by Jane Primerano
Benjamin Franklin called New Jersey a barrel tapped at both ends: New York City and Philadelphia.
For better or worse, this is still true. Many New Jersey farmers take advantage of this by growing specialty crops for the cities’ restaurants. In addition to the lucrative tourist market, the ethnic diversity of the state is creating new markets right here.
Over the past 16 years, Dr. James E. Simon (Dr. Jim) has worked to bring in and improve new crops to suit these markets.
He spoke of some of the new crops he and his staff are working on at the Farm Bureau Convention in Princeton on Tuesday, Nov. 17.
Simon has worked internationally, including a stint at the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and specializes in nutraceutical and aromatic plants. He was then an extension specialist at Purdue University in Indiana for 17 years.
An expertise in international plants and in the customs around them is helpful to American farmers and consumers. Simon said a survey of immigrants from China, from various areas of India and from several Spanish-speaking countries revealed a variety of plants that are used by these ethnic groups. Some have not been traditionally available in New Jersey, but the needs of these groups equal new opportunities for New Jersey growers, he added.
New Jersey is familiar with the development of ethnic crops from the Italian and Eastern European ethnic groups that populated the state in the early 20th Century.
Simon pointed out “a weed is a plant in the wrong spot,” often competing with crops and noted what is a weed to some groups of farmers is a cash crop to others.
The average commercial grower spends a lot of time and money fighting weeds that could actually be turned into cash crops.
“Weed is also a cultural term,” he said.
Amaranth, for example is used in many parts of the world in many different ways. According to a journal article, before the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs toasted amaranth grains like popcorn and mixed it with honey, molasses or chocolate. It is easily harvested, the seeds are a good source of protein and rich in lysine. It is eaten as a leaf vegetable in Indonesia and Malaysia and parts of India and is stir-fried in China.
Excitement about a new crop can generate a more general interest, he said in an interview after his talk.
Awareness of the changing needs of the wider community is coming even to supermarkets, Simon said, as evidenced by the changing allotment of shelf space.
Some “new” crops aren’t new at all, but are variations on a familiar crop. Basil is a staple of much American cooking, but no current commercial variety is resistant to downy mildew. Researchers at Rutgers found a resistant variety, but it doesn’t look or smell like basil.
Graduate student Kathryn Homa worked on basil resistance as her masters project. No genetic engineering is involved, “just old fashioned cross breeding,” Simon said.
“We identified resistant genotypes and tried to move disease resistance into commercial varieties. Through a lot of crossing, we developed resistance,” he said. His lab also breeds for chilling tolerance, although downy mildew resistance took priority. “We are one generation away from being stable. We want zero downy mildew.”
If the success with downy mildew proves anything, it is that genetic research is the way to go, Simon said. He said support for the research came from both the public and private sector.
Research can take other directions as well.
Simon spoke of the research into the nutraceutical properties of oregano which have been known in Europe for years. Two varieties are used by farmers when their animals have illness or wounds. Aquaculture research into the macro- and micro-algae on shellfish is also seeking nutraceutical properties.
Another plant under scrutiny is catnip.
“It acts like cocaine does for humans, it’s very unstable,” Simon said.
Besides giving cats a terrific high, catnip has another valuable characteristic: it repels all sorts of unwanted insects and arachnids. Mosquitoes, houseflies, dust mites, several species of aphids and cockroaches are among the 16 varieties of insects that it keeps away. It also repels deer ticks.
A slight downside is that catnip attracts ALL felines, including bobcats and mountain lions, but research is continuing to possibly separate out varieties that don’t. Some catnips are lovely ornamental plants, he added.
Some county agents around the state are focusing on hops and whether they can be grown profitably in New Jersey’s climate. There is a hop field at Snyder Research Farm in Hunterdon County. Hops can also be grown in greenhouses.
The years working with new crops have not dimmed Simon’s enthusiasm for the field. He even admitted his department is well-funded by the university and grants.