Why raise ethnic crops and which ones to grow

Sweet peppers (aji dulce, Capsicum chinense) resembling hot habaneros, a spinach-like green the size of an umbrella (taioba, Xanthosoma sagittifolium) and spiky egg-sized cucumbers (maxixe, Cucumis anguria). There’s a whole world of unusual produce waiting to add zip, zing and profit to your crop mix. Here’s how to select the right ones for you and your markets.

At Cronig’s Market on Martha’s Vineyard, UMass graduate students Celina Fernandes, Renato Mateus and Zoraia Barros help promote Brazilian vegetables at an event geared to the non-Brazilian population.
Photo by Zoraia Barros.

An explosion in demand

In 2002, 30 million people living in the United States were immigrants, and those numbers are increasing at rates not seen since the early 1900s. Eight million immigrants arrived in 2005, the largest number in a single year since the beginning of our country. Immigrants accounted for 37 percent of all supermarket sales in 2002, and it is now estimated that 25 percent of supermarket sales of fresh fruit and vegetables are to Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Since 2000, retail sales of ethnic crops introduced to commercial growers in Massachusetts by the University of Massachusetts Ethnic Crops Program have topped $3 million.

Jiló of the comprido verde claro type at the UMass Research Farm. A green eggplant sometimes called garden egg, jiló is popular with Nigerians and Brazilians.
Photo by Maria Moreira.

These increasing and exploding populations bring opportunities for growers to expand produce sales. They also bring challenges. The majority of immigrants since 1960 (80 percent) have come from the more tropical areas of the world, and growing conditions for their preferred foods are obviously different from those in most of the United States. “However, most tropical and subtropical crops can be grown here,” says Dr. Frank Mangan of the University of Massachusetts.

Growing tropical and subtropical crops in the Northeast

Tropical and subtropical crops have been grown in the colder regions of the U.S. for so many years that their balmy origins tend to be forgotten. Among these crops are sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, pumpkins and squashes. Of the 25,000 acres of vegetables now grown in Massachusetts, more than 70 percent originated in tropical and subtropical regions of the world.

Before committing to growing a new ethnic variety, especially one originating in warmer regions, Mangan, who works primarily with crops originally from tropical areas, suggests considering these factors:

       • Seed

With ethnic crops, this is not an insignificant issue, according to Mangan. “Obtaining genetics may range from easy to impossible,” he says.

       • Growing conditions

Soil type, fertility and needs of the crop.

       • Cultural practices

Seed spacing, irrigation and the possible need for season extension.

       • Pests

Insects, weeds, diseases and vertebrates. As part of the decision to grow any crop, whether organically or conventionally, Mangan advises that the issue of pest management be addressed before the crop is planted. “There should be an approved pesticide labeled for use on both the pest and the crop,” says Mangan. An example is Chipilin (Crotalaria longirstrata) a popular herb in Guatemala, El Salvador and southern Mexico. There is currently no pesticide labeled by genus and species for use on chipilin; however, Pyganic, labeled for “leguminous vegetables,” has been approved by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources for use in managing potato leafhopper, a destructive pest to chipilin. Other, more effective insecticides in this class are not allowed since they do not have “leguminous vegetables” on their label. Pyganic (at $470 a gallon) is not very effective at controlling leafhopper, but it is the only option. Without control of leafhopper, chipilin cannot be sold.

Pests attacking jiló (Solanum gilo), a green eggplant popular with Nigerians and Brazilians, on the other hand, may be controlled with any pesticide labeled for use on eggplant.

       • Climatic conditions

Day length and other climatic issues are also factors when trying to grow tropical crops in most of North America.

Dr. Frank Mangan of UMass talks with a grower of taioba at a farmers’ market in Brazil.
Photo by Renato Mateus.

Is this crop right for me? A system for deciding

When Mangan first began evaluating ethnic crops at the UMass Research Farm, his first consideration would be production practices (including the availability of seed) and yield, but in recent years those priorities have changed. While production practices (including the availability of genetics) remain critical factors, he now considers issues related to size and accessibility of markets equally important. What produce did a given immigrant group eat in their homeland? What part of the plant do they eat? Although varieties may be related, one variety preferred by one ethnic group may be grown for its root, while another variety of the same plant preferred by another ethnic group is grown for its leaves.

Aji dulce is an example of a variety that could easily be confused with another. A sweet pepper popular among Latinos from the Caribbean, it is the same size, shape, genus and species as habanero, one of the hottest peppers in the world. Latinos from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic do not traditionally use hot peppers in their cuisine, and thus want nothing to do with habaneros.

Kabocha (Cucurbita maxima), a dark green squash with yellow to bright orange flesh, is used in the cuisine of several diverse ethnic groups. Originally introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders in the mid-1600s, it has become a popular vegetable there and is used in soups, sushi and tempura. Once introduced to Latino markets, varieties of kabocha are used as a substitute for calabaza.

The Ethnic Crops Program at the University of Massachusetts, headed by Mangan and Maria Moreira, uses this process to decide which ethnic crops to grow:

1. Identify crops by ethnic group.

In your market area, what ethnic groups are present and what fresh produce do they prefer? Identify preferred crop by genus and species.

2. Estimate demand for the crop.

How many people might purchase it and how much would they buy?

3. Evaluate the product.

Grow the product at the research farm before introducing it to commercial farms. Identify cultural issues and means of controlling pests. Estimate crop yield.

4. Establish a market strategy.

Zoraia Barros (second from right), a UMass graduate student, at a farm on Martha’s Vineyard where taioba is grown. Not yet widely available in North America, it is popular in parts of Brazil where it is grown for its spinach-like greens.
Photo by Maria Moreira.

Where will this crop be introduced? To whom? How will it be priced? “We start high,” says Mangan, citing abóbora japonesa, a hard squash popular among Brazilians and Asians, as an example. Because it needs a long growing season, it is grown from transplants and on black plastic, making it expensive to produce. Sold from New England to Florida, it can command a wholesale price 100 percent higher than that of other hard squashes.

5. Introduce the product to commercial farms.

Throughout the decision-making process, from genus and species selection to marketing, it is most important to collaborate with members of the specific ethnic group. Brazilians, for example, prefer one of two varieties of jiló-depending on the location of their point of origin within the country. Jiló, which resembles eggplant and is sometimes called garden egg, came from Africa to Brazil with the slave trade. There are two distinct types of jiló, comprido verde claro (long, light green) and morro redondo (round). By talking with Brazilians living in Massachusetts, most of whom are from the state of Minas Gerais, Mangan learned of their preference for the less bitter comprido verde claro variety. He also learned that the Brazilian market will not accept jiló that has turned red or orange.

See Table 1. Enterprise Budget with Variable Cost

Know your costs—an enterprise budget

What will it cost to grow this crop? Before purchasing seed, Mangan recommends a careful enumeration of all factors including labor, materials and anticipated returns. Some crops may require expensive row covers; others (such as the spined but easily bruised maxixe) take special care in harvesting. See Table 1 for the format Mangan uses for his analysis.

The search for new taste

Satisfying the tastes of an ethnic group in your market area may be a large incentive to grow an ethnic crop, but it need not be the only one. Unfamiliar produce, attractively displayed, may become your region’s newest flavor. Be sure to provide storage and preparation instructions together with several recipes for its use.

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