Engaging South Asian growers and customers in fresh vegetable production

Final Report for ONE16-274

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $14,784.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2017
Grant Recipient: East New York Farms!
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
David Vigil
East New York Farms!
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Project Information


Our project worked with customers and growers in the South Asian community to better understand their interests and needs. We surveyed 40 South Asian growers about their crop selection, growing spaces, and and resource needs.  We surveyed 40 South Asian customers about their vegetable purchasing habits.  From this data, we developed a crop guide for growing South Asian vegetables in the Northeast featuring 11 unique and marketable crops. We also developed a write-up of the findings of our customer surveys.


We aim to address the following questions with our project: What crops are most popular with South Asian growers and consumers? What are the best strategies to support growers? What barriers are there for experienced growers from South Asia for getting involved in farmers' markets?

We will survey growers from South Asia to find out where they grow, what they are growing, how much space they have, and what resources they need to produce more for market. We will survey customers from South Asia to find out what crops they are buying, what they would like to see more of in the market, and what their vegetable purchasing habits are.

We will produce two guides as part of our project. The first will profile 10-15 popular South Asian specialty crops that can be grown in the Northeast, such as bitter melon, hyacinth beans, bottle gourd, jute, etc.  The guide will provide tips on cultivation, names of the plants in South Asian languages, and sources for seeds and plants. The second will be a report on the findings from our survey with growers, and recommendations for how to build connections between farmers' markets and growers and customers from South Asia.

Our project would contribute a unique perspective to an established field of knowledge, and it would benefit both new and experienced farmers, extension agents, and customers seeking access to locally-grown foods that are culturally appropriate. Engaging more South Asian immigrants as growers will increase family incomes, and the wider variety of produce available at local markets will allow more families to eat local, seasonal food.  In addition, some South Asian crops such as bitter melon, yard-long beans, and malabar spinach are popular with Caribbean customers. Increasing supply of and demand for these crops will be beneficial to consumers and producers of these products, which currently make up a small percentage of the farmers’ market volume.

Project Objectives:
  • We hired two Bengali-speaking specialists, both graduates of our youth internship program, to administer 80 surveys in Bengali.
  • We surveyed 40 Bangladeshi growers in East New York and collected data on growing space, crops grown, outlets for distribution of produce, and resources needed.
  • We surveyed 40 Bangladeshi consumers in shopping centers; 20 at various farmers markets in Eastern Brooklyn and Queens, 10 at supermarkets, and 10 at green grocers. We collected data on shopping behavior (including frequency and location of shopping event), produce preferences, and reasons for shopping choices.
  • We produced a South Asian crop guide featuring 11 specialty crops and relevant cultural information. We also produced a short paper about our findings to help strengthen connections between South Asian growers and markets.


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  • Kendra Ellis


Materials and methods:

April-May 2016: David Vigil (ENYF Project Director) and Kendra Ellis (Youth Farm Manager) designed grower and shopper surveys.  Outreach specialist was hired. Outreach specialists were both bilingual in English and Bengali, so there was no need to translate the survey into Bengali.  Using our member database, we assembled a list of potential contacts for the survey.

May-June 2016: We hired our first outreach specialist, Afroza Sultana, an alumna of our youth program who also grows produce with her family. She was given 40 printed surveys and a list of community contacts. With the support of Vigil and Ellis, Sultana administered the surveys, visited home gardens, and took photos of study participants in their gardens.

June-September 2016: Ellis designed the shopper survey to be administered at the ENY Farmers’ Market and at local produce outlets and retail areas.  The survey was accompanied by a stack of photos to aid in communication during survey administration. Due to professional and academic demands, Sultana was unable to continue as outreach specialist. We were able to hire her brother, Minhazul Abedin, also an alumnus of our youth program, to administer the consumer surveys.

October 2016: Abedin finished administering the consumer surveys.

November-December 2016: Ellis began analyzing the results and initiated the process of crafting the crop guide and research summary.

January-February 2017: Ellis completes South Asian crop guide and research findings. Workshop planned for May 2017 on growing South Asian crops in the Northeast.


Research results and discussion:

All of the gardeners surveyed grew in their backyards rather than in community gardens, using spaces ranging from 50 ft2 to 1800 ft2. 8% of gardeners already grow to sell, and another 15% said they were interested in selling at a farmers markets, but the vast majority of gardeners grow only for their families (92%) and are uninterested in selling at a farmers market (85%). 27.5% of gardeners had been growing for 2-5 years, 35% for 6-9 years, and 37.5% for over 10 years. Over 90% of gardeners grow tomatoes, long purple eggplant, peppers, beans, peas, gourds (specifically bitter melon, bottle gourd, and luffa), pumpkin, squash, cucumber, greens, and cilantro. Around 50% grew scallions, turnips, carrots, radishes, and okra, and around 20% grew cabbage, onions, garlic, beets, and sweet potatoes.

The needs that came up as the most important to growers were, in order of importance: 1) Access to seeds and growing material, 2) access to trellising materials including nets and posts, 3) access to growing space, 4) soil and fertilizer, and 5) access to water.

The vast majority of consumers engaged in one food shopping trip per week. All participants regularly shopped at the supermarket, around 70% shopped at convenience stores  or bodegas, and around 50% frequented farmers markets and bulk stores. The reasons for choosing these locations are listed here in order of importance: the selection and quality of produce offered, the convenience of the location, low prices, and community participation. The majority of shoppers purchase for 4-6 people and 50-79% of the produce they eat is fresh, as opposed to frozen, dried, or canned.

The majority of shoppers who were surveyed at farmers markets heard about them through their friends or family. Their favorite components of the farmers markets were, in order of popularity: variety and freshness of produce, and affordability of merchandise. The most popular requests for improvement of food shopping centers (general category) were: more local, fresh, organic produce, availability of more South Asian spices and produce, greater variety of peppers, and availability of fruits, honey, and fresh bread. The most common requests for farmers market specifically were Bengali translators and expanded market hours and days per week.

Many of the crops included in our surveys share a similar popularity between consumers and growers (see attached graph at the end for details). One notable thing about this data is that consumers listed specialty ethnic crops, including beans, gourds, and squash, as something that they purchase with much less frequency than the rate at which local gardeners choose to grow them. This may be the result of the lack of availability of these specialty crops in food shopping sites.

Our surveys found that there is a base of South Asian consumers that are dissatisfied with the availability of fresh, culturally appropriate produce offered in East New York, and an accompanying population of South Asian growers that are producing these sought after crops only for the consumption of their own families.

Attached are graphs of crop popularity by type among growers for both beans and greens, and a graph comparing popularity of crop by type between growers and consumers: CropVarietiesPlantedbySouthAsianGrowers

Research conclusions:

Perhaps the most disheartening finding from this study was that the vast majority of South Asian growers in East New York show little to no interest in participating in the local market systems that we are trying to promote. Possible reasons for this include limitation of growing space, economic inviability, time constraints, lack of awareness of selling opportunities, and lack of social connectedness to local farmers markets. One way that the final reason might initially be addressed at farmers markets is by having Bengali and Hindi translations of signs, encouraging South Asian vendors to have stands. Specifically at our East New York Farmers Market, we can hire youth interns that speak Bengali and can act as translators for market interactions.

In terms of gardener support, almost all of the needs that came up for the gardeners surveyed are resources that we provide at East New York Farms!, however the outreach that is done for our resource giveaway events, workshops, and our mini-grant application process are all conducted in English. Offering translated materials and interpretation at workshops, possibly through a partnership with a local South Asian cultural-based organization, would make these services more accessible to South Asian growers and would help to foster a sense of camaraderie and trust between the South Asian gardener community and our network of gardeners and market vendors. Any opportunities for building partnerships between South Asian cultural based organizations and organizations that support urban gardening and local food systems is crucial for increasing the participation of South Asian consumers and growers in farmers markets.

Participation Summary
40 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

We have developed and printed a detailed crop guide for the specialty crops that show promise for economic success in local South Asian markets. These crops include long beans, seim beans, winged beans, hyacinth beans, bitter melon, luffa, bottle gourd, snake gourd, lambs quarters, jute, malabar spinach, and dasheen. We plan to develop a version translated into Bengali, which will be distributed at our farmers markets, workshops, and at gatherings held in partnership with Bangladeshi American Community Development and Youth Services (BACDYS).

Our crop guide is be available for download on our website, and we are announcing it via our listserve reaching over 4000 individuals and our Facebook page with 2000+ likes.  We are hosting a workshop in May 2017 about growing South Asian crops where will distribute the guide.  Our research will be submitted for a workshop at a future conference later in 2017 or early 2018.



Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Economic limitations clearly play a role in the decisionmaking processes of both South Asian growers and consumers. 80% of participants in the consumer survey said that low prices were a main reason for choosing the location where they shopped. Although this was not a specific area of inquiry for our study, it can be assumed that economic limitations may contribute to the reality that most local South Asian gardeners are choosing not to participate in local markets. To produce the quantities necessary to both feed one’s family and sell at market, many of these growers would have to expand their growing space and time investment. Access to urban growing space can be expensive, time consuming to manage, and/or challenging for non-English speaking gardeners who may have difficulty navigating the urban bureaucracies that govern community green spaces. In the face of these limitations, growers might have to charge high prices for their produce to break even on their temporal and financial investments. For the majority of the crops mentioned in this study, growers would be competing with products of the neoliberal food regime, which has flooded local markets with artificially cheap imported produce. With low prices as a major motivator for local South Asian shoppers, selling locally grown South Asian produce does not seem like an economically promising venture.

However, growers interested in market production can shift their focus to the crops that aren’t available at other non-local food shopping sites. As demonstrated in the figure above (“Crop Popularity Among South Asian Consumers and Growers”), these crops include the specialty beans, gourds, and squash described in our crop guide. When taken out of competition with the global food system, these urban growers might have a chance at economic success.

Farmer Adoption

Enlightened by the findings of this study, this year we plan to offer more resources (seeds, trellising materials etc.) and support for gardeners who are interested in growing these specialty crops. We will offer specialty gourds and greens at our annual plant sale, and seeds for the beans at other workshops throughout the year. At the UCC Youth farm we will be growing jute for the first time, and will continue growing bottle gourd, malabar spinach, dasheen, bitter melon, hyacinth beans, and lambs quarters. We also hope that farmers outside of our immediate network will be able to make use of this guide.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

As was noted above, one area of additional study would be to explore underlying reasons that South Asian growers are uninterested in selling their produce at local markets. This is both an area of study and an opportunity for further development and strengthening of the bonds between different food-focused communities in East New York. Ultimately, we would like to develop a market system that is sustained by a healthy flow of social and cultural capital. This model diverges from the larger economic system, which is driven almost entirely by financial capital and takes little else into consideration. Thus, study and work remains to be done with regards to shifting the paradigm of local growers and consumers toward an understanding of the marketplace as an exchange of culture, ideas, values, and friendship, rather than a mere exchange of currency and merchandise.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.