Professor Govindasamy has been a fan favorite at The New York Produce Show and Conference in the past, with presentations that we’ve highlighted with pieces such as these:
His work is at the intersection of two big issues: how to grow the produce that will serve ethnic communities as the population makeup changes, and how to set up a system so that consumers can access that produce through retail and other channels.
When we heard that Professor Govindasamy had now thrown a third industry interest – organic – into the mix, we quickly asked him if he would update the show attendees and, when he said yes, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out more:
Department of Agricultural,
Food and Resource Economics
Associate Director of Research,
Food Policy Institute
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
New Brunswick, New Jersey
Q: Tell us about your latest research: Opportunities for Organic Ethnic Greens and Herbs: A Study from the Eastern Coastal USA. Is this work an extension of the series of projects you’ve undertaken through the USDA-funded specialty crops initiative?
A: Yes, this is a continuation of that work. In fact, this research uses the 2010 data, which we collected through the USDA-funded project. There are three sections in my presentation. The first section introduces the project and talks about the data. Then the second section talks about the characteristics of consumers who are willing to buy organic ethnic produce. The third section compares the characteristics of consumers who are willing to buy organic ethnic greens to that of those who are not willing to buy organic ethnic produce.
Q: What inspired you to pursue organic production potential, in what would decidedly be a niche market and challenging one to pursue?
A: I was traveling along the East Coast and visited more than 100 retail ethnic stores. And none of them offered organic ethnic produce. It was a glaring omission. We were curious if people wanted to buy organic and examine the issues for why retailers weren’t offering it.
We went back to data we collected and found out more than 70 percent of the people we interviewed wanted to buy organic ethnic greens. Even though there is a lot of demand, they’re not offered. It’s strange.
Q: Through your previous studies, you’ve demonstrated the opportunities to build production of conventional ethnic greens varieties as demand for niche items grows among various ethnic groups. Here, you’ve been collaborating with small to midsize conventional growers in the northeast through ongoing pilot programs. Doesn’t organic production up the ante?
A: Yes, especially when it comes to ethnic vegetables. The success in commercial farming in the East depends largely on the ability of the growers to focus on high value, specialty crops such as ethnic greens and herbs targeted at specific niche markets for favorable competitive advantages.
I don’t think the production information to grow different organic ethnic specialty crops is out there. As you mention, it’s not easy to grow organic greens, and it might be the primary reason why they’re not offered.
Another important factor that comes into the picture is price. While the majority of people in the ethnic groups we surveyed want to buy organic ethnic greens, only 57 percent are willing to pay more for them. They want organic, but don’t want to pay more for it, which is problematic.
Q: What do you learn when you delve into the data, and analyze how it breaks down by ethnic group? Are you able to pinpoint opportunities?
A: We studied four ethnic groups: Asian Indians, Chinese, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. We looked at the demographics of those willing to buy organic, and consumer spending. On average, among these four ethnic communities, people shop four times a month and spend $89 per month on ethnic greens and herbs.
Q: How do spending habits differ by ethnic group?
A: The Asian Indians are the ones who are really after the organic ethnic greens, 81% are willing to buy organic; Chinese 74%; Mexicans 76%; and Puerto Ricans at 73 %.
Q: Are there generational shifts? How does age effect interest in organic ethnic greens?
A: In terms of age: Of those willing to buy organic ethnic greens, most often it belongs to the 36 to 50 age group at 40%; The 21 to 35 age group is 27%; while older consumers between 51 to 65 is 21%.
In terms of education: for the entire group, 49 percent of those willing to buy organic ethnic greens had a high school degree or below, which I think is a huge number. Those with a post graduate or advanced degree is 24 percent. We see extremes, actually, with post graduates showing a relatively low interest compared to those with less formal education.
Q: What accounts for that?
A: If you look at Hispanics, very often their education is low, so the percentages in the category are reflective of the number of Hispanics. At the same time, on the higher end, post graduate degrees primarily are coming from the Asian Indians and Chinese, also reflective of the percentage differences.
Q: What other factors have you pulled out?
A: We looked at the income category. The majority — 63 percent of people interested in organic ethnic greens — has an annual income below $40,000.
Q: That goes a long way in explaining the discrepancy between the high demand for organic ethnic greens and the lack of willingness to pay more for them. For many consumers in the target market, couldn’t financial issues prohibit purchase, unless the supply chain can bring the price of the organic ethnic greens in line with the conventional alternatives?
A: If we split the income data by ethnicity, it gives us more information. I will have those numbers to discuss at the Show.
In terms of the language they speak at home, over 94 percent speak their ethnic language at home, In fact with that question, 79 percent were born in their home country.
Q: Does it follow that this group desires to cook traditional cuisines that would call for specialty ethnic greens? When people become assimilated, isn’t there a movement to more mainstream produce and away from niche ethnic crops? Conversely, as demographics in communities change, and global influences converge, niche specialty items gradually move into the mainstream… Further, interest in organic ethnic greens seems to intersect with sustainability, a popular and modern trend. Does your research explore these dynamics?
A: Yes. Some ethnic greens get very popular over time because they are being bought in relatively high volumes by several ethnicities, which means they will be sold in mass supermarkets. It’s like what happened with okra in America. As time goes on, you will find many niche ethnic greens becoming mainstream.
Q: Do you have examples?
A: There is an ethnic green called Purslane, considered a weed in the U.S., that is being consumed by many ethnicities. Roselle, an herb native to West Africa, also is consumed by many ethnicities. Both are becoming very popular.
Q: Isn’t it a leap to create an organic market for items like these?
A: These are very unique greens, and farmers don’t even know what kinds of pests affect these new crops. So, how would they know what pesticides to use? When it comes to organic, it becomes very challenging. What kinds of pests are attacking these new crops, and how do you counter these problems within USDA organic requirements. It is a complicated process.
Q: What strategies do you recommend going forward? Where are the most promising opportunities?
A: Looking at the entire East Coast, covering 16 states plus Washington D.C., the first strategy is to understand where different ethnic populations are concentrated. The largest Mexican population on the East Coast is in Florida. The largest Chinese population is in New York. Also for Asian Indians, it is in New York, and for Puerto Ricans, it’s New York. This is data from 2010.
Q: Has much changed since then?
A: The populations have gone up but the proportions are pretty much the same, except one category, Asian Indians. There is quite a large Asian Indian population in New Jersey, neighboring New York, and it has gone up in the past four years.
Q: Sounds like the New York metropolitan area wins!
A: In looking to develop an organic ethnic greens market, a good place to concentrate efforts is New York. Right now, that market is nearly non-existent, or there is nothing that looks good. Demand is there for organic ethnic greens. The main thing is finding a way to produce these products, at least the high volume varieties, for these ethnicities.
Given that organic specifications are very rigid in the U.S., Consumers trust organic products from the U.S. compared to imported organics.
One thing I’ll talk about is comparing those people willing to buy organic ethnic greens versus those not willing to buy organic ethnic greens.
Q: Did you ask questions about why they preferred organic?
A: Not directly. For those willing to buy organic over conventional, the general attributes they would consider were ranked as follows: Number One — fresher; Two — higher quality; Three — wider variety; Four — lower prices; Five — better access; and last — that it was grown by local farms.
Q: Some of those attributes will be challenging to meet with organic…
A: It will be mostly grown by local farms, so that attribute will be satisfied and, concurrently, the Number One and Number Two attributes related to freshness and quality can be met. The challenges will be on pricing and varieties.
Q: Did those attributes change with different ethnic groups?
A: I don’t have those numbers broken out now, but I can share that information at the Show.
Q: Could you also talk more about the production side?
A: Given these populations are small and concentrated; the focus must be primarily on small and midsize growers. For larger growers, typically the price doubles because the volumes are not there. When volumes do go up, the price plummets. Since the demand is not there for the larger growers, these varieties saturate the market. They won’t be able to sell them, and ultimately the price goes down.
Q: Where do these ethnic groups shop?
A: Mostly ethnic grocery stores. Where the volumes are so small, supermarkets struggle unless they are located in populated areas of ethnic communities.
Q: Is there an expansion of these types of ethnic retail stores?
A: Yes, a lot of growth. In the past 10 years, ethnic grocery stores have mushroomed, especially in New Jersey and in pockets across the East Coast.
Q: Have you been continuing to work with small and midsize growers in the North East to increase their development of conventional ethnic greens and herbs to supply this growing retail base? Could you update us on what’s happening with your field trials in different states?
A: Our goal is to help small and midsize farmers. Originally, we looked at conventional greens and herbs and had trial plots in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Florida to document that we could grow these ethnic greens in different environments. We’ve proven that it is possible.
We have many field visits to farmers at these locations. Now they have more knowledge on what ethnic greens are in demand, and more farmers are growing ethnic greens and herbs along the East Coast.
Q: Have you been measuring results? Are you able to quantify this?
A: We didn’t do any surveys of growers yet, so right now results are all anecdotal, but it is something we’ll do in the future.
It’s very fulfilling to see a lot of these farmers selling ethnic greens and herbs. These are new farmers coming to the market to produce these varieties.
Q: Since these are conventional growers, will you be looking to recruit organic growers to pilot organic ethnic greens now?
A: It would be challenging for these new growers of conventional ethnic greens to transition to organic. The next stage of the project is for us to reach out to organic farmers, and set up field trials for the organic category like we did with conventional ethnic greens. That’s the next logical step. We’ll be applying for more funding, to extend our research through the USDA specialty crop initiative.
There is something almost surreal about this study. It has been said that the difference between capitalism and democracy is that democracy tells you what people want, but capitalism tell you what people want most.
We’ve not sure what point there is in finding out that people want Ferraris, if we also find out they can’t or won’t pay the premium to get a Ferrari over a Ford. In an economic sense, we are not sure what it means for people to say they want organic, but won’t pay the market price for organic. It is like people saying they really want diamonds, but only if they can get them at the price of cubic zirconium. In effect, it means they don’t want them –as they actually are – at all.
Then when we see why consumers might prefer their ethnic greens organic, the surrealism comes to the fore:
For those willing to buy organic over conventional, the general attributes they would consider were ranked as follows: Number One — fresher; Two — higher quality; Three — wider variety; Four — lower prices; Five — better access; and last — that it was grown by local farms.
This is interesting but also somewhat bizarre. Let us look at the points one by one:
There is no indication that organic ethnic greens would be fresher than conventionally grown. Indeed, because the volume would probably be smaller, the distribution may be more difficult and they may be less fresh.
2) Higher Quality
It is not clear what this means. Flavor? Freshness? In any case, it is not obvious in what way organic ethnic greens would be of higher quality than conventionally grown ethnic greens.
3) Wider Variety
Why should there be a wider variety of organic than conventional product?
4) Lower Prices
There is zero reason to believe that organic growing will result in lower price points.
5) Better Access
Why would there be better access to organic than conventionally grown crop?
6) Locally Grown
If there is substantial commercial demand for ethnic greens, organic or not, on a commercial scale isn’t it likely that the industry would wind up growing them in Salinas and Yuma and other places ideal for the production of greens?
The next stage of research we would like to see conducted in this area involves logistics and distribution. Just establishing that something can be grown somewhere isn’t enough.
FedEx was founded on a simple insight – that the most efficient way to get a package from Point A to Point B was through a distribution hub – in this case in Memphis. Why? Because it is very expensive to get one letter from Visalia, California, to, say, Springfield, Massachusetts, but if you can put a whole trailer of all the letters Visalia wants to send and send them to Memphis, and then have full trailers of all the packages the whole country wants to send to Springfield go from Memphis, you can be fast and efficient.
The truth is that the most efficient distribution system for this type of product would probably be a mixed pallet added on a trailer already loading in Salinas.
We look forward to discussing issues such as this with Professor Govindasamy as we discuss the intersection of locally grown and ethnic.
Many thanks to Ramu for contributing to The New York Produce Show and Conference.
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