New Jersey farms find market in Asian crops

Sunday, June 16, 2002

TRENTON, N.J. -- After more than 30 years of farming, Wickie Hom knows how to spot a trend. And lately, his small farm has adjusted to a trend toward the East -- the Far East.

On Hom's 150 acres in Englishtown, he grows bok choy instead of spinach, bitter melon instead of watermelon, mustard greens instead of lettuce. There's not an ear of Jersey corn to be found.

Farmers in New Jersey are growing an increasing number of diverse crops as the region's Asian population swells and residents become attuned to ethnic foods, industry experts say.

"There's definitely more interest now," said Hom, whose father came from China to start the farm.

Bill Sciarappa, the Monmouth County agent at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service, said large Asian populations in Philadelphia, New York and New Brunswick fuel the demand for different crops. In New Jersey, Asians make up nearly 6 percent of the state's 8.4 million residents.

Farmers sell mainly to street markets, specialty stores and wholesalers, which have regular buyers for the fuzzy melons, balsam pears and Japanese eggplant.

The Asian crops are well-suited to New Jersey's farming conditions, said Tom Orton, a specialist at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

"New Jersey has extremely fertile soils and abundant pure water," he said. "The weather is unpredictable at best, but we enjoy a more mild climate that's conducive to growing from June through October."

'Too many deer'

Chong Il Kim, a Korean who owns the 140-acre Evergreen Farm in Hamilton, tried growing his Asian pears in upstate New York before deciding on New Jersey five years ago.

"It's too cold in New York," said Kim, who speaks little English. "And too many deer!"

The Asian pears, which are crunchy and shaped like apples, grow in rows on an elaborate trellis system.

Another popular crop with people of Asian origin is the "heritage tomato," which is more pink than traditional tomatoes and has higher levels of antioxidants, Orton said.

Central Asian crops include white carrots and ivory-colored sweet peppers, which have a sweet but pungent flavor and are used mainly for stuffings and salads.

Poppery beans, which resemble lima beans, are popular among Indians in New Jersey, Orton said. Methi, also known as fenugreek, is another big seller.

Rick Van Vranken, the Atlantic County agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, said there isn't much mainstream demand for the Asian crops just yet.

"The ones that are in on it very early can exploit that market and do very well, but it doesn't take too many farmers to flood the market."

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