Evaluating bitter melon varieties grown using intensive production methods for yield and Caribbean immigrant customer preference
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 least two varieties (one of each type) to meet the demands of Caribbean immigrant customers. Indications 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.
To establish trials in blocks at three sites
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
All goals were met, except for the last goal. As we had anticipated in our timeline, we are still in the process of analyzing the data, and producing a two page fact sheet for growers.
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 foot 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 8 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. He also accidentally planted one variety that was different than the one planted by Alma Peterkin and Georgine Yorgey. He planted Hong Kong Green, Kiew Yoke, and Taiwan Large. Plants were planted into black plastic, and he 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. Trellises were built in each site after seedlings were planted, and plants were trained onto trellises. Once they 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.
Customer Preference Survey
A short survey was written. Customers at the market were asked to choose their favorite type of bitter melon, and to rank the most important characteristics for them in selecting bitter melon to buy (color, size, texture, firmness, or other). Customers were also given an chance for other feedback, and were asked what other Caribbean crops they would like to see sold at the market. Surveys were given over 6 Saturdays in August and September. A total of 24 customers completed surveys.
Outreach to Caribbean Customers
Once a week, flyers were put up. Each week, we targeted a different section of our neighborhood and surrounding areas. Flyers specifically advertised the fact that we have Caribbean crops for sale. We also specifically targeted Caribbean stores and neighborhoods, distributing 40 color posters to high-traffic locations in Crown Heights and Flatbush, predominantly Caribbean neighborhoods. We also put 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).
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
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. Unanalyzed results suggest that the variety Hybrid Jumbo produced the greatest yields. 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, and 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, trellising the crop. Also, fruits that were hanging were colored much more evenly (whereas fruits often turned white where they touched the ground), and were generally straighter, leading to a more beautiful product.
Customer Preference Survey
All three varieties did about equally well. Of 24 people surveyed, 7 people liked Hybrid Jumbo, 9 people liked Kiew Yoke, and 8 people 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 the two types (the long, thin ones, and 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 (and 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. However, again, different customers had different preferences about what color and size they wanted. For size, 8 said “small” or “short”, while 6 said “long and thin” and only one said “big.” For color, 9 preferred dark green, 2 preferred medium green, and 9 preferred light green. For color, again, customers said 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 customers 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 4-5 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, and sold out at about 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 flyering specifically for bitter melon and other Caribbean crops, we did draw a certain number of customers from Caribbean neighborhoods. However, it was difficult to draw 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 kerala-purchasing customers returned each week. Forty-three precent 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, 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 means. 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 recognized it, stopped to ask us where we had gotten the seed, and what success we had with growing it.
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