August 9, 2012

World Crops For Locavores

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Vineland researchers grow ‘ethno-cultural’ vegetables . . . . 

Want to know what’s cropping up in Ontario agriculture? Check the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.

One of the experimental station’s flagship projects is the world crops program. Horticulturists and plant geneticists are working to adapt popular “ethno-cultural” vegetables to our local terroir. Sweet potatoes, for instance, are a hot commodity but they don’t take well to the Ontario climate. Vineland researchers are also experimenting with tomatillos, daikon radishes, okra, yard-long beans, sea buckthorn and hazelnuts.

Founded in 1906, the centre ( has grown to 35 buildings on 218 acres in Niagara. During the Farm & Food Care expedition this summer, I enjoyed a quick field and lab tour, followed by a buffet lunch in the station’s huge potting shed.

Plant sciences, consumer taste testing, liaising with farmers and marketing strategies all come together at the centre. New crops must, after all, be profitable. “You can grow a crop, but can you sell it?” is a question Michael Brownbridge, head of the world crops program, always asks.

The question is increasingly rhetorical, what with the huge market in Toronto. The city is packed not only with immigrants hungry for a taste of home, but a contingent of worldly consumers trying to balance adventurous palates with a reverence for local food.

Vineland research associate Ahmed Bilal says Ontario consumers spend $61 million a month on “ethno-crops.” Locally grown versions, however, are fresher and more nutrient-dense than the imports.

Of course, the Vinelanders continue to experiment with familiar fruit and vegetables, too. Early peaches, white-flesh peaches and trendy donut peaches (named for their shape) are on their radar. And the new Harovin Sundown pear – sweet, juicy, firm, blight-resistant and easy to store – is considered a Canadian success story, although availability is still limited.

The Vineland station apple breeders, meanwhile, are changing with the times. “We are growing some of the wrong varieties (in Ontario),” notes geneticist Daryl Somers. He points his finger at the McIntosh, an old breed that is losing popularity because of factors ranging from taste to texture to “storability.” Researchers are working on a Honeycrisp and Gala cross, Somers says, but the results are 12 years away. “It’s a long-term process.”

And do we need a round cucumber? Vineland scientists are developing a local one. Less would go to waste, they say.

       Lunch at the Vineland research station. Credit: Susan Sampson