Yard-long beans, callaloo, okra and long Asian eggplant are just a few of the ethnic crops growing at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Vineland Station.

It’s the first step in an innovative program to identify new crops and bring them to market to tempt Ontario’s growing immigrant community.

A Vineland consumer research study showed that in-season okra alone represents a $49.7 million annual market in Canada, with 46% of potential sales in Ontario and export opportunities to New York and Pennsylvania.

“Any new commodity that comes on the market presents challenges,” said Michael Brownbridge, Vineland’s research director, horticultural production systems.

Growers unfamiliar with these vegetables need to know what varieties to grow, Brownbridge said, the best time to harvest them and how to pack and ship them for maximum shelf life.

Buyers need to know how to hold them properly to prevent shrink, since semi-tropical vegetables require warmer storage temperatures than hardy North American favorites.

To encourage Ontario farmers to join the program, he and his team set up an afternoon session in February to bring 16 committed or potential growers face to face with wholesalers and major supermarket chains interested in buying locally grown ethnic vegetables.

“One of the hardest things for growers is knowing who to approach to buy their crop,” he said.

Vineland plans to work with 15 commercial growers this summer, half new Canadians. Each farm will produce up to 20 acres of okra, round Indian eggplant or long Asian eggplant for a total of 200 acres.

“We’re focusing on okra and eggplant because we have reasonable data on them that confirms their profitability,” Brownbridge said.

Jason Verkaik, president of Bradford-based Carron Farms Inc., is experimenting with world vegetables for a decade, from Indian red carrots to tomatillos.

“I’ll probably do 5 acres of Asian eggplant on my own this year,” said Verkaik, after a successful 2-acre trial with Vineland last summer.

Planting a few test strips of okra proved challenging, he said, because he’s accustomed to growing carrots and onions on a large scale and there’s no market for such a small quantity.

Another challenge is finding enough land to accommodate his traditional crops and the newcomers, from Asian vegetables and heirloom carrots to his yellow beets, which have grown from up to 25 acres in the last few years.

“We’ve rented more land and we’ll buy more land next year just to be able to meet the demand for some of these new crops,” he said.