Six years ago, University of Guelph researcher Glen Filson determined that some world crops —such as okra and amaranth — could potentially be grown in Ontario, providing a huge import replacement opportunity for the province’s farmers.
He estimated the then-called “ethnic vegetables” represented a $60 million-plus per month market in the Greater Toronto Area alone. Then there’s the rest of Ontario. And the rest of the country.
Farmers were listening.
A new study from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Agri-Food Management Institute involving 400 crop producers shows that nearly one-fifth of them have tried growing a new crop in the last five years.
Soybeans, corn and wheat still rule, but behind the scenes, in fields and test plots, there’s a lot going on.
“My overall impression of the results was that there is a very creative and entrepreneurial group of farmers out there trying new things,” says Ashley Honsberger, executive director of the Agri-food Management Institute (AMI).
Adds federation president Keith Currie: “We know Ontario farmers are interested in growing new crops, and are looking for timely information on marketing a crop, finding buyers and locating processors.”
The federation is encouraging the province to keep its foot on the gas and support Ontario-grown world crop production with policies and programs that source Ontario products and ingredients by local farmers, processors, distributors, retailers and food service businesses.
Filling market niches can be profitable. That’s one of the main reasons farmers are trying new crops varies. In the survey, they cited other reasons as: changing markets and emerging opportunities, crop rotation and environmental benefits, and reduced risk overall through diversification.
Among the most popular crops Ontario farmers say they’ve experimented with are buckwheat, hazelnuts, hemp and quinoa.
Others are indeed in keeping with the drive to meet market niches created by new Canadians or emerging trends, such as bok choy, eggplant, hard cider apples, hops, malting barley, faba beans, Jerusalem artichokes and pap paw.
Still others serve various purposes, such as rotation, sustainability or alternative energy. They include Austrian winter peas, switchgrass, flax, millet, oats, miscanthus, mustard, spelt and peas.
And several have specific health-related traits, including garlic, goji berries, haskap berries, kale, purple potatoes and persimmon.
AMI has just started offering an online planning tool to help farmers pencil out whether a non-traditional crop is for them. It features five interactive modules that users work through on their own schedule to develop a business case for diversifying their farm.
Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Jeff Leal is fond of pointing out that Ontario already grows more than 200 different commodities. There’s little doubt more are on the way.