Margaret Zondo and Rodney Garnes prepare salted codfish – one of Rodney's favourites – during a harvest party cooking demo in the "Global Roots" garden at The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto. The couple love sharing the flavours of their cultures; you can find them regularly at The Stop's farmers' market at Wychwood Barns. Photo © Emily Van Halem.

Two summers ago, I was on a mission of sorts. I was learning how to authentically cook vegetables I had never heard of from around the world. But instead of travelling to East Asia for gai lan or the Caribbean for callaloo, I neighbourhood-hopped around Toronto to Chinatown and Little Jamaica. 

Before long, I could name four different ways to make salsa verde, advise others on how to cook okra so it didn’t get slimy, and tell the difference between choy sum, yu choy, gai lan and bok choy (90 per cent of the time). While my newfound passion was rooted in my genuine love for culinary adventure, it was expedited by a fortuitous change in jobs that had me doing cooking demos with culturally diverse vegetables at farmers’ markets – where crops like these were increasingly popping up. I was going global but eating local and loving every minute of it. It turns out that I was far from alone.

Canadian food tastes have never been more varied. Living in Toronto, I can peruse a dozen types of kimchi in a Korean supermarket in one moment and, in the next, be taking in the aroma of fresh curry leaves in an Indian variety store. Myriad restaurants offer up the delectable tastes of the planet and every type of fusion under the sun. This incredible range of offerings reflects a changing demographic among newcomers to Canada. About one-fifth of Canada’s population is foreign-born, and city centres reach even higher densities – more than 45 per cent of Toronto’s population is new to Canada, and nearly 40 per cent of Vancouver’s. But it’s not just that new Canadians are enjoying the flavours of their homeland; the eating habits of both new and established Canadians are increasingly cross-cultural.

The global food system and its complex transit web enables North American eaters to have access to pretty much any food at all times of the year. Canada’s citrus- and banana-laden trade routes to Latin America and the Caribbean are well established and have made tropical fruits household staples. And now, with a recent influx of newcomers to Canada from Asia and Africa, it’s not unusual to find bitter melon, cassava and okra lining grocery store shelves. This is great news for both the culinary-curious and those who use these crops as daily staples. Food, after all, is the core of culture and identity, and having access to the tastes of ‘back home’ can help ease the transition to a new land. 

Yet local-food advocates have been wondering if some of these worldly crops could save themselves a trip around the world and be grown in Canada instead. Of course, tropical perennials like the banana don’t stand a chance in Canadian winters without a heated greenhouse. But heat-loving vegetables are perfect candidates for what, in economic terms, is called import substitution. 

Wouldn’t it be great if Canada’s cultural diversity could be reflected in the soil as well as in our cities? There may be no better way to make the local food movement more inclusive to those who find greater delight in callaloo than carrots. 

To be fair, foods from around the world have long been cultivated in Canadian soils. In fact, most of what grocery stores offer today originally hailed from abroad and came to Canada with earlier immigrant waves. In a similar vein, the more recent waves of immigrants have brought their own crops too. A trip to one of Toronto’s many community gardens will prove that culturally diverse vegetables have already set roots here. It is the commercialization of these vegetables that is just starting to sprout. Until recently, unless you grew bottle gourd in your backyard or community garden, you’d be hard-pressed to find it sourced locally at the grocery store. 

But that’s about to change thanks to the trailblazing work of several Ontario-based institutions. The University of Guelph, FarmStart and the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre have been investigating the potential of growing and selling various Asian, African, Caribbean and Latin American vegetables in Ontario and beyond. These crops don’t easily fit into any singular classification, but are often referred to as “ethnic,” “ethno-cultural” or “world” crops. 

The University of Guelph’s Ethno-Cultural Vegetables Ontario (ECVO) project conducted some initial research with FarmStart to identify the market size for Asian, Caribbean and African vegetables. Their tally pegged the total retail value of these crops entering just the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) at a staggering $732 million annually, primarily from overseas producers. This research not only confirmed that newcomers to Ontario are continuing to consume cultural favourites like okra or Indian eggplant, but also that there is actually a substantial opportunity for local farmers to access a portion of this rapidly expanding market. 

Seeing the obvious opportunity for local farmers, Niagara-based Vineland Research and Innovation Centre launched its own research program into the cultivation and market development for world crops. Now in its fourth season, Vineland has studied the performance of 15 new-to-Ontario crops through field trials on its own site and more than a dozen collaborating farms around southern Ontario. This work has explored which crops are able to thrive in Ontario’s climate, as well as which soil, water and fertility conditions are best suited for each. For Vineland, honing in on cultivation practices is only part of the puzzle; ensuring that Ontario farmers grow the right variety to meet market demand is essential, as is the harvest and storage method so that crops stay fresh en route to market.

Isabelle Lesschaeve, Vineland’s research director of consumer insights and product innovation, has been leading focus groups, online surveys and taste-test trials with newcomer communities to identify if the crops being produced in Ontario stand up to the imports. “We learned that visually, the consumers familiar with okra [or] long and round eggplant preferred locally grown produce over imported ones,” explains Lesschaeve. “However, we also learned that depending on the consumers’ cultural background, the preferred shape and size of the vegetable differed.”

Lesschaeve points out that while price was the most significant purchasing driver for participants in the study, there was also a strong “home country bias” – a preference among consumers to buy vegetables that hail from their homelands. As such, “the selling proposition to the ethnic consumers,” she stresses, “should therefore take into account all these factors because ‘locally grown’ won’t be enough to outperform imported produce.” 

It’s nuances like these that make the research legwork all the more important to trailblazing farmers. After all, organizations like Vineland, the University of Guelph and FarmStart want to make sure that a farmer’s first foray into world crop cultivation is a successful one.

The research’s timing couldn’t be better. Already, adventurous farmers are experimenting with more culturally diverse crops on their lands, intuitively recognizing the market demand. Among them, new Canadians, many of whom are already familiar with the cultivation techniques for these crops, have found themselves on the leading edge of a growing market niche. 


Garry Proven (right) founded Country Herbs organic farm in 2000. Partners Imraan Esmile and Lalli Singh (left and middle) now live on the farm in Courtland, Ontario, along with and their two children. After a promising trial season of growing and – most importantly – selling eggplant on the advice of Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, they’ve planted even more this spring. “Growing the food is the easy part,” says Proven, “the hard part is finding the market.” Country Herbs has succeeded because large grocery stores are looking to stock locally grown products to feed global appetites. 
Photo © Stuart Bulmer

 

Southern Horizons Market Farm is one of a growing number of businesses that produce worldly vegetables in Southwestern Ontario. Co-owners Margaret Zondo and Rodney Garnes both came from food-growing families in their home countries – Zimbabwe and Barbados, respectively. The couple met here in Canada and immediately bonded over their mutual interest in farming, a way of life that their landed communities seemed to be actively distancing themselves from. They did some research on how to acquire or lease land to grow the vegetables and herbs that they loved to eat, and discovered FarmStart. 

 

Together the pair persevered and planted their first quarter-acre at FarmStart’s McVean Farm in Brampton, Ontario, an incubator program that currently provides growing plots to three dozen farmers – many of whom are also new Canadians. The 18-hectare McVean Farm is a strange mix of urban and rural, and an unexpected swath of green space nestled among several subdivisions. After five seasons under their belts, Zondo and Garnes’ enterprise has grown to a bustling 2.5-acres (one hectare) planted with more than 40 crop varieties. 

Alongside some market garden standards, much of what Zondo and Garnes now grow is crops that were staples in their home countries. Callaloo, collard greens, hot peppers and okra all played a starring role back home and continue to here in Canada. “They always say, grow what you like to eat,” quips Zondo. “And if I’m going to tell someone at the market about a crop, I should be able to tell them I eat that vegetable and share my knowledge of how to cook it.” 

The farmers’ markets already seemed to be saturated with produce such as carrots, beans and beets, so they decided to take a gamble and try growing the crops they knew best. It’s working well so far: at three different farmers’ markets, the demand for their diverse offerings has made great strides. You’ll need to arrive early if you want to guarantee yourself a basket of their okra – one of five varieties that they grow. And Garnes’ signature fiery hot sauce is potently popular. 

Their success with their own staple foods further encouraged the couple to try out a wider range of worldly vegetables, including Asian eggplant, bottle gourd and tomatillos. They found the latter, a tart Latin American fruit similar to a ground cherry, to be easy to grow, delicious in salsas and fun to look at because of its delicate husk wrapping. Intriguing crops like these have proven to be a great way to connect with their multicultural customer base. 

Zondo says that Vineland and the support of its world crops program had a strong influence on their approach. A Vineland research presentation about the market and production potential of these crops encouraged them to move forward with confidence. A Toronto-based organization called The Stop Community Food Centre also equipped the couple with some great resources to do community outreach through its “Eat Local, Taste Global” project. The recipes and information cards they created for a range of world crops made it easy to communicate how to select, store and cook these new foods to customers, and they’ve also introduced some of them to freshly cooked salt fish and okra.

As Southern Horizons’ clientele can attest, first- or second-generation immigrants are not the only ones keen to get their hands on high-quality, culturally diverse vegetables. And while Zondo and Garnes have certainly become pioneers of local-food production, their chosen path is catching on more widely too. The profit margins of many traditional crop farmers are declining, so finding products that will give their business a market edge is ever more critical to financial success. The changing taste of the market, then, is opportunity knocking. And organizations like Vineland and FarmStart are opening the door for all kinds of farmers to make the transition. 

Garry Proven, co-owner of a 30-hectare certified organic herb farm in Courtland, Ontario, definitely sees the value in staying tuned into the marketplace. Although he grew up on a farm, he and his wife Wendy both had careers in the printing industry. The move towards digital media in the late 1990s prompted Proven to seek out a small business opportunity that would still have legs for a long time down the road. Seeing the baby-boomer generation’s growing desire for healthy food, he decided in 2000 to buy some farmland near the shores of Lake Erie. The result, Country Herbs, now supplies nearly 20 types of fresh organic herbs directly to retail chains like Whole Foods, Sobeys and Longo’s. 

Already keen to experiment with new products besides herbs, Proven and his business partners acknowledged a shift in Ontario’s cultural demographics and saw growing world crops as a natural next step. Their market research and the demonstrated success of Vineland’s field trials showed both consumer demand and crop profitability, and convinced Proven it was a worthwhile venture. So in 2012 he planted two acres of land with three types of eggplant: pinstripe, Asian long and round purple – varieties that Vineland had identified as popular with South Asian or East Asian consumers. “It was a stab in the dark that first year,” says Proven, “but with all the heat we got, it turned out to be one of our best crops.” 

Through that first year of trials, Proven discovered that Country Herbs’ existing retail clients liked the new eggplants and would buy whatever they grew. Chain grocers like Sobeys and Longo’s would strategically send the Asian and Indian varieties to the stores that catered to those demographics. 

This was all good news for Country Herbs. After all, “growing the food is the easy part,” says Proven. “The hard part is finding the market.” Thankfully, the local food movement’s success has meant that the larger chains are interested in stocking the kind of produce that Country Herbs has begun cultivating. 

Farmers selling directly to chain retailers seems to be a growing trend. To land a contract with a retailer, a local grower needs to guarantee a consistent supply of high-quality crops throughout the growing season. While quality and consistency are relatively easy to deliver on, producing the needed volume is within reach only for larger operations. Finding a mutually satisfactory price is perhaps even harder, as farms need to produce large enough quantities to make the wholesale price they receive from retail chains worthwhile. Most new farmers of world crops can’t produce enough to sell wholesale. But with a sense of which crops will be locally profitable, a season or two of field trials and a good relationship with a buyer, a medium- or large-scale farm could feasibly follow Country Herbs’ path, landing contracts to sell directly to retailers – instead of going through a wholesale distributor, which makes for even tighter margins. 

This year, with a good track record behind him and some solid retailer connections in place, Proven is scaling up his eggplant production to four acres.

Seeing these new crops gain traction with both farmers and consumers is definitely welcome news, and early adopters are certainly benefitting from this emerging market niche. Yet these are just the first seeds of a larger project to establish an efficient and profitable local food system for world crops. 

When talking local food, price is inevitably a sticking point. Can locally grown world crops compete with imports that are being produced on a large scale with lower labour costs? According to Michael Brownbridge, research director of horticultural production systems at Vineland, some crops can. “Based on one year of economic data, okra, Indian eggplant and Asian eggplant certainly made good returns per acre when the cost of production and market value were accounted for.” 

This year Vineland is aiming to confirm this profitability factor with more extensive research into the cost of production and market validation. That said, locally grown varieties may already have a competitive advantage, as being significantly closer to their intended markets makes them fresher and perhaps even more flavourful than imports. “And for the vegetables which don’t travel well – like eggplant and okra, which frequently suffer chilling injury – local versions would have a special leg up,” points out Brownbridge. Also, for the average new Canadian consumer, freshness is a top priority, according to Lesschaeve’s research at Vineland.

It’s unlikely that local produce from medium-sized farms can compete with the rock bottom prices of discount supermarkets and still be worthwhile for the farmer. Yet many newcomers shop at these large retail chains, especially those with lower incomes. So are locally grown world crops out of reach for those with financial or other food access constraints? Not necessarily, it seems. 

The Toronto Food Strategy (part of Toronto Public Health) and Vineland are collaborating to support locally grown, culturally specific foods and make them accessible to low-income and diverse communities across the city. While they are still developing a business plan, the partners are hoping to help create an aggregation and community distribution mechanism that will facilitate co-marketing and product availability. On the retail side, the Food Strategy’s Healthy Corner Stores project hopes to see more diverse and nutritious foods sold at convenience stores located in neighbourhoods that lack accessible, affordable supermarkets or grocery stores. Local world crops would integrate perfectly in such spaces, as well as with another project called the Mobile Good Food Market, which is essentially a produce mini-market that travels to the city’s most underserviced (and culturally diverse) areas. In the face of financial constraints, many people hope that multi-pronged approaches like these will make local world crops more widely accessible.

Despite the inevitable hiccups and bumps, it’s clear that this movement has momentum. With the support of its collaborators, which include the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation and the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, Vineland is cultivating new farm partnerships, offering workshops and increasing the acreage of Ontario-grown world crops every year. One focus in 2013 is to run training programs for Ontario farmers who are keen to transition some of their land to world crops cultivation, while connecting them to markets for their produce. The goals are lofty and the vision long-term, but a food system doesn’t change overnight. Instead, the longest lasting impact will come from the steady and informed steps of the many organizations who are supporting this shift, and of course, the many hands that are getting dirty in the effort. 

Two years ago, I had never tried okra, bottle gourd or callaloo, never mind cooked or grown them. But my work and writing have carried me on a welcome adventure. I’ve amassed a wealth of knowledge about how to grow these crops thanks to willing farmers who have shared their practices. I’ve collected countless recipes from a mosaic of seasoned home cooks. I look forward to spotting my newfound favourites at my local farmers’ market, and eagerly anticipate them bearing a “grown in Ontario” stamp in my city’s supermarkets. Judging by the popularity of world crops among both new and established Canadians, I know I’m not alone. And so from my dinner plate to yours, let us welcome the flavours of the world – from not so far away. 

Dig deeper into specialty crops via the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food’s “Special Cropportunities” section, or check out their specialty crops blog. Watch Ethno-Cultural Vegetables Ontario’s collection of short videos about the growing world-crops sector at ECVOntario on youtube. Try Margaret Zondo’s recipes for Zimbabwe mustard greens and more at Vitality Magazine.

Emily Van Halem is a writer, local food advocate and newbie farmer based in Toronto. She has worked on world crop projects with The Stop Community Food Centre, Toronto Public Health and Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.

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