Exotic Indian Reds, All the Way From Ontario

Here’s my latest piece from Maclean’s about Canadian farmers who are starting to grow tropical crops in our Nordic climate. -SE

Jason Verkaik’s family has been pulling carrots from the same brown earth in Ontario’s Holland Marsh for three generations. However, these days the carrots are changing. Some of the thick, orange spears of his youth have been replaced with a red version that is wide at the top and narrows quickly into a spindly tail, not unlike a parsnip. Bred on the subcontinent, it’s called the East Indian Red and is coveted by Indian-cuisine purists who will pay more than double the price of conventional carrots for it.

“It has got a crispiness similar to a radish and it is almost sweet,” said Preena Chauhan, an Oakville, Ont.-based Indian cooking school instructor and owner of Arvinda’s Indian Spice Blends, a company that makes masala mixes for retail. Demand for these carrots, as well as other “ethno-cultural” vegetables typical to Chinese and Afro-Caribbean cuisine, has been met over the last decade or so by imports. And what a market it is. Canadian demand for South Asian vegetables is estimated to be $33 million a month; for Chinese vegetables it’s $21 million. Now farmers like Verkaik are figuring out which ones grow best here in the hope of capturing that niche.

At the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, an independent research institution in Ontario, a team of scientists, plant breeders, and economists is working to fast-track the establishment of these global crops on Canadian farms. They’ve conducted consumer surveys, studied market economics, and made connections with the grocery industry as well as farmers who are participating in trial crops of an array of vegetables: yard-long beans, the zucchini-like kaddhu and fuzzy melon. “At the end of the day, we want the farmer to grow a crop that is selling,” said the organization’s CEO, Jim Brandle.

Growing tropical vegetables in our northern climate is not straightforward. Bob Baloch, who grew up on a farm in Pakistan and left the corporate world to start a farm in Brampton, Ont., specializing in organic world crops, recently purchased four new “hoop houses”—plastic tunnels to keep his okra warm on summer nights because the plants don’t flower if the temperature drops below 20° C. If it seems a lot of effort to bring distant vegetables here, it’s just the latest step in a journey that’s centuries old. The carrot, for example, was domesticated from wild plants in Afghanistan in the 10th century. It showed up in Spain 200 years later and had moved to northwestern Europe and China by the 14th century. Farmers in each area developed their own varieties, the plants adapting to the climate and soils, taking on their own taste. This is why a conventional orange carrot is so different from an East Indian Red.

It’s also why Verkaik has found it difficult to find a variety that both grows well on his farm and tastes right. While he’d sold the East Indian Reds for a few years, last year he thought he’d found seeds better adapted to the climate, and planted eight acres of a North American red. But he couldn’t sell them. “It has to look and taste how they want it,” he said. This year, he’s trying another variety.

But competing against cheaper imports can be tough, said William Stephens, CEO of Mushrooms Canada. Over the last 10 years, more growers began producing Asian mushrooms such as oyster. Then, between 2007 and 2010, South Korean shipments grew more than tenfold, and prices dropped to $1.01 a pound, compared to more than $2 for local versions. Still, he’s hopeful growing consumer desire, and retailers pushing for a traceable food safety history, will drive sales. “I had a call last week from one of our big growers saying his retailer was pushing him hard for a local source of shiitake and oyster,” he said. Growers are banking on it too. Mushrooms such as the tendril-like enoki and king are now grown in Canada, and at least one more variety is in development.

Chauhan tries to use as many locally sourced ingredients in her business as she can. She buys all her garlic from a co-op in Stratford, Ont., and is looking for Canadian growers of curry leaf and fenugreek. She said buying locally she can save money. It also makes tastier food. “The flavour is fantastic when you get it straight from the farm.”