Diverse ethnic tastes create new markets, but approach them cautiously

By Renee Stern

Contributing Editor

For growers, ethnic diversity translates into more and more shoppers eager to find specialty fruits and vegetables that provide a taste of home.

But market research is crucial before buying seed or planting. Ethnic groups aren’t monolithic, and the population you hope to serve likely will have specific preferences for variety, color, size and maturity, says Carol Miles, vegetable Extension specialist at Washington State University’s Vancouver Research and Extension Unit.

Harvest points can be absolutely critical, especially with Asian vegetables, Miles says. If the crop is a flower head or stem, for example, growers must know their customers’ expectations for height, thickness or openness.

Eggplants and peppers come in a wide range of varieties that appeal to different groups, says Rick VanVranken, Atlantic County agricultural agent in Mays Landing, N.J.

Asian-Indian consumers prefer the black American eggplant, but in a size smaller even than the Italian eggplant, VanVranken says. Chinese and Japanese buyers seek a long, thin variety, ideally 1 inch in diameter and 1 foot in length, while a blush or speckled variety finds favor in the Puerto Rican market.

The habeñero, Scotch bonnet and aji dulce peppers resemble each other closely, but similarities end at the purchase point.

Mexican shoppers want habañero, while the Scotch bonnet is the favorite among many—but not all —Caribbean populations.

Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic differ from their neighbors in preferring sweet peppers over hot, VanVranken says. There, the aji dulce, a sweet cousin to the fiery habaZero and Scotch bonnet, wins out.

“The most important thing to me is the marketing,” says Frank Mangan, Extension associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “Growers need to do the market research and find a market, preferably one they’re already dealing with and one that’s reliable.”

An Asian flavor

A 2002 nationwide ethnic marketing study showed that Hispanic, Asian and black shoppers accounted for 37 percent of all fresh produce sales, Mangan says.

“That’s a huge percentage of market share,” he says, especially when those three groups in 2002 represented 31 percent of the population. Not only were they preparing more meals at home, but their meals incorporated a greater share of fruits and vegetables.

It’s a population segment that will continue to grow, he says.

And Americans outside those ethnic groups show increasing interest in experimenting with new foods, creating additional opportunities in foodservice sales, Miles says. These consumers may require more education in how to use unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, but they’re also less demanding when it comes to specifications.

“If the taste and quality is good, they’re not going to get hung up on leaf color,” she says.

Pea shoots provide one example of different expectations, she says. Restaurant chefs using the shoots as edible garnish like the look of many tendrils on the plate, but Asian-Americans prefer varieties with fewer tendrils for a superior eating experience.

Listen to your customers

Specialty crops are a moving target, says John Formisano, president of Formisano Farms in Buena, N.J. Cilantro, fennel and rapini were ethnic specialties 20 years ago but are now commonplace.

Formisano grows Italian greens as well as peppers and other items for Hispanic buyers. He takes his cues from his customers, who suggest new crops they’d like to see.

“That’s how we got started with cilantro,” he says.

Wade Bennett, owner of Rockridge Orchards in Enumclaw, Wash., takes a similar tack.

“You have to be really flexible,” Bennett says. “But as a small farmer, you have to be flexible anyway. If you don’t listen to your customers, you’ll be out of business.”

He ventured into specialty crops when he planted hard-to-find Asian pears for his wife. Korean neighbors requested some of his harvest, and soon he was selling the pears to a new market that has continued to grow and suggest new crops.

For example, customers told Bennett to grow bamboo as props for his Asian pears. In return, the shoots from the bamboo have turned into a profitable moneymaker. He now has more than 5 acres in bamboo, providing plenty of shoots, as well as seven varieties of the pears and a range of Asian and other specialty items.

Experimenting with new crops can produce successes, but Bennett urges caution. “You can’t bet the whole farm on experimentation,” he says. “Don’t plant half your farm on a crop you don’t know you have a market in.”

It’s also easy to flood small niche markets, Formisano says.

“Take small steps so your mistakes don’t cost you too much,” he says.

Breaking into some markets may require extra work to build relationships in tight-knit immigrant communities. “If you’re not connected somehow, it could be difficult to make it work,” VanVranken says.

But perseverance will pay off, Bennett says.

“For the most part, once they buy from you, or someone they know does, you become accepted,” he says.

The seeds of opportunity

Acquiring seed is the next step.

“That varies from as easy as pie to almost impossible,” Mangan says.

Seed companies carry some varieties, although in other cases growers may need local suppliers to bring in seeds from other countries, he says. Those seeds also need to be U.S. Department of Agriculture import requirements.

But those supply hurdles may mean opportunities to grow seed for the specialty market, Miles says.

At the moment, aji dulce seed isn’t commercially available.

Growers harvest seed from mature peppers found in retail markets, despite the risk of pepper mild mosaic virus, a seedborne disease that can reduce yields, Mangan says.

Hotlinks:

World Crops for the Northeastern United States:

www.worldcrops.org

Washington State University Vegetable Research and Extension:

http://vegetables.wsu.edu

Illinois Market Maker:

http://www.marketmaker.uiuc.edu