Foodies, farmers and fanciers of ethnic cuisine in the Greensboro area may soon have more reasons to raise their forks in celebration.
In an area already known for its culinary diversity, N.C. A&T agricultural economist Chyi Lyi (Kathleen) Liang, a professor in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, is working to add even more spice to the menu.
Using her knowledge of produce, North Carolina's growing conditions, agricultural needs and market tolerance, she is introducing the state’s small-scale farmers to a variety of specialty vegetables that can help fatten their bottom lines.
“Right now, North Carolina is importing most of the specialty vegetables used by niche markets, like ethnic grocery stores and restaurants, from California and Florida,” she said. “Why? They are all high-demand items that can bring small farmers a good price per pound, and we can grow them all better, right here.”
Fuzzy gourd. Bitter melon. Hollow stem. With a little education, Liang is betting that these esoteric veggies will gain the acceptance of bok choi, edamame and a host of other, once-unfamiliar, now common produce items.
With a $40,000 grant she received this year from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Liang has begun a program to identify specialty crops and familiarize farmers, restaurant owners, grocers and other agriculture professionals through demonstrations, training and workshops. Liang is also co-director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, one of the nation’s most important centers for research, extension and education in sustainable agriculture and community-based food systems. Located in Goldsboro, the CEFS is a partnership of N.C. State University, N.C. A&T and the NCDA&CS, and is where much of the growing occurs.
“In my experience, people absolutely love these veggies as long as they can get guidance on how to grow and use them,” she said. “Most North Carolina farmers haven’t grown up with these vegetables, so they do need help to grow a good crop and find a market for them.”
Luckily, Liang says, that should not be difficult. North Carolina’s population is rapidly diversifying. According to data made available in 2019 by the demographic research group Carolina Demography (ncdemography.org), 54,000, or 15%, of new North Carolinians came from India (5,700,) China (4,700), Mexico (3,200), Korea (3,100), and Germany and El Salvador (2,400 each.) In most of these countries, the specialty vegetables are more common.
“Greensboro alone has Indian, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese restaurants, just to name a few,” she said. “It’s very expensive for the restaurants to buy ingredients from half the country away — Thai chili peppers are priced by the ounce — when they could buy them from a farmer in the next county. And then, we could keep the profit here within the state.”
North Carolina’s top economic driver, agriculture, is ripe for diversification, Liang said. With climate zones ranging from cool to near-tropical, the “right” climate exists to grow just about anything. Farmers are also keen to augment their production crops, most commonly sweet potatoes and soybeans, with specialty crops that can give them an edge in a market that quickly saturates with lettuces and tomatoes.
At the same time, consumer demand for fresh and healthy foods has increased, leading more restaurants, community grocery stores and farmers’ markets to become interested in ethnic foods.
At Li Ming Global Mart on Gate City Boulevard, Super G Mart on Market Street and a host of smaller groceries in the Triad, colorful Thai chili peppers; shallot-like hollow stem; pebbly-skinned, cucumber-sized bitter melon; fist-sized green kohlrabi, slender chive flower, Thai okra and a host of orange and yellow squash can be found for sale, all currently grown out of state.
“None of those vegetables are local, but they ought to be,” she said. “One of the things I teach farmers is how they can connect with markets like these, or similar ones in Raleigh and Durham.”
How to grow the unfamiliar produce is the first lesson; these are not your mother’s veggies.
“One person tried to grow bitter melon in containers, like tomatoes,” Liang laughed. “Bitter melon vines spread way out. They could take up the whole yard. That’s why I do the programs and demonstrations.”
With a little exposure Liang said, the public can get used to new tastes, just as they once got used to sushi and falafel.
“When farmers know how to grow them and where to sell them, they love specialty crops,” Liang said. “It is a direct way to support N.C. agriculture, one of our top industries; to support restaurants in getting quality ingredients for less; and to encourage people to branch out to try something new that has become a part of their community. And, it’s organic, healthy and saves money. It’s a huge opportunity.”