England staples, but they actually originated in places like Latin America and Asia. Still, very few tropical vegetables won’t grow in Massachusetts. The issue is seed availability and sourcing.

Professor Frank Mangan, along with his student researchers at the University of Massachusetts, trial plants from around the world to see how well they can grow in the northeastern United States. In order to continue his research, he must consider where he can get exotic crop seeds, how he can get them and what varieties will succeed in the temperate climate of the Northeast.

Massachusetts has the largest Brazilian population in the country, numbering at about 250,000, so Brazilian crops are a major focus of Mangan’s research, in addition to other Latin American staples. In 2009, Mangan and his research team grew 5 acres of crops. Included in their research are chipilín (Crotalaria longirostrata, a leguminous plant), maxixe (Cucumis anguria, a type of cucumber), jiló (Solanum gilo, a type of eggplant) and okra (Abelmoschus esculentus, known as quiabo in Brazil). Although maxixe and jiló originated in Africa, and okra is indigenous to India, these plants became popular in Brazil after they arrived with the slave trade.

Mangan imports most of his seeds; however, this is not always possible. Chili Manzano (Capsicum pubescens), a pepper that’s popular in Mexico, is quarantined due to fruit fly contamination. Far from being daunted by the restrictions on importing Chili Manzano, Mangan is excited by the challenge of finding a way to grow it in the U.S. to serve the large and growing population of Mexicans in New York City. After conducting an Internet search for seed sources, Mangan found a company in California that carries Chili Manzano. Going through proper channels to import seeds takes time and determination.

Because many farmers in the countries of origin save their seeds, their local seed companies often don’t carry certain crops. That adds a layer of difficulty when Mangan is trying to find seeds for a crop he wants to grow.

Mangan holds the chipilín seed he imported from El Salvador. The variation in color is due to a coating applied prior to exportation.
Photos courtesy of Frank Mangan.

Chipilín is native to El Salvador and is a staple in the Salvadoran diet and popular among Guatemalans and people from southern Mexico. The legume is also an herb, which looks like alfalfa. With the help of the El Salvadoran consulate in Boston and USDA’s APHIS, Mangan imported 5 pounds of chipilín seed in 2007. The first year the germination rate was 4 percent, and every year it’s gone up. The second year, 10 percent of the seeds germinated. In 2009, 22 percent of the seeds germinated. He suspects the increase in germination is a result of an evolutionary process called after-ripening. When fruit drops to the ground from plants with 100 percent viable seeds, it’s not always in the best interest of the plant for all those seeds to germinate right away. Sometimes it’s an advantage for seeds to delay germination for several months, until it’s spring again, or to have the germination happen over time. After-ripening can increase the chance of more of the seed growing again, producing more plants and seeds and flowers.

So far, chipilín has grown very well in Massachusetts. However, the herb is day length-sensitive. When day length is below 12 or 13 hours, the chipilín enters the reproductive growth stage. As the day gets shorter, it starts to flower, in the same way that lettuce bolts. Mangan and his team will continue searching for a way to grow chipilín efficiently for market. If they succeed, a commercial seed company will pick up chipilín, which is one of the goals of Mangan’s work.

Mangan’s team is assessing several varieties of okra that are grown in the U.S., as well as some that are grown in Brazil. The two most common varieties of okra are Clemson Spineless, which is popular in the South, and Cajun Delight. Cajun Delight grows better in the Northeast than it does in the South. Their first step is to grow each variety at the UMass research farm and evaluate how well they produce, what the yield is and the pod characteristics. One variety that’s popular in Brazil, but was developed here in the U.S., is Santa Cruz 47. The variety is smooth, not undulate, and it grows well in the Northeast. Researchers are examining how well Santa Cruz 47 grows, and whether the yield will justify growing it on a commercial scale.

Mangan and his team are also evaluating several seed sources to find the best variety of maxixe to feed the Brazilian population in the Northeast. Some varieties of maxixe have fewer spines than other varieties. The hope again is that a seed company will pick it up.

A result of research done at UMass is that a major commercial seed company recognized the niche for a plant called culantro and started carrying it. Culantro is popular throughout Latin America, and is a key ingredient in sofrito and other staple dishes. After demonstrating not only that it grows well in the Northeast, but also that there is a market for it, Johnny’s Selected Seeds picked it up. Other seed companies offering seeds discovered via UMass’ research include Baker Creek and D. Landreth.

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.