Direct Marketing Assessment for the Potential of Ethnic Crops

Final Report for OS02-005

Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2002: $9,775.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Jason Murray
Virginia Cooperative Extension
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Project Information


This project is in response to two trends in the Washington, DC area. First, ethnic demographics represent an increasing population surrounding Washington, DC. Second, American consumers in this region are expressing increasing interest in cultural diversification of the foods they eat. This project, publicly promoted as the “World Produce Project”, attempted to connect various consumer groups with produce that matches their cultural heritage; as well as facilitate transition of existing consumers to diversified products. Hispanic, Asian, and African products were of primary interest.

This educational research project quantified direct marketing sales and production potential from three farmers to identify new crops that may be highly profitable for local farmers in direct marketing. Markets for promotional activity were selected based on geography and demographics – including Columbia Pike and Arlington. In brief conclusion, there was greater success educating existing market customers to utilize “new” and “unique” products than in actually matching these products with their cultural demographic groups. Community groups were involved with cooking demonstrations and direct promotion – but did not readily initiate a consumer habit of buying at the markets. Our “high-end” producers were only interested in the high return from direct marketing, while the targeted ethnic groups tended to utilize lower cost ethnic grocery stores. These ethnic grocery stores did not offer prices to our producers adequate to lead to sales through the grocery stores.

Many ethnic crops can be profitable; however, quantity of production may be limited by direct marketing potential. Data presented illustrates for this project the limited capability of many of these crops in terms of sales volume. The project included a diversity of promotional strategies under the direction of promotional consultant Kelly Luck. Promotional mechanisms, identified through community focus groups, were found to be most successful by direct entry into the community – including community group meetings, cooking demonstrations, and local advertising. Surveys were conducted at the markets as well to assess consumer characteristics. The educational premise of the project included on-farm tours of the crops, a bus tour of specialty crops, and presentations at farming conferences.


Population growth in the Washington, D.C. area is experiencing increases in ethnic demographics. Increases are evident in Hispanic, African, and Asian populations. This project was developed based on connecting these consumer groups with vegetable products that match their cultural interests. The overall intention was to create awareness of availability of these products in order to assess the ability to connect the products and consumers via surveys. The primary means for sales potential was evaluation of gross returns at Farmers Markets.

While the origination of the project was to connect ethnic consumers to respective produce, this project also evaluated the ability to transition existing market customers to “new” or “unique” products. This is in response to interest of the general population for a broadening of food choices, in effect being an increase in interest in foods of other cultures.

To satisfy these two different situations, two distinct farmers markets were selected for evaluation. The Columbia Pike Farmers Market was identified by advisory groups as being nestled within a community with ethnic diversity. The Arlington Farmers Market was selected as an affluent market to assess potential of transitioning existing customers to new products.

Crop production, yields, and gross returns data were collected. This can offer insight to the relative profitability on a ‘per area’ basis of the crops selected for evaluation. Furthermore, production data combined with sales potential can be utilized in the future for farmer adoption in determination of appropriate quantities of products to produce.

A wide array of promotional mechanisms was implemented to draw ethnic community into the markets. These techniques are summarized in the methods section of this report, and the comprehensive report on promotional strategies implemented is available in hard copy in the final report as conducted by Kelly Luck. Surveys at the farmers markets were conducted to determine efficacy of the promotional mechanisms to connect the consumers with respective products.

Finally, educational outreach was conducted in venues such as conference presentations, field days, specialty crops bus tour, and written reports. Handouts accompanied these presentations and may be utilized in the future for Extension Bulletins.

Project Objectives:

Objective One: Identify produce of interest to ethnic demographic community in which this project will operate.

Objective two: Data collection for selected ethnic vegetable crops. Identify planting specifications, production and harvesting timelines, yields, sales quantities, price per unit sold. Use this data to establish potential returns per acre (or per square foot) in evaluation of profitability, as well as to identify ideal production quantities based upon sales potential.

Objective three: Implementation of market and product promotional mechanisms; followed by surveys to assess the characteristics of the consumers at the markets. This offers insight to the efficacy of promotional mechanisms to either bring new ethnic consumers into the market, and/or efficacy of transitioning existing market consumers to “new” or “unique” products.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Tony Bratsch
  • Haroun Hallack
  • Kelly Luck
  • David Myers
  • Peter Perkins
  • Charles Planck
  • Stephan Tubene
  • Tom Tyler


Materials and methods:

Objective one. Focus groups were conducted in the community surrounding the Columbia Pike Farmers Market. These groups were facilitated by Tom Tyler of Arlington County Cooperative Extension. Community leaders representing the demographics of the community assisted in developing the volunteer group for the focused discussions. Dialogue focused upon products the community members desired, based upon their heritage, which may or may not already be available to them in the community.

Objective two. Cooperating farmers, in dialogue with Cooperative Extension cooperators, decided upon a selected list of the potential crops to produce on their farms, leading to sale at the two identified farmers markets. These lists were utilized in objective three during the promotional phase of the project. Data was collected for seeding dates and rates, spacing, production systems, timing of yields, quantity of yields, and sales volumes and price. Collected data was organized in spreadsheets for computations including: gross returns per acre or square foot, gross returns per acre or square foot per day, as well as assessment of maximum sales potential.

Objective three. Promotional mechanisms were solely organized and implemented by outreach coordinator Kelly Luck, of which all information pertaining to objective three was carried out by her diligence. Outreach into the community was primarily by human interaction in the community as was expressed to be the most effective mechanism by community leaders. A logo was created as well as a website ( for static information on the project. Neighborhood groups and community newsletters were engaged to spread the word in the community as to the availability of crops that match the ethnic demographics of the community, available at the identified farmers markets, along with timeline of availability. Cultural events in the areas surrounding the farmers markets were utilized for announcements and fliers concerning the project. Two press releases were published amongst five local newspapers. Fliers were distributed though local organizations such as Seniors organizations, food assistance groups, cultural organizations, libraries, bookstores, coffee houses, apartments, etc. Recipe sheets were distributed at the markets and via many of the same venues as the fliers. Cooking demonstrations were conducted in community centers and cultural group meeting places. Coupons and gift certificates were distributed though many of the same venues afore mentioned. Surveys were conducted to assess the characteristics of the participants at the farmers markets, notably individuals who either purchased or expressed interest in the ethnic vegetables. All of the outreach and promotional mechanisms are documented in further detail as an addendum to the final report submitted in hard copy to Southern SARE – as written by Kelly Luck. This includes the actual press releases, fliers, newspaper articles, gift certificates, coupons, and information on cooking demonstrations. The surveys and the survey results are also enclosed in the hard copy report available through SARE with the final report on this project.

Research results and discussion:

Objective one. Crops identified of interest based upon ethnic community focus group include: abas; acelga; amaranth greens; bitter melons; bok choi; bush beans; caihue; corn including motte and purple; cucumbers including Burpless or European, striped Armenian, Asian, middle eastern; herbs including episote, oreganos, cilantro, chervil, Mexican sage, lemon grass, basils; Italian beet; Italian kale; Italian largo squash; kohlrabi; melloca potato; melons including Asian, Italian, French; middle eastern squash; okra; oriental cabbage; papalisa tuber; peppers including serano chili, ricoto hot chile, panca chile, poblano, jalapeno, habanero, cayenne, ancho; prickly pear cactus; purple Asian eggplant; quinoa; quirquina; radishes including daikon and German; red shiro; tomatillos; tomillo; tot soi; zapayo.

Objective two. Production in 2003 of vegetable crops was difficult to assess due to the record quantity of precipitation during the year and the resulting impact on crop production. Several crops altogether failed. While other crops were difficult to assess in terms of production per unit area due to inconsistencies in crop survival in the research plots. Each farmer reported the data to the best of his/her abilities considering the year’s complications.

Red Rake Farm
The complete data set is available in the hard copy of the report submitted to SARE and is available upon request. Red Rake Farm data reflects participation at the Arlington Farmers Market. Data for each variety included: quantity of plants produced and the relative production area in square feet, quantity of harvested units, quantity of sold units, average price per unit, total revenue, length of production season, and plant spacing. From this data calculations included: gross revenue per square foot, gross revenue extrapolated to ‘per acre’, number of days of production, and finally combining those calculations to determine gross revenue per square foot per day. The various calculations allow insight into profitability comparisons if only one crop was produced on that area per season, or including duration of growing cycle to assess profitability oi multiple crops were to be grown on that same location during one season. There are only minor differences between those two calculations. Note: in Red Rake Farm data the 'per-square-foot' data is of actual growing space of the rows of plants and is not including any aisles/middles. A summary of the data follows.

Failed crops include: Beet, Bok Choi, Brussel Sprouts, Bush Beans, Italian Melons, Japanese Eggplant, Kale, Kohlrabi, Mid-East Squash, and Red Shiro.

(Plant) (Harvested) (Unit) (Sold) (Sq. Ft.) ($/sq. ft.) (Cents/sq. ft /day)
Basil (8 varieties) 500 Bunches 500 600 $1.67 1.23
Greek Oregano 50 Bunches 50 70 $1.43 1.06
Italian Parsley 150 Bunches 150 300 $1.00 0.74
Greek Oregano 80 Plants 40 200 $0.60 0.44
Cilantro 80 Bunches 80 270 $0.59 1.32
Italian Sweet Peppers 25 Pounds 25 120 $0.52 0.43
Tomatillo 200 Pounds 125 700 $0.45 0.30
Chervil 60 Bunches 60 270 $0.44 0.99
Italian Oregano 140 Plants 40 270 $0.44 0.33
German Radish 100 Pounds 35 200 $0.35 0.58
Okra 225 Pounds 200 2800 $0.29 0.17
Episote 20 Plants 20 270 $0.22 0.30
Daikon Radish 100 Pounds 20 200 $0.20 0.44
Thai & Mexican Hot Peppers 20 Pounds 15 200 $0.19 0.10
Mexican Sage 25 Bunches 25 270 $0.19 0.21
Mexican Mint Oregano 120 Bunches 20 270 $0.15 0.11
Asian Melons 200 Pounds 200 4000 $0.08 0.07
French Melons 40 Pounds 40 4000 $0.02 0.02

Wheatland Vegetable Farm
Wheatland focused production upon three primary crops. Data collection reflections participation at both the Arlington and Columbia Pike Farmers Market. The primary crops include: specialty cucumbers, okra, and Lebanese zucchini.

Specialty Cucumbers. Productions was a mix of 35% European/Burpless, 18% Picklers, 14% Asian, 11% Middle Eastern, 11% American, and 11% Striped Armenian. Production is 18 inch double rows on 1.5 foot wide plastic with rows spaced 7 foot on center. Middles/Aisles were straw mulched. Plantings were covered with remay until harvest to minimize loss to Cucumber Beetle. 0.33 Acres harvested over five weeks from July 21 to August 24. Yields are measured by half bushel, at approximately 18 pounds per ½ bushel. Early season prices were as high as $1.90 per pound, and decreased to $1.50 through the season as available quantities increased. From 0.33 acre: 704 half bushels were harvested of which 522 were sold equating to 9939 pounds (approximately a 74% sales rate). Gross income from 0.33 acre totaled $15,390. Extrapolated to one acre would be approximately $48,000. This is approximately $1.06 per square foot. Note: contrary to the Red Rake Farm data, the area of production to generate the 'per-square-foot' calculation does include space for aisles/middles.

Okra. Plants were spaced at 1.5 feet in row and 6 feet between rows. Aisles/middles were straw mulched. Harvest must be done with long sleeves and pants. Data collected is for 0.33 acre from August 4 to August 31. Half bushels harvested is 112.5, of which 98 were sold representing a sales rate of 88%. At approximately 14 pounds per half bushel this equals 1369 pounds sold, at a price ranging from $6.00 per pound early season to $3.25 per pound as the season progressed. Gross revenue from 0.33 acre was $5,731. However grower input suggests that the harvest season is far beyond this time period. Harvest progression assumes that during July the plants are at 50% productivity while August and September are at full production, and potential exists to harvest though fall frost. On this assumption grower input suggest gross revenue for this same 0.33 acre for the entire harvest period would be approximately 291 half bushels harvested and gross revenue of $14,000. Extrapolated to one acre would equal $43,000, and approximately $0.99 per square foot. Note: the area in these calculations includes aisles/middles.

Lebanese Zucchini. 0.25 acre planting with management similar to okra and cucumbers. Harvest period spanning August 11 through September 21, which is a typical six week harvest window for Lebanese Zucchini. Half Bushels harvested was 229 of which 175 were sold equating to 78% sales rate. At approximately 24 pounds per half bushel total sales was 4206 pounds. Price per pound ranged from $1.50 to $1.90. Gross revenue for 0.25 acre was $6,777. Extrapolated to one acre equals 916 harvested bushels and gross return of $27,000, and approximately $0.62 per square foot. Note: the area in these calculations includes aisles/middles.

Red Bud Farm
Products included Amaranth Greens, Bok Choi, and Habanero Peppers, participating at the Columbia Pike Farmers Market. Sales of Amaranth Greens ranged from 18 to 47 bunches per week, totaling 204 bunches, at $2.00 per bunch, and thus $408 for the season. Bok Choi sold in heads ranged from 8 to 50 per week, totaling 207 heads for the season at $2.00 per head and $414. Habanero peppers ranged from 2 to 20 pounds sold per week, with a total of 37 pounds sold for the season at price ranging from $2.00 to $5.00 per pound, totaling $134 for the season.

Objective three. Identical surveys were conducted at both farmers markets to assess impacts of promotional mechanisms. Complete copy of survey and results are included in hard copy available through SARE upon request. Sample size: Columbia Pike (CP): 66, Arlington (AR), 35. The collected data offers the conclusion that comprehensive, targeted, and persistent promotional mechanisms are unable to attract new customers to the market form the ethnic demographic community. It appears that a minority of the consumer base is interested in the ethnic vegetables, but those who are interested are somewhat consistent. Simultaneously it was made clear that there are other venues from which the clientele acquires the produce they desire. The majority of the consumer do drive to the market, and very few live within a few blocks of the market. Hence having a market nestled in an ethnic community does not seem to draw that consumer base into the market.

Summary of data:
How you heard about the market?
Word of mouth CP = 36% AR = 51%
Just passing by CP = 41% AR = 14%
Community CenterCP = 2% AR = 3%
Flyers CP = 2% AR = 3%
Newspaper CP = 8% AR = 9%
Coupons CP = 8% AR = 0%
Other CP = 15% AR = 20%

Are you aware of the world produce project?
Yes CP = 12% AR = 11%
No CP = 88% AR = 89%

Rating of availability/selection of foods important to your culture.
Very good CP = 62% AR = 80%
OK CP = 36% AR = 20%
Not so good CP = 0% AR = 0%
No answer CP = 2% AR = 0%

How often have you bought these items at this farmers market this season?
Tomatillos regularly CP = 3% AR = 3%
Tomatillos sometimes CP = 14% AR = 14%
Hot Peppers regularly CP = 14% AR = 9%
Hot Peppers sometimes CP = 23% AR = 20%
Okra regularly CP = 9% AR = 11%
Okra sometimes CP = 23% AR = 11%
Amaranth Greens regularly CP = 3% AR = 0%
Amaranth Greens sometimes CP = 6% AR = 9%
Middle East Squash regularly CP = 6% AR = 0%
Middle East Squash sometimes CP = 14% AR = 23%
Oriental Cabbage regularly CP = 0% AR = 0%
Oriental Cabbage sometimes CP = 12% AR = 14%
Bitter Melons regularly CP = 2% AR = 6%
Bitter Melons sometimes CP = 5% AR = 3%
Hispanic Herbs regularly CP = 12% AR = 14%
Hispanic Herbs sometimes CP = 27% AR = 29%
Asian Herbs regularly CP = 9% AR = 14%
Asian Herbs sometimes CP = 30% AR = 34%

Do you normally eat other specialty/ethnic produce that you obtain from elsewhere?
Yes CP = 47% AR = 46%
No CP = 44% AR = 43%

Would you shop more at the Farmers Market if you were offered more variety of ethnic produce?
Yes CP = 35% AR = 26%
No CP = 48% AR = 54%
Maybe CP = 6% AR = 3%

About how far do you live from this market?
Few Blocks CP = 6% AR = 11%
Less than 5 miles CP = 27% AR = 51%
5 miles or more CP = 11% AR = 20%

How did you get to the market today?
Car CP = 88% AR = 66%
Metro Bus CP = 2% AR = 0%
MARC Train CP = 0% AR = 3%
Walked CP = 6% AR = 14%
Bicycle CP = 0% AR = 3%
No Answer CP = 3% AR = 0%
Other CP = 2% AR = 3%

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

This project was comprehensively presented at the Virginia Grown Conference January 21, 2004 in Richmond, Virginia, and was accompanied by a handout depicting all direct data from the project. This information was made available to conference administrators for inclusion in the conference proceedings. The project may also in the future be integrated into a Virginia Tech Bulletin on Specialty Vegetables. Furthermore the promotional aspects of the project were reported in the Virginia Small Fruits, Vegetables, and Specialty Crops Newsletter.

A farm field day was conducted at Wheatland Vegetable Farms to highlight the Ethnic Vegetables Project. This event attracted more than 40 farmers from the rural area west of Washington, D.C. Farmer education emphasized production techniques and marketing issues.

Finally, a ‘Specialty Crops Bus Tour’ visited the Maryland Research & Education Center ‘Specialty Crops’ research plots in Upper Marlboro, Maryland; Davon Crest Farm in Hurlock, Maryland; and the Cheltenham Produce Auction in Cheltenham, Maryland. These tour stops demonstrated a wide range of the crops integrated in this project as well as a wealth of alternative ideas for niche production. In addition to the crop production focus of the tour, a variety of marketing mechanisms were explored ranging from direct marketing, to ‘high-end’ restaurant sales, and finally wholesales systems.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Objective One: Crops of interest to the ethnic demographic community, the farming community, and the existing market consumer were identified and reported in the results section above. This offers insight to potential crops to select from. Objective two further facilitates decision of quantity that may be reasonably produced based on sales potential.

Objective Two: Peter Perkins of Red Rake Farm summarizes the recommendations associated with this project as illustrating the need for a broad marketing mix that caters to the varied demands of the consumer groups. The crops produced at Red Rake Farm varied in gross return per square foot; however, lower sales of one crop are not necessarily negative. Knowledge of sales potential may indicate that lower quantities should be produced of lesser value crops as they may be a major advantage to drawing customers to your Farm Market Stand leading to sales of the more profitable crops.

Charles And Susan Planck of Wheatland Vegetable Farms select crops that satisfy some combination of higher yields as well as higher sales potential. The cucumbers produced are an example. At the Farmers Markets the major emphasis is allowing existing customers to taste the products, which frequently leads to transitioning the customer from one type of cucumber to another based on quality. For example the Asian Cucumber ‘Orient Express’ has high yields and is popular at the market. This could be suggested as a good option for farmer adoption. Simultaneously the ‘Marketing Mix’ still maintains its importance. The diversity in cucumbers alone illustrates the broad range of consumer preference.

Wheatland Vegetable Farms emphasized data collection in this project of various cucumbers, okra, and Lebanese zucchini. These were selected as good candidates for broad farmer adoption and offer the most comprehensive data set in the full hard copy of the report.

Objective Three: Survey data collection indicated that the extensive marketing efforts were not truly successful at connecting the ethnic demographic consumer with the produce available at local markets that relates to their interests. The complete report on comprehensive promotional efforts conducted by Kelly Luck is included in the hard copy of the report. The general conclusion was that greater success was achieved transitioning existing market consumers to new products, rather than drawing the ethnic community into the markets.

Economic Analysis

Data in results section with more complete data in hard copy of report available through SARE upon request.

Farmer Adoption

See Impacts and Results Section.


Areas needing additional study

Yield data should be repeated. This data was collected during the 2003 growing season which had excessive levels of precipitation. Frequently crops either failed, were repeatedly replanted, and/or were grown and harvested weeks behind a typical production schedule.

Economic potential for wholesale production of ethnic crops may be beneficial. Frequently the targeted consumers in this study expressed their preference to acquire their specialty produce at ‘ethnic grocery stores’ where costs were lower than farmers markets. Furthermore, sales mechanisms other than farmers markets may be investigated to determine if other ways are more effective at connecting the ethnic consumer to ethnic produce.

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.