In areas with large populations of particular ethnic groups, the demand for the fresh vegetables typically used in their cuisine can be huge. These customers are looking for sources of fresh, traditional vegetables they are familiar with and know how to prepare.
Do your homework before you plant, though; to be sure you’ll have a market. “Extension too often gets calls like, ‘I grew this crop and it’s ready to harvest. Can you tell me where I can sell it?’” explained Ontario specialty crop researcher Evan Elford, of OMAFRA, during a Michigan presentation.
You can find out a lot about the potential of specialty vegetables for particular ethnic markets if you google City-Data. On that website, type in the zip code(s) of your marketing area. City-Data will tell you the median age, household income, races, and the ratio of different ethnic groups represented. There are some non-ethnic customers who will pick up a new vegetable to try just because it is new and different. New varieties of greens will attract women over 40 in general because this is the group, out of all segments of the population, that consumes the most greens. But for a dependable customer base for ethnic vegetables, you’ll need a sizeable ethnic population to draw from.
Specialty greens for Asian populations include edible chrysanthemum and celtuce (also called Chinese lettuce). Bok choy is highly popular with Chinese customers, as are tatsoi, Chinese broccoli (gai-lan), and Napa cabbage. Sweet potato vines and shoots are also sought after for their mild flavor when cooked, in contrast to the slightly bitter taste of leafy brassicas.
Vegetable amaranth, as a cooked green, is sought after by ethnic Caribbeans. This leafy vegetable will not be difficult to grow. It is related to the unstoppable pigweed. A different crop from grain amaranth, vegetable amaranth comes in various colors, which can be a very attractive addition to your farmers market stand.
The best seller though appears to be all-green amaranth, according to Elford. Seed can sometimes be scarce for some of the more popular varieties, so check on the seed availability before you finalize your field plans. Also, with amaranth, as with many ethnic vegetables, there can be considerable variability in germ plasm. A single packet of OP seed for vegetable amaranth can sometimes produce a wide variability in plant types, from bushy to tall and branched, as well as early-flowering to later-flowering. “There may be opportunities for you to select certain plant types that you prefer and save seed for them to develop more uniform strains,” pointed out Elford.
Purslane will attract both ethnic and health-conscious customers. “Health-conscious consumers are interested in purslane because it is one of the highest vegetable sources of ALA, a plant based form of Omega-3 Fatty Acid.” Purslane is typically eaten raw in salads or used in stir-fries.
Be aware that purslane comes in two colors, golden and green. The golden types, while quite attractive, have a predisposition to flower very early, according to Elford, and many customers associate flowering with over-maturity. The early flowering of golden purslane could decrease your marketable yields.
The green purslane varieties, on the other hand, don’t have that early flowering predisposition. According to Elford, you can typically get three cuttings from a planting of purslane over a month and a half. If you have a good customer response, you can make succession plantings.
Specialty eggplants can be interesting to grow. Eggplant is a crop with many different uses for many different cultures. The production methods for them all are about the same as for the common eggplant you’ve grown for years. For different nationalities, you’ll need to know both the type of eggplant those customers prefer, and also the preferred harvest stage.
Thai eggplant, for example, are round and smaller. Cooks preparing Indian and Japanese cuisine prefer long, slender varieties. For the Filipino market, many of the varieties are the old familiar ones, but they’re harvested at a different stage.
All this variation in the type and preferred size of eggplants ethnic customers are seeking can make U-picks popular with them because they can pick the fruit at precisely the size or stage of development they want for cooking.
Keep in mind that if you plant eggplant varieties with pale skin, such as “White Princess,” you may end up with a higher percentage of unmarketable fruit than with darker-skinned varieties. On the pale skins, insect or cold damage, or even the bruising from harvesting, is especially evident.
Specialty cucurbits can also appeal to particular ethnic groups, particularly Asian groups. Some may also be of interest to your other customers as novelties, while others likely will have little appeal.
Bitter melons, for example, are grown in quantity in parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin for south Asian groups that traditionally use them in their diets. “I believe bitter melon will be very difficult to introduce to the main stream markets, however,” stated Elford. “I visited southern Asia last year and tasted bitter melon prepared by many traditional methods. All were extremely bitter. There are fairly smooth skinned types as well as warty types of bitter melon. Chinese types are smoother and more pebbly, whereas the Indian types are more warty and knobby.”
One factor, however, may make bitter melon of wider interest — its health benefits. “Both the fruits and the leaves contain compounds that help to regulate blood sugar levels,” explained Elford. The leaves are harvested and used for tea. Could this potentially make some consumers overcome their dislike of the bitterness? That remains to be seen.
Fuzzy melons, also known as fuzzy squash and hairy melon, grow on a vigorous annual vine. Similar to summer squash, they are a favorite in the Caribbean and in Southeast Asia, and are used in stir-fries like zucchini. Beware, though, that there are long and short types. The long types like “Longstar” and “Fuzzy Star” are traditionally more desirable. “Seven Star,” a short, squat shape, is rarely found on the market.
U-picks could also be popular for groups that cook with specialty cucurbits, and also with okra, for which customers, such as Caribbean and Asian ethnic groups, desire the pods harvested at varying stages of maturity.