Urbanite finds success growing organic choy for Vancouver market
Entrepreneur fills a gap in the market by producing local, organic Chinese veggies.
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Farming wasn’t the dream career Caroline Chiu’s parents had in mind for their daughter but the budding entrepreneur has found that organic Chinese veggies are a hit in Vancouver.
The 28-year-old started her half-an-acre farm in Richmond, called Riverside Farm, after completing farm school at Kwantlen Polytechnic University two years ago. She tapped into her own commnunity to find success in Vancouver’s rapidly growing local-food scene.
“We grow Chinese vegetables, so a lot of our customers are Chinese because they want those organic Asian greens which you can’t really find anywhere here,” said Chiu.
“When you go to farmers' markets, you don’t see a lot of baby bok choy or gai lan or choy sum, which is what I want to grow because that’s what I eat as a staple green at home.”
But growing Chinese greens, known as “choy,” in the Lower Mainland is not new.
In fact, more than 90 per cent of produce grown in the Lower Mainland in the 1920s was cultivated by Chinese farmers in a system segregated by racist policies of the time, according to historian Kay Anderson, author of Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Even today, some Chinese households continue to cultivate vegetable gardens in their yards, especially in East Vancouver neighbourhoods.
But larger scale Chinese vegetable farms don’t usually follow organic practices, said Chiu.
At Riverside Farm, Chiu grows organic bok choy, gai lan, choy sum, gai choy, and siu choy – staples in any Chinese household.
She delivers those vegetables to 37 families throughout the growing season. She chose to go with a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) model because it would give her a secure form of income. In CSAs, customers pay for the goods upfront and receive product throughout the season.
Chiu also grows Western vegetables like squash and kale, but it was her decision to grow choy that earned her customers. Many of Chiu’s customers came to her specifically because they wanted local organic Chinese vegetables, she said.
It appears other farmers have noticed the demand, too.
Vancouver markets saw a five to 15 per cent increase in the sale of Asian vegetables and a 10 per cent increase in the number of Asian shoppers in 2016, according to Vancouver Farmers' Market.
Chiu sold her vegetables at the Kwantlen Street Farmers' Market last year and says she saw the demand growing first hand. She chatted with Chinese seniors and introduced them to the idea of organic and GMO-free produce.
“There is interest because they come back every week and they say, you’re right the veggies are so much tastier,” she said.
Selling produce at markets gives farmers the opportunity to chat with customers and get a sense of what the latest food trends are – and in Chiu’s case, discover an untapped niche in the local food scene.
“I think the new immigrants, the next generation of Asian Canadians will start to be more active in this local food movement and will demand for healthier organic food.”
But persuading her immigrant parents to allow her to pursue her passion of farming was a challenge.
“My parents, typical immigrant family, they wanted me to be a scientist,” she said.
Chiu was born in Richmond and spent her childhood in Hong Kong before returning as a 14 year old. Despite growing up in the city, Chiu wanted a hands-on job that tied nicely with her interest in food economics. So, she became a farmer.
She enrolled in Kwantlen’s farm school and leased a half-acre of farmland from their incubator program after she graduated. This past season, she and business partner Jennifer Cline made $10,000 growing local organic veggies.
Chiu also works full time at Kwantlen as the farm school’s director. The vast majority of students at the school have a similar background as her – city dwellers who have no family history in farming but are drawn to the craft.
Many started by contributing to community gardens and then became fascinated with the idea of building their own farm, she said.
“They are adults who have been working for a while and have a desk job, but just want to do something more fulfilling.”