This project evaluated four varieties of Momordica charantia, known as bitter melon, or karela. Varieties were evaluated for yield under intensive urban production, and for customer preferences for Caribbean immigrants. We also tested the ability of Caribbean crops to draw customers to our market.
Results indicate that this is an effective crop for intensive production. Customer preferences seem to vary widely, with some customers preferring smaller, darker green fruits, and others preferring long, thin, light green fruits. Therefore, we would recommend growing at up to three different varieties–one of each type–to meet the demands of Caribbean immigrant customers: the long smooth type, short smooth type, and short spiky type. Of the varieties that we grew, we prefer Hybrid Jumbo (long and smooth) and Taiwan Large (short and smooth), both available from Evergreen Seeds. Yields were most consistent throughout the season in these two types, an important characteristic for crops grown for a farmers’ market. We did not test spiky types. Indications from flyering and vendor observations show that this crop may be successful in helping to draw customers to farmers’ markets in low-income neighborhoods with high immigrant populations, such as ours.
Although New York City consumers form a logical market for northeast sustainable farmers, farmers often have difficulty accessing these markets because of barriers. Meanwhile, many neighborhoods in New York City, especially low-income ones, have trouble accessing high-quality produce.
East New York is a good example of this. East New York is a community of 173,198 in a 5.6 square mile area in the eastern part of Brooklyn near Kennedy Airport. Ethnically, it is 49% African-American and 38% Hispanic, with populations being of mixed origins.
There are only three small supermarkets in the central area of East New York. Despite low neighborhood incomes (median household income of $25,505 compared to $38,293 for New York City as a whole), the neighborhood represents a sizeable market, and one that is currently not being tapped. A Pratt Institute graduate planning studio found that 50% of the expenditures by local residents on produce (in grocery stores, bodegas, and similar stores) were being spent outside the neighborhood. If this statistic is representative of similar neighborhoods in New York City, this indicates a huge potential market for farmers in New York City, albeit a market with some barriers, such as immigrant customers who speak other languages and like some produce that is unfamiliar to U.S. farmers.
Residents of East New York suffer disproportionately from nutrition-related health problems, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and hypertension. Obesity rates in East New York are 31%, the highest of any Brooklyn neighborhood, and the second-highest in New York City. Our focus groups and other interactions with residents indicate a prevalence of poor eating habits resulting from limited economic and physical access to healthy food. Residents do want to eat more healthy foods, but have trouble accessing it.
The East New York Farms! project has capitalized on this market by creating a neighborhood farmers’ market that has been in operation since 2000. One of its unique features is that it incorporates over 20 local urban growers in addition to three upstate farmers. Although none of the urban growers are certified, they are all growing using organic methods. The program also has a youth internship effort, through which 20 local teens grow vegetables, sell them at their own stand at market, and cooperate with local residents to make the market possible. Over the six years the market has been in operation, gross sales have grown to $89,000.
Many of the urban growers who are selling at the market are Caribbean immigrants who have been successful at drawing customers to the market through providing callaloo and other Caribbean products. In the past year, several growers have started to grow Momordica charantia, known as bitter melon, karela, or corrioly by Caribbean immigrants. This crop was received enthusiastically by Caribbean customers at the market this year, the first year that it was available. We think there is a market beyond our neighborhood for this vegetable.
The Caribbean population in New York City is estimated at 589,000, mainly in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Based on average food expenditures on fresh fruits and vegetables, this represents a potential market of $150,711,670 per year.
As noted, we ran production trials for three varieties of bitter melon and tested customer preferences. We worked with two experienced urban growers from the Caribbean (Alma Peterkin, from Trinidad and Tobago, and Ray Pollydore, from Guyana), as well as with the urban youth farm established at the United Community Centers.
• To establish trials in blocks at three urban farms
• Harvest bitter melons twice a week, and collect yield data
• Outreach to customers to let them know that our market offers bitter melon
• Survey customers about bitter melon preferences
• Host field day events to show farmers the crop and tell them about our initial results
• Produce a short summary of results, suitable for farmers to use
To explore the potential for growth, we ran production trials on three varieties of bitter melon and tested customers’ preferences. We had originally planned to trial fout to six varieties, but the grower who had the most space, Ray Pollydore, had the arrangement for use of land fall through, so that he had much less space than he anticipated. We identified U.S. seed sources: Johnny’s Seed and Evergreen Seed. Although we had initially proposed to grow the long type of bitter melon, further discussion with potential customers persuaded us to grow two varieties of the long type, and one variety of the short type. Both were smooth with rounded bumps, rather than the third, spiky, type.
Varieties were grown by three farmers (the urban agriculture coordinator, who oversees the United Community Centers Garden, the site of the youth program and a demonstration site for urban gardeners; Alma Peterkin; and Ray Pollydore). All three of these growers had grown bitter melon before and we had also researched optimal growing techniques including the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center’s International Cooperators’ Guide to “Suggested Cultural Practices for Bitter Gourd.” The growers brought over 20 years each of growing experience for bitter melon and other Caribbean crops, both in their home countries and in the US.
Trials were set up in double rows, covered by black plastic, with blocks of 10 plants (2 rows of 5). Within a block, the two rows were 2′ apart, and within a row, the plants were 18” apart. Blocks were separated by 2′ of unplanted space. We planned to plant three varieties at each of three sites: “Hybrid Jumbo TH” (long smooth), “Kiew Yoke” (long smooth), and “Taiwan Long” (short smooth). All varieties were trellised.
We tested the bitter melon for three characteristics: (1) total yield; (2) number of fruit; and (3) customer preferences. The crop was harvested twice a week, the fruits were counted, and they were weighed. The project coordinator also inspected the plants for overall health and pests. Produce harvested was sold through the shared table of the East New York Farmers’ Market, a table where local residents who are growing lower volumes drop off their produce, and which is staffed by youth in the youth program. This allowed us to track customers’ preferences at the market, and to administer our customer preference survey.
The preference survey asked customers to rate the varieties and indicate the characteristics that were most important to them in selecting bitter melon to buy. Furthermore, we distributed flyers in City Line in Quuens (also known as “little Guyana”), and the Flatbush, Crown Heights, and Canarsie neighborhoods of Brooklyn, all of which have a high proportion of Caribbean immigrants. Using spot surveys and our annual customer survey, we measured our ability to draw customers to the market with Caribbean vegetables- whether or not customers are willing to travel, and therefore whether it might be an item that farmers would want to grow for other New York City Farmers’ Markets.
In addition to this research, we produced a brief two-page sheet that summarized our findings and provided basic growing information for other farmers who would like to grow this crop for Caribbean markets, focusing on the retail (farmers’ market) customers.
Three varieties were grown: Hybrid Jumbo, Kiew Yoke, and Taiwan Large. For Alma Peterkin and Georgine Yorgey, seedlings were planted on April 22nd, and thinned to one seedling per cell during the second week of May. Black plastic was spread to create a 4′ planting bed, and planting blocks were planted into the plastic (black plastic was not used at Alma Peterkin’s, because a brick wall interfered with installation of the plastic). Trials were set up in blocks of 10 plants (2 rows of plants, with 18” between plants, and 24” between two rows). United Community Centers planted two replicates on May 31st. Alma Peterkin planted one replicate on June 9th.
Because of difficulties in obtaining growing space, Ray Pollydore planted his blocks (organized the same way) directly from seed on June 18th.). Unfortuntely, because of a miscommunication, Ray planted “Hong Kong Green” (short smooth) in place of Hybrid Jumbo TH. Ray chipped the outer seed covering prior to planting, three seeds per hole. Seeds were thinned to one seedling per hole on July 7th, but some holes had no seedling that came up. Because of this, the data presented below is corrected to reflect the equivalent weight that would be produced by 10 plants. Because only one plant came up for each replicate for Hong Kong Green, data is not presented, although anecdotal information is included in this report.
Trellises were built in each site after seedlings were planted, and plants were trained onto trellises. Trellis supports were made of 2” square treated lumber that was cut at a 45 degree angle on one end to make it sharp. Posts were braced in both directions. Once support posts were up (every 10′), 6” plastic trellis mesh from Johnny’s was hung. Once the plants started to bear fruit, we harvested all fruits that were ready two times a week (Tuesday and Friday). Fruits were considered ready when the wrinkles were filled out.
Harvest was weighed, and fruits were counted twice a week during the growing season. Results are shown below (Figures 1-3). (Note to the reader–hard copy of the data and graphics referenced here can be obtained from Northeast SARE; call 802/656-0471 or send e-mail to email@example.com)
Customer Preference Survey
A short survey asked customers to choose their favorite type of bitter melon, and to rank the most important characteristics for them in selecting bitter melon–color, size, texture, firmness, or other. Customers were also given an chance to offer any additional feedback, and were asked what other Caribbean crops they would like to see sold at the market. Surveys were given over six Saturdays in August and September. A total of 24 customers completed surveys.
Outreach to Caribbean Customers
Once every other week, flyers were put up. Each week, we targeted a different section of our neighborhood and surrounding areas. Flyers specifically advertised that we have Caribbean crops for sale. We also targeted Caribbean stores and neighborhoods, distributing 40 color posters to high-traffic locations in Crown Heights and Flatbush, predominantly Caribbean neighborhoods. We also gave out approximately 1500 hand bills through stores in East New York, Canarsie, Crown Heights, and Flatbush. We distributed 1500 flyers at the Caribbean Day Parade, a yearly event in Brooklyn that celebrates Caribbean culture, and we had three ads in Caribbean Life (in August, September, and October).
Trough these outreach efforts, the total proportion of English-speaking Caribbean customers stayed approximately the same (30%), and the total number of English-speaking Caribbean customers went up–total attendance at the market was 11,900 up from 11,300 in 2004. Additionally, the percentage of Guyanese customers was up significantly, from 7% of our customers in 2004, to 11.5% of our customers in 2005. Guyanese customers are generally among the most enthusiastic bitter melon eaters. In addition, our market was able to draw more customers from outside the immediate neighborhoods (16% in 2005 vs 13% in 2004).
While this does not definitively show anything, it may be an indication that specialty products such as Caribbean crops help draw customers from further away, especially because some of these further-away neighborhoods have significant Caribbean populations. From our survey of how people found out about the market, we know that the ads in the Caribbean newspaper were not that effective. However, both “flyers” and “word of mouth” were very significant (this is how 44% of our customers found out about the market). We know that the flyers featured our Caribbean crops, including bitter melon, and we suspect that word of mouth includes a significant number of people who talked about Caribbean crops.
Trials were established for three varieties of bitter melon (Hybrid Jumbo, Kiew Yoke, and Taiwan Large), and a fourth was grown by one grower (Hong Kong Green). Yield data was collected. Because of the small number of replicates, it is impossible to determine whether there are any statistically significant differences in yield. However, for most trials, Hybrid Jumbo produced slightly more than Keiw Yoke. Significantly for those who are growing for a fresh market, data also suggest that Hybrid Jumbo produces more during the second half of the season, making it a better choice for farmers’ market growers.
However, some customers liked the long, larger fruits of Hybrid Jumbo, and others preferred smaller fruits, either Taiwan Large or Hong Kong Green (see customer preference section).
Preliminary results from growth trials also show decreased yield from plants that were planted later (June 22nd, from seed, as opposed to seedlings started from seed on April 22nd and transplanted on May 31st or June 2. Planting by both methods, whether with scarification of seed or not, resulted in low germination rates for all varieties–roughly half or less of the seeds germinated for most varieties.
Based on our experience last year, it also seems critical to trellis bitter melon. We got much higher yields this year after trellising the crop. Also, fruits that were hanging were colored much more evenly, whereas fruits often turned white where they touched the ground. Trellised fruit was generally straighter, leading to a more beautiful product.
Customer Preference Survey
All three varieties did about equally well. Of 24 people surveyed, 7 liked Hybrid Jumbo, 9 liked Kiew Yoke, and 8 liked Taiwan Large. However, anecdotal information shows that it is not that customers didn’t care which variety they had; rather, it seems that different customers like different types. Most customers who were surveyed had a hard time telling variety within a type (the long, thin ones, or the shorter, darker ones). But roughly two thirds of our customers liked the longer thinner ones, while a third liked the shorter, smaller ones. When asked to explain their preferences, some people said that the smaller ones (which also tended to be darker green) were more bitter; some customers like more bitter ones, while others prefer less bitter ones. Others said that they buy both, depending how they are going to cook it.
Customers were also asked what characteristics were most important to them in selecting a bitter melon to buy. They were asked to rank characteristics (size, color, texture, firmness, or other). Clearly, size and color were the primary characteristics people used to select bitter melon. Again, different customers had different preferences about what color and size they wanted. For size, eight said “small” or “short”, while six said “long and thin” and only one said “big.” For color, nine preferred dark green, two preferred medium green, and nine preferred light green; customers reported that darker green ones are thought of as more bitter, while lighter ones were less bitter. There was general agreement, though, that any “whiteness” on the fruit was bad, as it indicated a fruit that was about to ripen (at which point it turns orange and is sweet). For the same reason, most customers didn’t want fruits that were too large. Long and thin was acceptable, but fruits that were too wide, or where the wrinkles were extremely filled out, were seen as about to ripen. (The size of the wrinkles/bumps is a very subjective characteristic, but was important–if the wrinkles were not filled out enough, then customers thought it wasn’t ready, and if they were too filled out, it wasn’t as good.) Nine customers ranked color and nine customers ranked size as their primary characteristic, and most of them ranked the other as their secondary characteristic. Firmness was the other characteristic that was sometimes cited, with comments such as “nice and firm” or “fresh.”
However, this exclusive preference for green fruits may only apply to Caribbean customers. The one Asian customer (from China) that we surveyed said she likes them a little sweet, and that she uses this one to make a sweet sauce. She doesn’t herself eat the green ones, but she knows people who do. Our market has very few Asian customers, and so it is impossible for us to tell if this is a personal quirk, or if there might be a market for orange fruits with Asian customers.
Finally, we asked customers to tell us if there were other Caribbean crops they would like us to grow. Several asked us to grow the bitter melon that spikes out (and this kind of bitter melon was priced higher at Caribbean stores when we surveyed prices in the middle of the season). In addition, customers asked for bitter melon leaves, which are used to make a medicinal tea. In response to these requests, we began to sell them in September, and sold four to five wreaths (cut fresh) for much of the season. Just before frost, we harvested the rest of the leaves and dried them into packets, which were available on the last day of the market. These sold much better than we had expected–we sold all 12 packets by noon.
Both the leaves and the fruits are said to have medicinal properties. Customers often said they eat it because it “cleans the blood.” Diabetic customers in particular would come to the market to seek it out.
Other Crops for Investigation
Other crops mentioned by customers in our customer survey were as follows:
• Bitters (the leaves of the bitter melon)
• Small, very hot peppers (habaneros and others)
• Bora, or long beans
• Pak choy
Ability to Draw Customers
Especially in the summer, when we were handing out flyers for bitter melon and other Caribbean crops, we did draw a certain number of customers from Caribbean neighborhoods. However, it was difficult to figure out which customers were coming specifically for Caribbean crops, and which were coming to the market anyway.
Anecdotal information does support the Caribbean crops being a draw. Many of our karela-purchasing customers returned each week. Forty-three percent of our customers had heard about the market either through a friend or family or through a flyer, and it is likely that Caribbean crops added to the strength of our word of mouth advertising. Although a few customers mentioned having seen us in ads in Caribbean Life, only 3% of our customers said they came to the market because of a newspaper ad, indicating that this is probably not an effective means of advertisement for us.
The amount of cash taken in by vendors at our market was up 7% this year, from $18,339 in 2004 to $19,652 in 2005. The percentage of cash (as a percentage of total sales) was also up, from 20% of total sales in 2004, to 26% of sales in 2005. All three growers who were selling karela noticed that they seemed to take in cash more often for bitter melon, though we did not specifically track this number. We were able to track total sales of bitter melon, which were $789.34 (at a price that fluctuated between $1.75 and $2.50 per pound). We did not sell out of bitter melon consistently, except for the beginning and end of the season, but bitter melon was a significant portion of urban growers’ income. Despite the fact that we had 21 growers, and only 3 grew bitter melon, sales of bitter melon made up 7.4% of the total income of urban growers.
We did two outreach events to talk with interested Brooklyn residents (particularly urban gardeners) about growing karela, one field day and one slide show and talk in central Brooklyn. We invited farmers from the areas surrounding New York City to our field day, but with little success. Fewer than 15 people attended the two events. However, throughout the season, we talked to approximately three times that number of gardeners and urban growers through informal contacts. One of the trials was planted near the corner of a fairly busy intersection, so many people passed them in the course of the season. Gardeners who didn’t recognize the vegetable would stop by and ask us more about it. Growers from the Caribbean, who did recognize it, stopped to ask us where we had gotten the seed, and what success we had with growing it.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
In addition to doing outreach through our project, which has contact with 40 local growers, we will did outreach to target other urban producers growing for markets, as well as small farmers in the areas surrounding New York City.
We produced 70 color copies of our report and distributed these as well as electronic versions in the following ways:
– Through the New Farmer Development Project, the report was circulated among over 100 immigrant farmers in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York. We also sent copies of the report
– Through Cornell Cooperative Extension, Suffolk County, copies of the report were distributed to nearby Long Island farmers who are interested in growing for Caribbean customers in New York City and Western Long Island.
– Through Cornell Cooperative Extension New York City Programs, reports were distributed to Program Incubator, Extension Educator John Ameroso for use in his work with gardeners throughout New York City.
– Through Just Food, reports were distributed to urban gardeners throughout the city who are growing for market.
– Reports were also distributed to other urban production sites in Brooklyn (Added Value Farm in Red Hook, Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum in East Flatbush, and Kingsborough Psychiatric Center Urban Oasis in Crown Heights). Both Wyckoff and Kingsborough run markets in neighborhood with significant Caribbean immigrant populations
Areas needing additional study
As previously mentioned, we began selling wreathes of leaves and vines at the market in the early fall, and sold the dried leaves at the market in the late fall. These sold well, and additional research could be conducted to explore what other products could be derived from the bitter melon and successfully marketed to our Caribbean customers.