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July 05, 2010

US farmers find opportunity in vegetables newly introduced by immigrants

by Stephen Singer

Maxixe, a Brazilian relative of the cucumber, is relatively unknown in the U.S., but it may one day be as common as cilantro as farmers and consumers embrace more so-called ethnic vegetables.

Agriculture experts at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and elsewhere are teaching farmers to grow non-native vegetables that appeal to a growing market of African, Asian and Latin American immigrants. These immigrants and their children already account for more than one-third of produce sales in supermarkets, said Frank Mangan, a plant and soil sciences professor at UMass. And as other customers become more familiar with ethnic foods, experts expect sales to grow even more.

The number of Massachusetts farmers markets that carry ethnic vegetables jumped by 25 percent in a year, to 202 last year, said Scott Soares, commissioner of the state's Department of Agricultural Resources.

Bob Ehart, public policy director of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, said the organization doesn't track the popularity of ethnic crops, but the trend in Massachusetts appears to be happening in other states as well.

Sales of ethnic vegetables have benefited from "buy local" marketing campaigns and federal farm legislation giving states grants to expand specialty crop production, he said. There's also been a greater emphasis on marketing specialty vegetables, with New York and New Jersey starting programs aimed at selling produce to ethnic groups.

Glen Hill, executive director of the Minnesota Food Association, noted that cilantro was considered a specialty item 25 years ago, but "now it's on everything." Bok choy, a Chinese cabbage, also was once considered exotic.

"Now, it's another leafy green," Hill said.

His association helps Hmong, Kenyan, Mexican and other immigrant farmers adapt to U.S. agriculture and introduces them to local markets where they've been able to sell growing amounts of mustard greens, beans and other ethnic crops.

"We see a huge demand for it across the board, from restaurants to small stores, big stores and farmers markets," he said.

With maxixe (pronounced mah-SHEESH'), Mangan and others at UMass grow chipilin (cheep-LEEN'), a legume from Mexico and Central America; jilo (hee-LOH'), an eggplant-like crop grown in Brazil and West Africa; and hierba mora (eer-BAH' MOR-rah), a member of the tomato family.

They sell vegetables grown at their research farm to Whole Foods Market and other groceries in New York, Washington, D.C., New Jersey, Rhode Island and elsewhere. UMass graduate students, including some from Latin America, handle the marketing.

Mangan said UMass tries to assemble a marketing package for farmers that include where and how to sell their produce and how to price it. The research farm tests ways to grow various crops to take the risk out of farmers' work.

Even if farmers grow only a few ethnic crops, they benefit by having a greater variety that reduces the likelihood of serious financial problems if one or two crops fail, Mangan said.

Bill Barrington, sales manager for the Pioneer Valley Growers Association, a group of 30 farmers in the Connecticut River Valley in western Massachusetts, said ethnic crops represent a small share of what they grow compared with such items as sweet corn, pepper and cucumber, but that could change as immigration increases.

"I don't know if it's going to be as big as summer squash or zucchini, but as the market evolves it will be more important," Barrington said.

Whole Foods Market buys some produce from Mangan for what the supermarket chains sees as a growing market for ethnic crops. It also works with farmers to spur production of vegetables that have caught on with consumers, who've read about them or tried them in restaurants, said Bill McGowan, Whole Foods' regional produce coordinator in Cambridge, Mass.

"We tell (farmers) what's selling," McGowan said. "Farmers are always interested in new and unique things. They're interested in things that can make it to market."

But not all supermarkets are seeing such demand. The owner of Russo's, a family grocery store in Watertown, Mass., said he is cautious about selling ethnic produce in his largely working class neighborhood.

"I'm not confident there's going to be a lot of interest in it," Tony Russo said. "You've got to be careful about the products you grow because you may not have the market to support it."


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