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Growing demand for ethnic foods in U.S.


July 5, 2010
By By Stephen Singer The Associated Press

July 5, 2010 South Deerfield, MA – Maxixe, a
Brazilian relative of the cucumber, is relatively unknown in the U.S.,
but it
may one day be as common as cilantro (coriander) as farmers and
consumers
embrace more so-called ethnic vegetables.



July 5, 2010 South Deerfield, MA – Maxixe, a
Brazilian relative of the cucumber, is relatively unknown in the U.S., but it
may one day be as common as cilantro (coriander) as farmers and consumers
embrace more so-called ethnic vegetables.

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Agriculture experts at the
University of Massachusetts at Amherst and elsewhere are teaching farmers to
grow non-native vegetables that appeal to a growing market of African, Asian
and Latin American immigrants. These immigrants and their children already
account for more than one-third of produce sales in supermarkets, said Frank
Mangan, a plant and soil sciences professor at UMass.

And as other customers become more
familiar with ethnic foods, experts expect sales to grow even more. The number
of Massachusetts farmers’ markets that carry ethnic vegetables jumped by 25 per
cent in a year, to 202 last year, said Scott Soares, commissioner of the
state’s Department of Agricultural Resources.

Bob Ehart, public policy director of
the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, said the
organization doesn’t track the popularity of ethnic crops, but the trend in
Massachusetts appears to be happening in other states as well. Sales of ethnic
vegetables have benefited from “buy local’’ marketing campaigns and federal
farm legislation giving states grants to expand specialty crop production, he
said.

There’s also been a greater emphasis
on marketing specialty vegetables, with New York and New Jersey starting
programs aimed at selling produce to ethnic groups.

Glen Hill, executive director of the
Minnesota Food Association, noted that cilantro was considered a specialty item
25 years ago, but “now it’s on everything.’’

Bok choy, a Chinese cabbage, also
was once considered exotic. “Now, it’s another leafy green,’’ Hill said.

His association helps Hmong, Kenyan,
Mexican and other immigrant farmers adapt to U.S. agriculture and introduces
them to local markets where they’ve been able to sell growing amounts of
mustard greens, beans and other ethnic crops. “We see a huge demand for it
across the board, from restaurants to small stores, big stores and farmers
markets,’’ he said.

With maxixe (pronounced mah-SHEESH),
Mangan and others at UMass grow chipilin (cheep-LEEN), a legume from Mexico and
Central America; jilo (hee-LOH), an eggplant (aubergine)-like crop grown in
Brazil and West Africa; and hierba mora (eer-BAH MOR-rah), a member of the
tomato family. They sell vegetables grown at their research farm to Whole Foods
Market and other groceries in New York, Washington, D.C., New Jersey, Rhode
Island and elsewhere.

UMass graduate students, including
some from Latin America, handle the marketing.

Mangan said UMass tries to assemble
a marketing package for farmers that includes where and how to sell their
produce and how to price it.

The research farm tests ways to grow
various crops to take the risk out of farmers’ work. Even if farmers grow only
a few ethnic crops, they benefit by having a greater variety that reduces the
likelihood of serious financial problems if one or two crops fail, Mangan said.

Bill Barrington, sales manager for
the Pioneer Valley Growers Association, a group of 30 farmers in the
Connecticut River Valley in western Massachusetts, said ethnic crops represent
a small share of what they grow compared with such items as sweet corn, pepper
and cucumber, but that could change as immigration increases. “I don’t know if
it’s going to be as big as summer squash or zucchini (courgette), but as the
market evolves it will be more important.’’

Whole Foods Market buys some produce
from Mangan for what the supermarket chains sees as a growing market for ethnic
crops. It also works with farmers to spur production of vegetables that have caught
on with consumers, who’ve read about them or tried them in restaurants, said
Bill McGowan, Whole Foods’ regional produce co-ordinator in Cambridge,
Massachusetts.

“We tell (farmers) what’s selling,’’
McGowan said. “Farmers are always interested in new and unique things. They’re
interested in things that can make it to market.’’

But not all supermarkets are seeing
such demand. The owner of Russo’s, a family grocery store in Watertown,
Massachusetts., said he is cautious about selling ethnic produce in his largely
working class neighbourhood. “I’m not confident there’s going to be a lot of
interest in it,’’ Tony Russo said. “You’ve got to be careful about the products
you grow because you may not have the market to support it.’’

 

ONLINE RESOURCES

University of Massachusetts Ethic
Crops program: http://www.umassvegetable.org/ethnic-crops/crops.

Pioneer Valley Growers Association: http://www.pvga.net.

Minnesota Food Association: http://www.mnfoodassociation.org.


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