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U of Guelph study finds a huge appetite for non-traditional ethnic produce

Pass the okra, please.

BY MARK CARDWELL | MAR 05 2012

Glen Filson says he isn’t surprised by the results of a study he is coordinating that found a healthy demand for exotic vegetables in Canada’s biggest and most ethnically diverse city. But what amazes the University of Guelph professor is the size of that market and the many opportunities it presents for entrepreneurial agricultural producers in Ontario and other parts of the country.

Despite “eat local” movements and changing demographics, farmers have been reluctant to grow non-traditional vegetables. “There is no doubt the demand is there,” says Dr. Filson, a professor at U of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development. “The trick is to know the consumption patterns and value chain of ethno-cultural food, the cost of production [and] how to access and sell to those markets.”

Dr. Filson and a clutch of Ontario academics from various disciplines are trying to do just that by painting what is believed to be the first comprehensive portrait of the market for ethno-cultural vegetables – everything from bok choy and Chinese broccoli to okra and eggplant – in the Greater Toronto Area, or GTA. The ethno-cultural food study began in 2009 with a random survey of 250 people from each of the GTA’s three biggest non-European ethnic groups – Chinese, South Asian and Afro-Caribbean. The results enabled researchers to both identify the most popular ethno-cultural vegetables in the region and to peg the value of the market there at $61 million a month.

A follow-up study, which is being funded by the Ontario government and other food industry stakeholders, aims to understand pricing and supply of ethno-cultural vegetables in the GTA. That information will be shared with producers, wholesalers and retailers as part of a wider effort to identify ethno-cultural vegetables that can be grown locally in our northern climate.

“The demand is huge and it is growing,” says study co-author Sridharan Sethuratnam, a PhD student in geography at U of Guelph and a program manager with FarmStart, an Ontario initiative to help new Canadians found farms. According to Mr. Sethuratnam, the quality of imported vegetables is often lacking, even unhealthy. “In my family we stockpile good okra when we find it because you never know how it is produced,” he said. “It is always better to buy fresh food, both for taste and nutrition.”

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