February 15, 2005

Vegetable growers: Rake in the green Plant heirloom tomatoes and sweet potatoes

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Given a choice between old and new, most folks would go for the old — at least as far as tomatoes are concerned.

“When we surveyed consumers, the top pick was red heirloom tomatoes — 79 percent said they were most likely to purchase them,” said Alan Walters, Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s veggie expert.

“Only 27 would buy the red hybrid tomatoes that you typically find on supermarket shelves — that was somewhat surprising.”

Last October, as part of a specialty crops study funded by the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s Conservation 2000 Sustainable Agriculture Grant Program and the Illinois Council for Food and Agricultural Research, Walters’ former graduate student Mark F. Rundle of West Frankfort handed out questionnaires to shoppers at the Priced Right Grocery in Centralia, the Carbondale Farmers Market and the Hawkins family farm market in Dix. The questionnaires aimed to identify high-value vegetable crops that Illinois farmers could sell locally. A total of 90 customers (30 from each place) filled out the form.

Of the 20 specialty items offered to the shoppers, sweet potatoes took the No. 2 slot with 70 percent of consumers interested in buying them. Garlic, with 57 percent, came next, followed by

specialty lettuces (56 percent) and personal-sized watermelons (48 percent). Another 41 percent

were interested in specialty squash (the kind you can use in seasonal decorations), while 38 percent bought colored bell peppers.

“Most of these can be used in multiple ways, and people know how to prepare them,” Walters said.

Lack of familiarity could explain the relative unpopularity of kohlrabi (a turnip-like veggie that Walters said has far more flavor than the one it resembles), Asian eggplant (purple but pickle-shaped) and leek, a member of the onion family that looks like a scallion on steroids. Kohlrabi and Asian eggplant attracted only 10 percent of the consumers, while 11 percent expressed interest in leeks.

But Walters was puzzled by the low ratings (17 percent) for fingerling white potatoes.

“These are really good — much better than your normal white potato — and easy to prepare,” he said.

“They’re also easy to grow, and they yield like crazy. They should have potential if people were willing to buy them.”

More than half those questioned didn’t know much about the specialty crops they saw on the display table, and 73 percent said they would buy more if the produce came with recipes when they bought it.

“So my next project on the CFAR grant will be to develop brochures with information on their nutritional value, and how to use them, along with some recipes,” Walter said.

“We can’t do it for every crop, but we could do it for a few, and we shouldn’t need very many because after the first time or two, the buyers won’t need the brochure.”

In the meantime, Walters is sharing his findings about consumer preferences with such groups as the Illinois Specialty Growers and the Southern Illinois Vegetable School.

“We’re trying to point producers toward marketable crops that are easy to grow on a small amount of land without a lot of pesticides,” he said.