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Changing populations mean opportunities for farmers


farm-droughtAs immigrants from Asia, Latin countries and the Middle East continue to join Virginia’s population, opportunities are growing for farmers willing to raise new crops.

“There has been an increase in demand for ethnic and niche crops,” said Dr. Reza Rafie, Virginia Cooperative Extension horticulture specialist at Virginia State University. In addition to immigrant consumers who want foods common in their native countries, “Americans are traveling all over the world, and they are exposed to some of the most delicious and wholesome fruits and vegetables. They come back, and that experience causes them to want them in their supermarket.”

Since 1965, the United States has welcomed more than 40 million new citizens, half of them from Latin countries. Others come from Asia and the Middle East. Many live in Northern Virginia and other population centers, and they have had an influence on what kinds of foods are available in their communities.

It’s a natural trend that’s been occurring for centuries, said Richmond chef John Maxwell.

“Cuisine happens when two cultures collide in the kitchen,” Maxwell said. “We all know that the kitchen is the first place you go for social activity. You check out the spice larder, you find out the products that are being used and the cooking techniques that are being used, and you swap them back and forth.”

Maxwell noted that in the middle of the 20th century Americans looked to Asian cuisines for new food experiences. Toward the end of the century tastes turned to Central and South America, and now foods from the Middle East and Africa are becoming more popular.

Those trends have fueled demand for different fruits, herbs and vegetables such as cilantro, bok choy, papaya and tomatillos, Rafie said. Tropical green papaya is one of the research crops he is raising at VSU, because it is becoming popular in Virginia grocery stores.

But while growing different crops can be profitable, he also encourages farmers to market them effectively.

“You want to make sure you maintain areas of small production. The market demand is still limited. But growing this niche crop can give the producer the opportunity to make a lot of money. You have to learn the production and understand and educate consumers on the use of the niche crops and how to prepare this food.”

Most growers raising such new crops are selling them at local farmers’ markets, according to Extension surveys.



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