By the numbers: specialty vegetable markets in Ontario

Evan Elford, New Crop Development Specialist, OMAF and MRA

Recently, there has been increased interest in the market potential of specialty vegetable crops in Ontario.  However, the conversation surrounding import replacement through domestic production has been ongoing for more than 30 years.  Market and agronomic research reports are readily available from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Ministry of Rural Affairs (OMAF and MRA), the University of Guelph (U of G) and more recently, the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre (VRIC). Navigating this information can be difficult, given that speculation on potential markets varies by source and over time. Other issues related to specialty crop production such as agronomics and pest management will not be discussed in this article but should also be considered before growing any specialty crop.

A Focus on Market Opportunities:

In a recent University of Guelph study, Adekunle et al. characterised potential specialty crop markets in Ontario. The authors ranked the top thirteen vegetables for the three largest ethnic groups in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA): South Asian, Chinese, and Afro-Caribbean (Table 1). The study estimated the potential market demand for vegetables within these three groups in the GTA at approximately 61 million dollars per month.  However, the estimate in the study was for all vegetables noted within the study groups, not just specialty vegetables.  If one does not clearly recognise this point and review the crop list in the study, the potential market for specialty vegetables may be wrongly interpreted and possibly over-inflated.

Table 1: Adapted from Adekunle et al., 2010 – Top thirteen vegetables for the three largest ethnic groups (South Asian, Chinese, Afro-Caribbean) in the GTA.

 

South Asian       

Chinese        

Afro-Caribbean

Rank

Common Name

Latin Name

Common Name 

Latin Name

Common Name

Latin Name

1

Okra

Abelmoschus esculentus

Bok choy, pak choy, baby bok choy

Brassica rapa  subspecies chinensis

Okra

Abelmoschus esculentus

2

Eggplant (various varieties based on colour and shape)

Solanum melongena

Chinese broccoli

Brassica oleracea Alboglabra group

Garden egg (African eggplant)

Solanum melongena – Solanum aethiopicum, Solanum gilo, Solanum olivaire, Solanum pierreanum

3

Bitter melon

Momordica charantia

Eggplant (various varieties based on colour and shape)

Solanum melongena

Smooth amaranth

Amaranthus spp.

4

Spinach

Spinacia oleracea

Choy sum

Brassica rapa subspecies chinensis

Tomato

Solanum lycopersicum

5

Tomato

Solanum lycopersicum

Tomato

Solanum lycopersicum

Yam (yellow yam and white yam)

Dioscorea batatas

6

Cauliflower

Brassica oleracea Bortrytis group

Napa cabbage

Brassica rapa subspecies pekinensis

Pumpkin (Kaddu, Chinese squash)

Cucurbita spp

7

Potato

Solanum tuberosum

Green beans (Chinese green beans)

Phaselolus vulgaris

Plantain

Musa paradisiaca

8

Cabbage

Brassica oleracea capitata group

Celery (Chinese variety)

Apium gravelolens var. dulce/rapaceum

Cocoyam leaves/corms

Colocasia esculenta/Xanthosoma sagittifolium

9

Cilantro (Chinese parsley)

Coriandrum sativum

Spinach

Spinacia oleracea

Yard long bean

Vigna unguiculata subsp. Sesquipedalis

10

Onion (baby/small)

Allium cepa

Carrot

Daucus carota

Cassava

Manihot esculenta

11

Carrot

Daucus carota

Bitter melon

Momordica charantia

Sweet potato (leaves and root)

Ipomoea batatas

12

Green beans (Chinese green beans)

Phaseolus vulgaris

Broccoli

Brassica oleracea Italica Group

Cabbage

Brassica oleracea Capitata group

13

Chilli pepper (green or red)

Capsicum spp.

Lettuce (Roman and Red)

Lactuca sativa

Spinach

Spinacia oleracea

Case Study for Ontario Import Replacement:

A single crop can be selected as a case study for specialty vegetable demand and potential commercial production in Ontario.  Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) was ranked as the number one vegetable for two of the three groups in the University of Guelph study (Table 1).  Summarising the data from 2012, the total annual okra imports to Ontario were 3,515,149 kg worth $7,758,562, of which fresh or chilled okra accounted for approximately 93% by volume and 80% by value (Table 2 and 3).

Ontario Okra Imports (Source: Statistics Canada)

Table 2: Annual fresh or chilled okra imports to Ontario.

Year

Volume (kg)

Value ($)

2010

2 708 556

5 135 607

2011

2 748 828

5 452 466

2012

3 255 748

6 172 588

Table 3: Annual processed or frozen okra imports to Ontario including mixtures (Artichokes, bamboo shoots, okra etc. – prepared/preserved, frozen) and okra prepared/preserved not frozen (Source: Statistics Canada).

Year

Volume (kg)

Value ($)

2010

126 028

247 195

2011

104 913

339 810

2012

259 401

1 585 974

Taking A Look At Wholesale Prices In Ontario:

Based on the 2012 Ontario import data for fresh or chilled okra, wholesale prices on average would be roughly $1.90/kg ($0.86/lb).  However, for the week of August 6, 2012 (in the middle of the Ontario okra production season) the highest price for fresh okra at the Toronto Food Terminal was $29 per 15 lb carton – or approximately $4.25/kg ($1.93/lb).  One week later, the price fell to $14 per 14 lb carton, or approximately $2.20/kg ($1/lb). For the remainder of August and September, prices fluctuated between $14-27 per 14 lb carton. The change in price appears to reflect the main okra production season in the northern US (which would be similar for southern Ontario producers). To better understand the market and pricing, one must consider yield figures.

 Yield Estimates For Okra Production In Ontario:

OMAF and MRA and the University of Guelph completed an okra variety trial in 1987. While arguably dated, it provides a baseline for the following calculations. Seeding for the trial occurred on April 13 and plants were transplanted into bare soil on May 29. Harvest ran from July 11 to September 24, inclusive. In total, 15 harvest dates were recorded, ranging every 2 to 5 days. Yields from the study are represented in Table 4 (Note: these figures are based on statistically designed, small plot trials with only one year of data).

Table 4: Okra yield obtained from Ontario field trials by OMAF and MRA and the University of Guelph in 1987 (These yields are similar to estimated yields presented by VRIC in 2010). 

Variety

Yield (kg/ha)

Annie Oakley

9 420

Candelabra

7 700

Emerald

6 480

Green Velvet

5 600

Red (red coloured variety)

5 290

Parkens Mammoth Long Pod

4 010

Lee

3 970

Clemson Spineless

3 960

More recently, a 2009/10 study from Massachusetts reported yields between 1 820 – 17 860 kg/ha with harvest scheduling three times per week and a production season similar to the Ontario trial (mid-July to end of September). The discrepancy between the Massachusetts and Ontario yields may be the result of variety, size of pods being harvested, row spacing/plant density, mulch vs. no mulch, and environmental conditions for the respective growing seasons.

Market Observations:

So, how many economically viable acres of okra could be grown in Ontario?

The most current figures from Statistics Canada report approximately 4.1 ha (10.1 acres) of okra grown in Ontario (2006 census data).  The market for this production is likely fresh okra at pick-your-own farms, direct farm markets, and/or farmers’ markets.  Based on the Ontario yields noted above, 4.1 ha of okra would equate to an additional volume of 38 622 kg (4.1 ha x 9 420 kg/ha) of fresh okra entering the Ontario marketplace during the growing season.

Added to this production,  import replacement based on the 2012 fresh okra import figures (Table 2) at the highest yields from the Ontario study (Table 4) suggest that an additional 345 ha (~862.5 acres)  of okra could be produced for total annual import replacement of fresh product if year round production was possible.

However, if one considers import replacement for only the in-season market (a more realistic approach) from mid-July to the end of September (~10 weeks), production volume would be approximately 626 105 kg or 66.5 ha (~166.25 acres) of potential acreage for replacement of 100% of the seasonal imports in addition to the current production acreage of 4.1 ha.  Full in-season import replacement, however, has yet to be achieved for any horticultural crop in Ontario.

It appears there is an increasing demand for specialty vegetables in Ontario, but niche markets for individual crops, such as okra, may only support a small amount of additional acreage. Niche markets are easily saturated, and background research is highly recommended before growing any specialty crop.

For additional production and pest management information on okra and other specialty crops, please visit OMAF and MRA’s web database, Specialty Cropportunities: http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/CropOp/en/index.html

Thank you to Anna Staciwa and Siva Mailvaganam, Statisticians, OMAF and MRA for the contribution of import and acreage statistics used in this article.

For more information on specialty crops refer to ONspecialtycrops Blog.

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