The new cash crop

As American tastes change, farmers find they can make more money growing bok choy and other ethnic produce than eggplant.

Published February 2, 2007

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Formisano Farms in South Jersey began growing ethnic vegetables more than 20 years ago, starting with the herb cilantro.

A staple in several ethnic communities, cilantro is on its way to becoming mainstream. It's a key ingredient in salsa, which has surpassed ketchup in sales, and makes up 10 percent of the farm's income.

The explosion of immigrant populations is fueling the growth of ethnic vegetables like cilantro and bok choy, giving farmers new, and potentially more profitable, revenue streams to add to their American staples of corn, sweet peppers and tomatoes. They'll have less competition for this narrow niche, crops that an ethnic population would have consumed in their home country, now growing in small quantities in the United States.

Today, the American public may not recognize Chinese eggplant's long, slender purple shape, or aji dulce - small, colorful sweet peppers - two vegetables commonly used in Asian and Hispanic cooking.

But farmers have recognized demographic trends that show a change in the consumer base, said Bill Sciarappa, a Rutgers agricultural extension agent with a doctorate in economic entomology and agricultural pest management.

"Today's niche market is the future mainstream market," he said.

Farmers are expanding their product line, using familiar growing techniques to transition from parsley to cilantro, standard Italian eggplant to Chinese eggplant, peas to edamame beans, Sciarappa said. He is part of a team at Rutgers University developing a comprehensive production and marketing plan for ethnic vegetables to help East Coast growers.

Farmers are getting help from agricultural experts at Rutgers, using a market-driven approach determined by census data, economic forecasting and bilingual surveys of consumers.

The plan is to create a blueprint that would develop a market along the East Coast - including Florida, Connecticut, New Jersey and Georgia - to link growers with ethnic markets.

Farmers would produce potentially more profitable vegetables like bok choy, tomatillos and bitter gourd that can be successfully grown in their own local markets. Gourmet consumers and specialty food stores are also interested in ethnic produce.