Lo­cal food be­com­ing worldly and di­verse

Cana­dian farms are grow­ing Chi­nese and In­dian egg­plant, and okra

Toronto Star - - SPECIAL REPORT: THE NEW FARM - Owen Roberts Ur­ban Cow­boy Owen Roberts is an agri­cul­tural jour­nal­ist at the Univer­sity of Guelph. Follow him on twit­ter @TheUr­banCow­boy

On­tario farm­ers al­ready grow or raise some 200 kinds of com­modi­ties, crops and live­stock. Con­sumers en­joy a cor­nu­copia of great tast­ing food choices.

But re­search sug­gests there’s an op­por­tu­nity for more, 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 veg­etable-based di­ets — will drive more than 60 per cent of the growth of fresh pro­duce sales.

That’s huge. Univer­sity of Guelph re­searchers de­ter­mined back in 2012 that the mar­ket for what are now 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.

World crops cover the gamut: Chi­nese long egg­plant, In­dian round egg­plant, okra, callaloo, Chi­nese and Thai hot chili pep­pers, bot­tle gourd, fuzzy melon, Chi­nese green onions, In­dian red car­rot, daikon radish and tomatillo, among oth­ers.

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 Vineland, Ont.

With fund­ing sup­port from the On­tario gov­ern­ment, Zvalo and his re­search team are work­ing with com­mer­cial-scale 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, two dozen farm­ers in On­tario, B.C., Que­bec and Man­i­toba are grow­ing about 60 hectares of these world crops. Ma­jor gro­cery chains are stock­ing them, en­am­oured 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. All ma­jor re­tail­ers are sourc­ing lo­cal okra and egg­plant in sea­son.

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 in­her­ently chal­leng­ing to grow.

Both crops must be hand-picked, and at just the right time, or qual­ity falls off.

Zvalo and his re­search team are fig- ur­ing out best man­age­ment and pro­duc­tion prac­tices so that grow­ers can achieve high yield and qual­ity. They’re also work­ing to grow pop­u­lar world crops in green­houses, so they are avail­able to con­sumers 10 months of the year.

These crops are catch­ing on ev­ery­where. Stu­dents at Hey­don Park Sec­ondary school in down­town Toronto have been grow­ing world crops for their school cafe­te­ria and for farm­ers mar­kets. Ear­lier this month, they hosted On­tario Ari­cul­ture, Food and Ru­ral Af­fairs Min­is­ter Jeff Leal, to kick off Lo­cal Food Week.

There, he an­nounced a cam­paign called Bring Home the World, to help ex­pand the avail­abil­ity of lo­cally grown pro­duce.

“On­tario’s agri-food sec­tor is boom­ing in a way that meets the needs of a grow­ing and di­verse pop­u­la­tion,” Leal said.

So make that 200-plus com­modi­ties that are now grown in On­tario. Lo­cal food is look­ing very worldly.


Vil­iam Zvalo, a veg­etable pro­duc­tion re­searcher, and his team are fig­ur­ing out best man­age­ment and pro­duc­tion prac­tices for grow­ing world crops.

Chi­nese egg­plant is chal­leng­ing to grow be­cause it must be hand-picked at just the right time, or the qual­ity falls off.

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