Thirty years ago, cilantro was unheard of in the U.S., but now, there’s almost as much cilantro grown in the states as parsley, says Rick VanVranken, head researcher at the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension, and “Marketing Matters” columnist for American Vegetable Grower.
That’s because cilantro began as an ethnic vegetable, grown specifically for use by small pockets of immigrants who wanted a taste of their home country.
And while not every ethnic vegetable will follow in cilantro’s footsteps to the mainstream markets, the market for ethnic vegetables is growing, and it’s a sustainable option for growers in certain areas of the country where ethnic communities congregate.
New Crops, New Opportunities
In South Jersey and the surrounding East Coast areas, VanVranken says there are now many opportunities for growers to enter the ethnic vegetable market by catering to the large Hispanic, Asian, and African populations.
A large portion of the ethnic vegetables being grown and sold cater to the Asian markets. Greens, mustards, and cabbages make up the bulk of the crops.
But the newest opportunities for growers, VanVranken says, are in the African vegetable market.
A recent wave of African immigrants coming from countries like Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ghana are all in the market for crops specific to their culture, particularly African eggplants.
Morris Gbolo, owner of World Crops Farm in Buena Vista Township, NJ, grows three varieties of African eggplants for his customers that originally came from West African countries and now come from neighboring states to pick their own vegetables from his 10-acre operation.
Gbolo, who came to the U.S. from Liberia in 2002, started World Crops Farm in 2007. Instead of starting with the crops, however, Gbolo corralled his customer base first.
“I talked to church groups and sent out flyers,” Gbolo says. “I surveyed groups of people to see if there would be enough interest to make the farm successful, and there was.”