Rutgers University researchers are studying the viability of growing ethnic specialty crops in greenhouses and hoop houses for local and regional sales.
While consumer demand for organic products continues to increase so does the demand for locally grown produce. USDA reports that industry data estimates that U.S. local food sales totaled at least $12 billion in 2014, up from $5 billion in 2008. To support this growing local market USDA has provided more than $1 billion in investments to over 40,000 local and regional food businesses and infrastructure projects since 2009.
Focusing on Asian and Hispanic crops
Researchers at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., have studied the potential market for ethnic specialty crops along the U.S. East Coast. Based on the results of their findings the researchers are now looking at those crops which have the potential to be adapted to greenhouse and hoop house production.
“At Rutgers we have a specialty crop research group,” said Albert Ayeni, who is ethnic crop research specialist. “We have been funded for about $2 million by the USDA. Our research group, led by Dr. Ramu Govindasamy, has documented the rapidly increasing population of Asians (Chinese and Asian Indians) and Hispanics (Mexicans and Puerto Ricans) on the U.S. East Coast. As of 2010 the population of these ethnic groups stood at about 6 million people.
“We are looking at two broad ethnic groups, Asian and Hispanics. We are studying what kind of crops these two ethnic groups are asking for that can be grown in New Jersey and other states along the East Coast. We have done a comprehensive study of what are the demands for these ethnic crops. We also studied the average prices for which these crops are sold.”
Some of the crops that the Rutgers researchers have studied include: exotic peppers (Capsicum spp.), roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) and tiger nuts (Cyperus esculentus cv. sativus), amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), African eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum) and okra (Abelmoschus esculentus).
Ayeni said okra is a popular crop in the southern U.S., but is not grown much in the Northeast.
“Based on our studies, these crops on the East Coast are sold in different ways– by the pound, ounce or in a bunch,” Ayeni said. “A bunch can vary from a $1.50 to $2 or more depending on the crop and market. We are looking at what the price limits are depending on which part of the East Coast the crops are sold. We are studying the markets in Florida, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
“We have conducted studies and collected information that could help growers determine which are the best ethnic crops economically. This could help growers know what to grow to target specific ethnic niches. Location has a lot to do with what price can be charged for a crop. What we found is that some products can be sold for twice as much in bigger markets like New York City.”
Ethnic specialty crop trials Ayeni said extensive greenhouse and hoop house trials have been done with exotic peppers, roselle and tiger nuts (chufa).
“This is the second year that we have worked with roselle,” he said. “We have worked with tiger nuts for about four years and exotic peppers since 2009.
The peppers contain high levels of capsaicin which has numerous significant health values along with high amounts of vitamin A. The fruit is in high demand by Africans, Asians and Hispanics.
Roselle contains high levels of antioxidants and facilitates iron bioavailability. Its leaves are in high demand by Asian Indians and Hispanics. Its fruit is in high demand by Africans and Hispanics.
Tiger nuts are considered a super snack food. These gluten-free tubers are high in fiber and vitamins with a moderate level of iron. Tubers are highly sought after by Africans and the U.S. market is growing rapidly.
“With a greenhouse most of these crops can be grown any time of the year,” Ayeni said. “If roselle is grown outdoors, it can’t be planted in this part of country until the middle of May to early June because it is a tropical plant. Plants can be harvested for foliage from July until October. For the cultivars we are currently evaluating, outdoor production for flowers and fruit is not feasible for African Green, African Red and Indian Red types. For these roselle types, the onset of frost in late October and early November stops further plant growth or kills the plants, preventing flower/fruit maturity.
“This is a limitation for field production. However, the “kenaf” type roselle, identified as Indian Green in our studies, can be grown from June to October in New Jersey. With this roselle type, the leaves and fiber are of greater economic significance than the fruit.”
Ayeni said roselle grows well in the greenhouse year round. In a hoop house the yields were not as high as the greenhouse. Supplemental lighting was used in the greenhouse trials during winter to grow roselle.
“The plants respond well to supplemental light,” he said. “For the supplemental lighting we used high pressure sodium lights and provided 16 hours of photoperiod in a 24-hour cycle. In the greenhouse, supplemental lighting can be used to produce a significant quantity of foliage any time of the year.
Jalapeno/serrano-type peppers grow and fruit well under greenhouse and hoop house conditions.
Sweet minibells and African poblano do better in a greenhouse than in a hoop house. The habanero/African bird’s-eye- type performs poorly in both the greenhouse and the hoop house.
Roselle grows and fruits better in the greenhouse than in the hoop house. In other trials, roselle exhibited greater growth in the hoop house. Ayeni said more research needs to be conducted to understand how time of planting affects performance in a hoop house.
Tiger nuts thrived much better in the hoop house than in the greenhouse. Considerable adjustments are needed to controlled environment parameters in the greenhouse, probably temperature and light, to be able to mimic the hoop house conditions that produced high tuber yields.
Ayeni said they also want to compare plant production in pots versus growing the plants directly in the soil under cover (i.e. tunnel production).
“The market for locally grown ethnic foods continues to expand,” Ayeni said. “We want to encourage growers to consider ethnic specialty crops so they may target production to meet the rapidly growing demand in the United States. These crops lend themselves to year-round production for sale, including at farmers markets.
“In general, immigrants from all over the world cherish the plant varieties that are prevalent in the food systems of their home countries. I would be delighted to see Rutgers University lead the way in promoting local production to make these crops available as fresh as possible to a growing consumer population.”
For more: Albert Ayeni, Rutgers University, Department of Plant Biology and Pathology, New
Brunswick, NJ 08901; (848) 932-6289; firstname.lastname@example.org;
David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; email@example.com.