PIKETON, Ohio - Several specialty crops being studied by Ohio State University researchers may prove to be promising new commodities for Ohio farmers. Specialty types of sweet potato, Asian eggplant and bitter melon are the focus of horticulturist Matt Kleinhenz, plant pathologist Sally Miller, project research assistant Myranda Fout, and horticulturist Brad Bergefurd of OSU Extension. Last year, they identified opportunities and challenges in growing and marketing the specialty crops, and are continuing that work this year. "Last year was rewarding and challenging," said Fout. "We ran into obstacles, many of which we eventually solved. We also established a good process for comprehensively evaluating these commodities." Kleinhenz, project coordinator, also looks at last year as a valuable learning experience. "We learned a tremendous amount about the growing and selling of these commodities. That's the point of the project," he said. "We assume the risk of learning mostly so farmers don't have to and then transfer that information to them and others. We're applying last year's information to this year's research. What we learn, farmers can benefit from." This year's work wraps up the two-year study, funded through an Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center "New Enterprise Grant." The goal of the project is to help Ohio growers respond to farming-related challenges and opportunities. For example, Ohio's population is nearly 12 million and growing, prompting some to think that farming will become less important in Ohio. "Ridiculous," said Kleinhenz. "The 12 million people in Ohio and millions of others in neighboring states need to eat. Many consumers may demand a fresh supply of locally, and perhaps organically, grown commodities often not found in most supermarkets. If demand is real and the crops can be grown here, Ohio farmers have additional opportunities." Asian eggplant, bitter melon and specialty sweet potatoes may have a niche in Ohio for a number of reasons: the crops appear adapted to the state's warm, humid climate; they appear tolerant or resistant to most pests and diseases; and market outlets may be as near as the next town or city. Asian eggplant and bitter melon, in particular, are used in Asian, Indian, or Mediterranean dishes that anyone can enjoy. Sweet potatoes without the ordinary skin and flesh colors also attract attention. "We have pink-fleshed sweet potatoes," says Fout. Keep in mind, emphasize the researchers, that people often buy first with their eyes and later based on other qualities. Indeed, one of the difficulties the researchers encountered last year was the size of the sweet potatoes. "Last year's yield was less than we hoped for, mainly because we planted the crop late. We got a lot of small potatoes," said Kleinhenz. "But this year's plants are two to three times larger right now than they were all last year. And we decided to plant them on plastic which has done wonders for the plants and our ability to manage weeds." The eggplants are being grown using conventional and organic methods and the sweet potatoes are being grown organically. Kleinhenz said the researchers ran into common fertility and weed management problems with last year's organically grown crops, which they rectified this year by using plastic and vermicompost. "Plastic limits weed growth, conserves soil moisture, and warms the soil," he said. The researchers are growing two varieties of bitter melon, 12 varieties of Asian eggplant, and nine varieties of sweet potato. "The two varieties of bitter melon, Kiew Yoke and Bitter Long, were popular last year," said Fout. "Kiew Yoke was most popular because it's the fat, medium-length, light-colored fruit that many buyers tend to look for." Eggplants are cultivated by numerous cultures throughout the world and it seems that nearly all have specific preferences for fruit shape, size, color and texture. The long, slender, nearly black-skinned fruit of Orient Express and Ichiban varieties may appeal to some, while the bulbous, milk-white fruit of Snowy appeals to others. Additional combinations of characteristics create an eggplant to suit any culinary interest. Bitter melon, a vegetable grown extensively in South America, East Africa and Asia, is touted for its nutritional value, having twice the potassium as bananas, twice the beta carotene as broccoli and twice the calcium as spinach. It is also thought to have anti-diabetic and anti-leukemic properties. But the crop lives up to its name. All parts of the plant, including the fruit, taste very bitter. "These commodities are unusual but they may represent an opportunity for farmers to establish identities in the marketplace," said Kleinhenz. "Our role is to test their biological adaptation in Ohio and provide basic market-related information." Last year's harvest was provided to stores, farm markets, and restaurants throughout Ohio, specifically in Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland, for evaluation by consumers, produce buyers and chefs. Transplants given to grower-cooperators also gave farmers an opportunity to gain first-hand experience with the crops. "Working with grower-cooperators is one of the most important aspects of our work," said Fout. "Some are excited and others really don't know what to make of some of these commodities." But Fout sees growing interest in specialty crops. "The tobacco market is decreasing. Specialty crops are providing farmers with alternative sources of income," she said, adding that the crops have had success under organic and conventional growing methods. "Smaller acreage farms are increasing. This fits well with growing specialty crops." Researchers are currently working with farmers in 10 counties across Ohio.