Growing and marketing many kinds of ethnic vegetables

Batavian lettuce.
Courtesy of Syngenta.

Tim and Noreen O’Connell grow ethnic crops for customers of European, Asian, African and Hispanic origin. “We don’t focus on any one ethnic group,” says O’Connell. “We consider ourselves ‘meat-and-potato’ growers of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and winter squashes, who also grow vegetables for first and second-generation Americans and for new immigrants. We’ve seen many transitions among immigrant groups. We don’t choose ethnic vegetables, they choose us.” In addition to vegetables, the O’Connells also tend half an acre of cut-your-own flowers, which they sell at $8 a pound.

At their 20-acre Butternut Farm in Milford, N.H., the O’Connells grow produce to sell at their honor-system farmstand, at the Manchester Downtown Farmers’ Market, to which they have belonged since 1998, and at the Milford market, which they helped establish in 1978. They were also founders of two other New Hampshire markets, one in Peterborough in 1977 and another in Nashua in 1995.

Know your customers

“Our goal is to make money, and to do that we need to be aware of continually shifting ethnic groups and the foods they prefer,” says O’Connell. This is especially true of the Manchester market with its diverse ethnicities. New Hampshire’s largest city with a population of about 109,000, Manchester has seen successive waves of immigration. The first Europeans arrived in the 1700s, and by the mid-19th century, Manchester had become one of the world’s major textile production centers, employing large numbers of French-Canadians to operate its mills. By 1900, Manchester’s 29,000 French-Canadians had become 40 percent of its total population. Currently, Manchester’s ancestry groups include 22.1 percent French, 20.2 percent Irish, 10.3 percent English, 7.9 percent Italian, 7.4 percent German and lesser numbers from other parts of the world. With the European/Mediterranean segment of their customer base, the O’Connells find kohlrabi, leek, Romanian sweet peppers, Italian eggplant, escarole, celery root, Batavian lettuces, Hungarian hot wax peppers, bulb fennel and cousa summer squash are popular.

In more recent times, Latino, Vietnamese and Somali immigrants settled in Manchester. Although their numbers and those of earlier arrivals like the Iraquis and Burundians of the 1980s and the Bosnians of the mid 1990s represent only a small percentage of the city’s total population, they represent a significant percentage of the patrons at farmers’ markets.

A surprisingly popular crop

A big seller among Butternut Farm’s European and Asian customers, kohlrabi is cold-tolerant and easy to grow. It is a favorite of Noreen’s, and the O’Connells first started growing it 25 to 30 years ago. Kohlrabi is eaten raw in salads and cooked in stir-fries, soups and stews, and can also be grilled or stuffed. The only trick to growing kohlrabi is to harvest it when the stems are 3 to 4 inches in diameter. Older kohlrabi can become tough and woody.

Said to be one of only two common vegetables of northern European origin (the other is its cousin Brussels sprouts), kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea variety caulorapa) was first grown in Europe around 1500. From the German for cabbage (kohl) and rabi (turnip), kohlrabi was known in Germany, England, Italy, Spain and the eastern Mediterranean by the end of the 16th century. Interestingly, at least 42 languages ranging from Arabic to Dutch to Swedish and Vietnamese have words for kohlrabi.

Not known to have been cultivated on a field scale until 1735 when it was grown in Ireland, kohlrabi was first grown in the U.S. in the early 1800s. With leaves standing out like spokes from its rounded, edible stem section growing just above the soil line, kohlrabi looks a bit like the interplanetary imaginings of a sci-fi afficionado. There are both white (actually very pale green) and purple varieties.

Other multicultural favorites

Like kohlrabi, green onions are also appreciated by people of diverse backgrounds. “Scallions are easy to grow and great sellers,” says O’Connell. “I don’t know why more farmers don’t grow them.”

Beans, too, are popular. A favorite with French-Canadians and old-time Yankees who prefer the French horticultural variety of shell beans to lima beans in their succotash, shell beans are also popular among the more recently arrived Somalians.

“Our customers love cousa, especially our Lebanese and Greek customers,” says O’Connell. Similar to zucchini, but drier, cousa has a nutty flavor and is great on the grill. It is less-productive than zucchini, damages easily and must be picked carefully, preferably at 4 inches. “Of all the vegetables we grow, cousa is the one that starts enthusiastic conversations among our customers,” says O’Connell.

To introduce customers to some of their more unusual crops, Noreen has compiled Souhegan Valley Farmers’ Cookbook—A Consumer’s Guide on How to Use Local Produce. The book includes instructions for buying, storing and cooking locally grown produce, and also contains nutritional information and recipes for both traditional and ethnic crops.

What’s a Batavian lettuce?

“We consider lettuce, especially Batavian lettuce, our specialty,” says O’Connell. A favorite among Butternut Farm customers, it is one of several lettuce varieties classified as loose-leaf or semi-heading. Prized by European cooks, Batavian lettuce seems to be little known in North America. “However, anyone who tries it becomes a repeat customer,” O’Connell says. A crisp, easy-to-grow lettuce without pest problems and resistant to bolting, Batavian lettuce will last up to two weeks in the refrigerator. The O’Connells grow primarily Sierra, Nevada, Cherokee and Goodall varieties, as well as trials of other cultivars as they become available. They also grow green leaf and romaine lettuces.

Other crops the O’Connells grow for their older European customers include celeriac and leeks, and for their Italian customers, they grow escarole (though it does not sell well outside that group).

Extending the growing season

Located in south-central New Hampshire near the Massachusetts border, Butternut Farm’s usual growing season is 130 to 140 days. To extend the growing period, the O’Connells’ five covered growing areas now include four greenhouses and one high-tunnel:

  • 14-by-32 heated germination greenhouse;
  • 17-by-96 and 14-by-96 heated greenhouses for vegetable transplants and bedding plants;
  • 14-by-96 heated greenhouse for geraniums and pansies; and
  • 20-by-96 unheated high tunnel for tomatoes, carrots and leeks.

Part of the whole

Of the 5 to 6 acres of growing space at Butternut Farm, about an acre and a half are devoted to ethnic crops, including lettuce. “We try to offer a lot of diversity,” says O’Connell. “A lot of variety, but not a lot of quantity. This encourages one-stop shopping at our stand.” Over the years, the O’Connells have continued to add varieties to their selection of ethnic produce. They recall having dropped only one product, tomatillos, because of limited customer interest, as well as the plants’ tendency to become weedy. Butternut Farm’s lettuce is, by volume, the biggest seller, and ethnic produce currently accounts for 10 to 15 percent of all the farm’s annual income from produce. This percentage does not include lettuce sales, nor does it reflect the satisfaction of growing food for three generations of customers who come first to Butternut Farm’s booth at farmers’ markets.

For Further Information

Noreen O’Connell and Jeanne Coty, The Souhegan Valley Farmers’ Cookbook, $10 at local farmstands, the Manchester and Milford, N.H., Farmers’ Markets, or at noreenoc@comcast.net.

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