Lessons from developing a new Ontario crop

Tiger nuts can be made into dairy alternatives, but oils, proteins and starches can be extracted as well

It’s been a long time coming, but Andrea Orazi is thrilled that her frozen dessert is now available in more than 200 Eastern Canada Loblaw stores.

The locally produced ice cream-style product is made from tiger nuts — a crop that isn’t actually a nut but could present a new market opportunity for enterprising Ontario farmers.

Why it matters: The development of tiger nut products show the potential, but also the long route, to creating new food and agriculture products.

It’s not what Orazi had in mind, though, when she and husband Scott Abraham set up The Chufa Co. in 2014. Rather, her heart was set on a typical Spanish drink she’d come to love while living in Barcelona — horchata de chufa or tiger nut milk.

Scott Abraham and Andrea Orazi are the originators of the tiger nut opportunity in Ontario.
photo: Andrea Orazi, The Chufa Co.

“We had no background in food — it was all based on a craving for tiger nut milk, which you could only get in Toronto made from rice,” Orazi said.

Tiger nut is a very small tuber that grows in the ground, has a very short shelf life and a grooved exterior that is an ideal home for microbes. That’s a problem in food production — and that’s where the windy road to frozen dessert began.

What’s the Ontario potential?

  • OMAFRA experts are still developing cost of production information.
  • It is estimated that tiger nut production would equal 500-600 acres in southern Ontario.
  • Oils, proteins and starches can be extracted, creating an additional market beyond dairy alternatives.
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  • Basic agronomics continue to be worked out.
  • A lack of registered herbicides makes mechanical weed control a necessity.

After some initial positive reinforcement from a food consultant, Orazi and Abraham approached George Brown College‘s Food Innovation and Research Studio, and with funding from the federal Industrial Research Assistance Program, began addressing the shelf life challenge.

Bringing in the experts

Eventually, they connected with University of Guelph food microbiologist Prof. Keith Warriner.

“Clostridium botulinum can grow in low acid juices like tiger nut, so when Andrea came to see us, we said you need to get rid of the botulinum if you want to boost the shelf life,” Warriner said, adding that most retailers look for a product shelf life of about 30 days but Orazi’s milk couldn’t get past about seven days.

Tiger nut beverage is challenging, he added, because while the botulinum spores that grow on the outside of the tiger nut need ultra-high temperature (UHT) processing to be destroyed, that process turns tiger nut beverage into a thick pudding-like substance.

Botulinium is not a risk in frozen product, though, and fellow Guelph professor Doug Goff ultimately helped develop the frozen dessert now sold at Loblaw and Whole Foods.

Through a world crops course at York University, Orazi and Abraham grew and harvested their own tiger nuts. That’s when two Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) staffers, New Crop Development Specialist Evan Elford and Industrial Crops Specialist Jim Todd, became involved in the tiger nut tale.

According to Elford, although tiger nut is a cultivated form of a common native weed many Ontario farmers will recognize, yellow nutsedge, tiger nut itself is more tropical and has not been found to overwinter in Ontario.

OMAFRA started its first full year of replicated research trials in 2017 at the Simcoe research station as well as a larger bulk trial at a grower location in Norfolk County, and repeated the work in 2018.

“We’re looking at basic agronomic needs like nitrogen fertility, weed management, field prep and irrigation to reduce some of the risks for growers,” Elford said.

As an annual crop planted in late May to early June and harvested mid-September to mid-October, it’s an easy fit into an Ontario rotation and grows well in sandy soils. OMAFRA researchers have been using commercial peanut planting and harvesting equipment on tiger nut, but part of the research also involves trying different equipment.

A tiger nut field in production.
photo: ©Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2019. Reproduced with permission. Evan Elford, New Crop Development Specialist / Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)

The 2018 season included a harvest timing trial to establish a more precise window for harvest, starting in mid-August and continuing until after frost.

No herbicides are registered, so keeping weeds down using mechanical methods is key to optimal crop yield. Pests to date have been limited to grub and millipede damage, but more formal assessments are needed.

Beverage to launch in January

Despite her ice cream success, Orazi couldn’t let her original tiger nut milk vision go without a fight and in partnership with Niagara College, has ultimately created a locally produced beverage with that magic 30-day shelf life threshold.

It is set to launch this January as an alternative to traditional milk as well as almond, cashew and soy beverages.

Her dream is to fill the dairy alternative case with products from yogurt to baby formula, as well as supply oil and ingredients markets with production from Ontario farmers.

“We see it as a future food that we’re really excited about, and we couldn’t be more thrilled that OMAFRA and University of Guelph took an interest in what we’re doing,” she said.

Interested farmers can contact Andrea at [email protected] or 416-261-1222.

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