Dr. Albert Ayeni makes point about ethnic and specialty crop research at NOFA-NJ 30th annual winter conference.
Photo by Richard Skelly

by Richard Skelly

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Many farmers offering produce in ethnically diverse states are experiencing growing consumer demand for vegetables like amaranth, roselle (a type of hibiscus), habanero peppers, okra and chufa (yellow nutsedge or tiger nuts). At the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA-NJ) winter conference, plant biologist Dr. Albert Ayeni detailed some of the groundbreaking exotic and ethnic vegetable research being conducted at Rutgers.

In his presentation to a room packed with organic growers and farmers, Ayeni argued, “We can enhance food security, have greater safety with locally grown food and add significant value to our ag economy in this state by growing these ethnic vegetables.”

He noted the Hispanic population makes up about 58% of the Garden State right now, and it’s growing. U.S. Census estimates predict that by 2042, the population of the country will be 50.1% ethnic nationalities from various parts of the world.

“The food system is changing along with these population changes, so farmers have to respond to the demand from people for new foods and different crops,” Ayeni said.

He displayed a population and ethnic chart of Middlesex County in central New Jersey. Ayeni showed how the Asian population has grown in certain towns, and how Hispanic populations are a significant part of the ethnic makeup of others.

Ayeni is part of a team at Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences involved in developing new crops, including Dr. Jim Simon and Professor Thomas Orton.

Aside from developing new and improved peppers, Ayeni is involved in hydroponic experiments with microgreens and greenhouse experiments growing coffee bean-producing plants that will be able to thrive in cooler climates. One new pepper developed recently at Rutgers is the pumpkin habanero, a small pepper that looks like a miniature pumpkin.

“Hotter peppers are finding their way into all kinds of foods, including hot sauce, candies and snacks,” he stated.

The hot pepper sauce industry is growing by leaps and bounds, he said, and is now estimated to be a $5 billion industry worldwide.

“Habaneros quickly became our top priority because the fresh market and post-fresh markets seemed to support these kinds of peppers,” he related, noting one ingredient, capsaicin, is good for arthritis, colds and aches and pains.

The newly-perfected pumpkin habanero peppers – a cross between African habanero and Mexican habanero – have much lower heat than typical habaneros. That makes them more appealing to a wider range of consumers.

Ayeni noted one advantage of growing pumpkin habaneros is that they continue to produce fruit and stay on the vines for three to four weeks after they have ripened, “so you, the farmer, can be doing all kinds of other things and come back to harvest three weeks later and still have plenty of ripe fruit.”

Ayeni also discussed a range of other ethnic crops being tested out at Rutgers’ hort farms, including roselle, which can be used to make tastier salads. Lighter than lettuce, roselle can be used in place of lettuce in salads. The main types include African green, Indian green and Indian red.

“In Louisiana they are importing roselle for making different types of beverages there,” he said. “In Nigeria, where I come from, there’s a popular adage: if your children have access to roselle, you don’t need chickens or any kind of meat. It’s a very high protein plant food.”

Tropical spinach is another crop Ayeni and others are working on. Tropical spinach, sometimes called pigweed, also looks promising, Ayeni said.

“We don’t want that name ‘pigweed,’ so we call it tropical spinach. It is a very special vegetable and it will grow during the hot months,” he said. He and other researchers at SEBS are looking at tropical spinach as a complement to regular spinach production in New Jersey.

“It’s a major crop in Latin and South America. The grain from this is very nutritious and they grow it for grain in Bolivia and other South American countries,” he said. One drawback to tropical spinach in hot, humid Mid-Atlantic states during summer months is insects also love this type of spinach. So far, it has tested well in greenhouses and open fields at Rutgers.

Okra is another vegetable that’s been selling more in markets and farm stands in New Jersey in recent years, he said. While okra has always been popular in the South, “more and more people are asking for it around here.”

Finally, he noted that there is growing demand in New Jersey farmers markets and supermarkets for fresh chufa (or tiger nuts). The tiger nut “tubes” or fruit grow underground in sandier soils and the actual nuts taste a lot like coconut.

Tiger nuts are harvested in autumn, when their grassy tops have died off, and they’re usually found an inch or so into the soil. They can be soaked in hot water to make the fibrous nuts easier to chew.

“Harvesting is a challenge – you pick them up and screen them to separate the soil and wash them and put them into containers,” Ayeni said. “Iron is much higher in tiger nuts and we do not know why, but we are interested in looking at that.”

In closing, Ayeni said he and various teams of researchers at Rutgers’ SEBS have demonstrated that “major ethnic crops like peppers, roselle, tropical spinach, okra and tiger nuts are adaptable to growing conditions here in New Jersey.”

“The market for these ethnic crops are growing – so as the demographics of New Jersey and other states nearby continues to change, we are finding higher demand for these crops,” he said.

The challenges with these new crops remains with harvesting processes, he argued, “but all can be grown successfully in New Jersey.”