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‘Huge potential’ for ethno-cultural crop production

A new partnership between Vineland Research and Innovation Centre and the Bruce Botanical Food Gardens (BBFG) means there could soon be more good things growing in Ontario.

The two organizations recently announced that they have partnered on an initiative aimed at generating interest for so-called “ethno-cultural crop production” among Southwestern Ontario farmers, food wholesalers/retailers and food distribution companies.

It is part of a program known internally at Vineland as the “world crops program” says Dr. Michael Brownbridge, research director, horticultural production systems at the Vineland Station, Ont.-based organization. The initiative is aimed at increasing production of crops indigenous to other parts of the world here in Ontario.

Brownbridge says that the new program recognizes the changing makeup of the province’s population, particularly in the Greater Toronto market.

“The recognition is that Ontario is changing in terms of population base,” said Brownbridge. “You’ve got a changing consumer demographic, and given the substantial level of immigration to destination cities like Toronto, you’ve got a whole new set of consumers who don’t necessarily eat the same foods as the population of 10-15-20 years ago.”

The first iteration of the partnership with BBFG will focus on okra and two varieties of eggplant, both of which are popular with South Asian consumers that account for many of the new arrivals to Canada and the GTA.

While those products are commonly available in Ontario stores, they are typically imported from countries including India, Pakistan and Mexico. They also come from California and Florida during the growing season, said Brownbridge.

A study conducted by Vineland’s Consumer Insights and Product Innovation team – combined with insights from the University of Guelph and retail partners including Longo’s and Golden Groceries – found “huge potential” for the crops in Ontario, said Brownbridge.

“As far as we can see, it’s a wide open field as far for someone who wants to get in and get the contracts with the retailers,” he said. “Now’s the time to be in this market.”

The study found that Canadian sales of okra during the July-August growing season top 24.9 million pounds and account for $49.7 million in revenue.

Nearly half of all these sales (46 per cent) come from Ontario consumers, with 36 per cent of the province’s consumption coming within the GTA.

The study estimated that more than 1,500 acres would be required to meet the Ontario demand for the crops. Acquiring the necessary acreage is the biggest challenge said Brownbridge, adding that it would be an “awesome achievement” to obtain the required space within the next five years.

When asked about the likelihood of that occurring, Brownbridge said he is uncertain. He expects to have about 100 acres of the crops this year through growers that Vineland works with directly, while an additional 100 or so acres could be obtained through growers who have expressed an interest in the crops.

“We know that they can grow here, we know the market’s there, and we’re pretty confident you can make money on these crops, so what’s needed to get people to invest and take a risk on growing them. That’s the challenge we’re facing.”

Research also indicates that the market for long eggplant, which is native to the Indian subcontinent, is 21.4 million pounds in season, with $33.4 million in domestic sales. Approximately 44 per cent of long eggplant consumption occurs within Ontario, while high consumption in New York and Pennsylvania suggested an export opportunity for the crop.

Vineland and BBFG will work together to develop test plots for the crops over the coming growing season. The test plots are key, said Brownbridge, since they will help identify potential issues with soil types and microclimates.

The two organizations are also developing a half-day workshop planned for the fall, after farmers have had a chance to observe production on the site. The organizations will provide best practices for growing the crops, as well as information on production opportunities, crop options and available markets, he said.

“It’s fairly discrete in its goals and objectives right now, but we’re just starting off,” said Brownbridge. “We can’t be everywhere, so we need the right partners in the right areas to help us get this information out to the farming community.”

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