Saturday, August 22, 2009

Feeding a More Diverse Market

Aaron Houston for The New York Times
FLAVORS OF HOME Evergreen Farm, owned by Sun Yi and Chong Il Kim, grows Korean pears on trees supported by trellises.

Published: August 21, 2009

Hamilton Township

Aaron Houston for The New York Times

Aaron Houston for The New York Times
It also produces white peaches.

THE pear trees are trained to grow up and over the long rows of trellises that stretch across this old soybean farm near Trenton, and as they have matured in the dozen years since Chong Il Kim planted them, they have formed a leafy arch just tall enough to let his maroon Ford pickup pass beneath.

Mr. Kim, 59, bounced gently along behind the wheel one recent morning, the shady aisle reaching ahead of him like the nave of a church. The round, green Korean pears he was inspecting were approaching the size of tennis balls. In a matter of weeks, they would be worth as much as $3 apiece to fans of Asian fruit, who find nothing to match their flavor in domestic varieties.

“Looks good so far,” Mr. Kim said, and when he reached the end of one corridor of pears, he turned and drove slowly down another, enveloped by his crop. From the distance beyond a tall tree line rose a steady hum: the river of traffic along the New Jersey Turnpike, which marks the western border of his 140-acre orchard. “This is good here, better than California.”

Elsewhere on Evergreen Farm, other fruits were ripening, too. The plums were ready to pick, and the season’s first customers had arrived for them the previous Sunday. The peaches would soon be ripe, then the grapes and the apples. But the pears are the marquee fruit here — covering about 70 percent of the orchard and, since it opened to the public three years ago, luring a steady stream of mostly Asian customers with the chance to pick for themselves a taste of their old home.

“When someone’s going to eat one for the first time, I say, ‘Just close your eyes and imagine you’re tasting a melon from another planet,’” said Dan Ward, a fruit specialist with the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. “‘Sprightly’ is the word I sometimes use to describe the sensation of that first bite. It releases a lot of juice in your mouth.”

Korean pears are rounder, greener, crisper, sweeter, juicier (“sparkly” is another adjective Mr. Ward likes) than the more familiar varieties, and closer in texture to an apple. They are also much costlier: a serve-to-guests luxury, not a brown-bag-lunch commodity, the kind of specialty crop for a specialty market that has altered New Jersey’s agricultural landscape in recent years.

Every license plate in New Jersey is a reminder of the state’s historical role as the market garden for New York and Philadelphia, before suburbanization gobbled up the fields, and refrigerated transport allowed produce to travel here from distant locations. Sweet corn and tomatoes still define summer in the state, but they have been joined by cilantro, bok choy, calabaza, jalapeños and Mr. Kim’s pears.

“Those are the kind of crops that really are well suited to New Jersey,” Mr. Ward said. “Niche-marketed crops with high value that really have an advantage in being produced locally.”

As the state’s population has diversified, so has its diet and its produce-buying, according to a three-year federally funded study about ethnic agriculture by a group of Rutgers researchers. “One of the surprising results of our survey was that the four key groups, which represent several million people on the East Coast, spend much more of their food dollar on fresh produce compared to the average American,” said Bill Sciarappa, a Rutgers extension agent in Monmouth County, referring to the shopping habits of those with Puerto Rican, Mexican, Asian Indian and Chinese ancestry.

And they’ll go farther to get it. “They’ll travel 20 miles to get their specific fruit or vegetable,” Mr. Sciarappa said.

When the pears are ready at Evergreen Farm, by early to mid September, the customers soon follow, Korean and Chinese mostly, from as far as Virginia and Connecticut. Asked how many pears the farm sells in a year, the general manager, Alexander Joo, said, “That’s confidential.”

“A lot of people come,” said Mr. Joo, 39, a former Seventh-day Adventist minister. (Mr. Kim is also a Seventh-day Adventist, so the farm is closed on Saturdays, the denomination’s Sabbath.) “They come a long way to be here, so they bring food, have picnics.”

Mr. Kim grew up on his father’s orchard an hour south of Seoul, and came to the United States in 1986 in search of more land and new markets. “Too cold,” he said of the first place he tried, Middletown, N.Y. “For Korean pears, it can’t be too cold.”

Shamong, in Burlington County, was more hospitable. Mr. Kim and his wife, Sun Yi, spent 10 years on 10 acres there, planting some of the first Korean pear trees in the state, before shifting the operation to this Mercer County community in 1997. New Jersey no longer budgets enough to fund comprehensive crop counts, but Mr. Ward of Rutgers estimates that there are 200 acres of Asian pear in the state, with more than half of them at Evergreen, the largest grower and — on Sundays in the last weeks of summer and the first of fall, when the cars and buses start streaming in from the neighboring Turnpike — certainly the busiest.

“Almost harvest time,” Mr. Kim said as he bumped slowly beneath another verdant arbor of pears, and the river of traffic rolled by in the distance.


A sampling of farms that grow produce favored by different ethnic groups and that allow customers to pick their own. Always call ahead to see what’s ready.

1023 Yardville-Allentown Road, Hamilton Township;; (609) 259-0029. Closed Saturdays.
Korean pears, Korean peaches and grapes, Chinese cabbage, jujube fruit.

58 West Colliers Mill Road, New Egypt; (609) 758-2424.
Bitter melons, cilantro, Asian long beans, Thai peppers, jute leaves, Thai eggplants, bitter balls (African eggplant), sweet potato leaves.

38 Fischer Road, New Egypt;; (609) 758-8847.
Jamaican hot peppers, bitter balls, kittley (Jamaican eggplant), water greens, sweet potato leaves, jute leaves.