Mike Columbus’ presentation covered his personal experiences as a New Crop Development Specialist with OMAFRA. He has thirty years of experience working with OMAFRA, over a decade of that time has been devoted to working with farmers, growing new and specialty crops.
To begin his presentation, Mike discussed the broader market for world crops. He notes that there is a growing ethnic-cultural diversity in Ontario and immigrants are searching for culturally appropriate food. Canadians in general are becoming more adventurous, and increasingly integrating ‘world’ foods into their diets. Mike explained that crop diversification is already taking place in Ontario. He estimates that there are several thousand acres of specialty crops already in production and generating millions of dollars at the farm-gate.
Mike then outlined some of the earlier attempts at organizing farmers into an Ethnic Crop Association. He explained that in 1994, OMAFRA invited 34 farmers from a variety of ethno-cultural groups – 8 different nationalities in total – to meet in Milton to discuss setting up a producers’ association.
At the meeting, OMAFRA staff realized that the barriers for organizing were too great, considering the language and cultural differences. Mike also noted the distrust around sharing ‘market secrets,’ explaining that when independent growers discover how to grow and market new products, they are unlikely to want to share with their competitors. Mike concluded that although the attempt to organize was unsuccessful in 1994, it is worth trying again considering the growing demand for world foods.
Mike also presented on issues farmers should take under consideration before growing world crops for an ethno-cultural market. Mike noted that crop diversification can be difficult. It requires time, energy, patience, and money, and often takes at least three years to get production and marketing right. He stressed that it is important for farmers to carefully consider the resources required (i.e. available land for crop rotation; labour requirements; appropriate inputs, and crop research).
In the last section of the presentation, Mike discussed the experiences of Ontario farmers growing leafy green vegetables, daikon, star fruit, chili peppers, mung beans, okra, garlic, ginger, artichokes, kiwano, sweet potatoes, grain sorghum, green peanuts, and shitake mushrooms. He outlined the successes and difficulties with these different crops and provided insight into lessons learned at the grassroots level.
Mike’s presentation was informative and interesting. He revealed the research and planning that needs to occur before farmers grow for ethno-cultural markets.