By the numbers: Specialty vegetable markets in Ontario

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 speciality 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 (Source: Statistics Canada).
Year Volume (kg) Value ($)
2 708 556
5 135 607
2 748 828
5 452 466
3 255 748
6 172 588
Table 3: Annual processed or frozen okra imports to Ontario including mixtures (Artichokes, bamboo shoots, okra etc. - prepared/preserved, frozen) and okra prepared/preserved not frozen (Source: Statistics Canada).
Year Volume (kg) Value ($)
126 028
247 195
104 913
339 810
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
7 700
6 480
Green Velvet
5 600
Red (red coloured variety)
5 290
Parkens Mammoth Long Pod
4 010
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 (4.1ha 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.

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

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