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Locally-grown world crops coming to a store near you


Third-generation farmers are experimenting with exotic produce as demographic change is creating demand for world crops such as Indian red carrots, Jamaican pumpkins and Mexican tomatillos at major retailers like Walmart and Sobeys.

According to an article in the Globe and Mail, experts say domestic sales of exotic vegetables total $800 million a year, with the bulk of produce imported from the Caribbean, South America and Asia.

One Bradford, Ont., farmer Jason Verkaik sees the business case for experimentation with exotic produce with increasing immigration. This year along with carrots and onions, he’ll try growing fuzzy melons.

Scientists at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre near Niagara Falls, Ont., say despite Canada’s cooler temperature, a surprising number of exotic vegetables can be successfully grown across the country.

Researchers are also collaborating with farmers and retailers on expanding the domestic market for locally grown exotic vegetables and export opportunities to the United States by making international vegetables mainstream like sushi.

“Sushi was super exotic stuff 15 years ago and now you buy it everywhere–at the supermarket counter and all over the place,” said Vineland’s chief executive officer Jim Brandle in the Globe and Mail article. “It is sort of ubiquitous, good-for-you snack food. So, here is the same strategy.”

Farmers and retailers believe that consumers will pay a premium for fresher, locally grown produce as research from the University of Guelph shows that new Canadians, often vegetarians, spend up to 40 per cent of their food budgets on vegetables.

Success will mean having the ability to consistently growing domestic crops that taste as good or better than those immigrants can get from their homeland.

Other challenges include importing seeds from other countries (they require certification) and a lack of registered pesticides for foreign vegetables, as well and increase labour costs.

But the costs could be worth it. According to CIBC World Markets Inc., ethnic grocery stores have annual sales of up to $5 billion, and they’re growing 15 to 20 per cent a year.

Mainstream retailers like Longo's say demand for ethnic produce such as Chinese eggplant and Napa (cabbage) has grown for more than five years and it now collaborates with local farmers, and educates consumers how to prepare ethnic foods and are now carrying ethnic produce to get a piece of this lucrative market.

Satnam Bhathal is a produce buyer at Golden Groceries Ltd., a South Asian supermarket chain in the Greater Toronto Area, who says he’s seeing mainstream customers picking up more exotic offerings.

According to Bhathal in the article, customers prefer price over locally grown goods in today’s current economic climate.

The retailer is already buying okra, long squash and Chinese eggplants from Vineland’s field trials, with most customer feedback positive in terms of taste.

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