Farmers across Canada are growing crops that, not that long ago, they never imagined they would be growing. Crops like Chinese long eggplant, Indian round eggplant and okra.
Research suggests there’s an opportunity for even more variety, driven mainly by food preferences of the country’s ethnically and culturally diverse population.
In fact, it’s estimated that new Canadians – many of whom have plant-based diets – will drive more than 60% of the growth of fresh produce sales.
That’s huge. University of Guelph researchers determined back in 2012 that the market for what is called “world crops” was already more than $60 million a month, just in the Greater Toronto Area. Further studies now peg that estimate at $80 million.
For the most part, these crops are imported. But freshness, safety and quality are not always optimal with imports.
Then there’s the environment. “Imagine the carbon footprint, trucking and flying in all these imports,” said Viliam Zvalo, a vegetable production researcher at Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Ontario.
With funding support from the Ontario government, Zvalo and his team are working with farmers and retailers to help develop and sell locally produced varieties of the world crops with the most potential to thrive in Canada: Chinese and Indian eggplant and okra.
They’re making progress. Today, farmers in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec are growing about 60 hectares of these crops. Major grocery chains are stocking them, impressed with their freshness and local point of origin.
Their success is seen in the drop of imported eggplant: it declined by 800,000 kilograms last year.
Farmers like world crop profitability. A Quebec on-farm study showed okra can generate profits of up to $18,000 per hectare. Farmers have to work hard for that money; okra and Chinese eggplant are difficult to grow.
Both crops must be hand-picked, and at just the right time, or quality falls off.
Zvalo and his research team are figuring out best management and production practices so that growers can achieve high yield and quality. They’re also working on ways to grow other popular world crops in greenhouses, so they are available to consumers year round.
Locally grown food is looking pretty sexy!