Red, white and black currants (varieties include Red Lake, Pink Champagne and Titania).
Photo by Erin Schneider.
Growers of noncommodity crops are specialty growers. Eggplants, cucumbers, tomatoes and blueberries all fall into the USDA's definition of a specialty crop. But what about a real specialty crop-one that isn't commonly found at the supermarket, farmstand or produce auction? Growing these crops, whether it's an heirloom variety, an unusual cultivar, or just an uncommonly grown fruit or vegetable, can help make your farm stand out. Using these unique crops profitably can grow your business into something special.
Obscure fruits and vegetables are becoming more popular with consumers, who have begun to understand that large-scale, industrial agriculture isn't the only way to put food on the table. As more eaters want to know how, where, when and by whom their food has been grown, there is a parallel movement highlighting little-known varieties and exotic flavors. Thanks to a growing interest in ethnic foods, preparing food from scratch and home gardening, kohlrabi is now (or is it once again?) in vogue.
What may be exotic in one locale can be ho-hum in another. While growing okra in the South isn't too far-fetched, okra isn't a common staple on many dinner plates in the North. Strawberries are commonplace in the spring, but how about harvesting them in the fall, or harvesting tiny, fragrant, flavorful alpine varieties?
A crop may not be widely grown and distributed because of its characteristics: it bruises easily, spoils quickly, or needs very precise storage conditions. If you're selling directly and growing on a smaller scale, these obstacles can often be overcome with a little creativity and advance planning. However, even if the crop is easy to grow and handle, developing a market for an unfamiliar product is going to be essential.
Diverse ethnic populations exist across the U.S., and providing foods that are common in other countries is one way to increase profitability. With this in mind, the cooperative extensions of Rutgers, Cornell and the University of Massachusetts collaborated to create WorldCrops (http://www.worldcrops.org). WorldCrops is a guide to crops that are not typically grown in the U.S., but can be.
Robert Hadad, Cornell Cooperative Extension vegetable specialist, is working to assist growers in reaching the diverse and growing ethnic market. In many areas, ethnic crops such as radicchio or bok choy are now commonly seen at farmers' markets and even on supermarket shelves. Adopting food crops from other regions isn't new - every wave of immigrants has influenced food production.
"United States census statistics can be investigated at the county level to see what ethnic groups are living in a given area," Hadad noted. "Besides the ethnic communities, television food networks, newspapers and food magazines are also getting into promoting ethnic ingredients."
Some of Hadad's previous studies focused on eggplants - the many specialty varieties, rather than the standard varieties commonly grown in the U.S. Hadad chose eggplant varieties as a way to demonstrate how an otherwise dull, often-overlooked vegetable could offer many exciting possibilities for growers and consumers.
Ethnic vegetables are "different from the usual tomato and pepper and greens we commonly see," Hadad said. "One hope is to show farmers a greater diversity of what is out there, and in turn show ethnic communities that the choice of varieties is improving."
Erin Schneider picks a quince at Hilltop Community Farm.
Photo by Rob McClure.
Not your typical fruit salad
Lots of fruits are getting attention these days because of antioxidants and other beneficial characteristics. It looks like consumers are ready to embrace something beyond apples and peaches, but are they ready for persimmons, pawpaws, quince, gooseberries, crab apples, mulberries, elderberries and various assorted brambles?
Getting many of these to market is going to be time-sensitive. Some may need too many inputs to be successfully grown on a large scale, while others may have small pits or an acidic taste, making them unsuitable for fresh eating.
From the growing perspective, many will fit right in with apples, pears, peaches, cherries or even fall raspberries already being grown as a primary crop. At Hilltop Community Farm (http://www.hilltopcommunityfarm.org) in La Valle, Wis., farmers Erin Schneider and Rob McClure have been expanding the varieties of fruit they cultivate, developing a forest farming model that readily includes unusual fruits.
With the desire to expand their farming season, increase biodiversity, spread out the risk of crop failure, increase farm profitability, and improve consumer access to locally available, healthy food, they have received several Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grants to study the viability of incorporating unusual fruits into the farm, as well as to share this information with other farmers in the region, develop markets and promote the fruits.
The couple is growing a variety of obscure fruits, including saskatoons, currants, elderberries, honeyberry, aronia, quince and hardy kiwi. Along with the more typical pears, apples and raspberries, their fruit is sold via a community supported agriculture program. As the fruit begins to reach maturity, they offer bulk sales as an option.
Hilltop is currently in the midst of a two-year study, along with several other Wisconsin farms, researching the marketing feasibility of small fruits. The project, "Direct Marketing Non-Traditional Perennial Berry Varieties: Expanding Eater Preferences and Grower Connections," builds on their previous project, "Assessing the Sustainability of Growing Non-Traditional Fruit Tree Crops in the Upper Midwest: A collaborative agro-forestry approach." In both studies, the objective was to demonstrate that these unusual fruits could increase "economic and ecological viability for small to midsized organic farms."
However, in order for unusual fruits to become more accessible to consumers, more farmers will have to grow them. Having a market base that is already demanding a product, as well as realistic cost projections and pricing guidelines, reduces the risk for midsized growers who might be interested in trying to grow these fruits. Developing a market, and gathering and distributing this information, are part of the research objectives.
Elderberries are among the less common crops grown at Hilltop Community Farm in La Valle, Wis.
Photo courtesy of Erin Schneider.
Something old, something new
Strawberries are not an unusual crop. Although offered year-round on supermarket shelves everywhere, they also provide a large customer base for local and regional growers during peak strawberry season, with great demand at farmers' markets, roadside stands and pick-your-own operations, and from chefs featuring seasonal ingredients. Ever popular, the local, fresh-picked strawberry hasn't lost its appeal.
How can farmers capitalize on the popularity of strawberries when their season is limited in many regions?
One answer may be in the new cultivars of day-neutral strawberries. Day-neutral berries don't need a certain number of hours of sunlight to produce a crop. Instead, they bear continuously throughout the season until the plant freezes, explained Emily Hoover, professor and head of the University of Minnesota Department of Horticultural Science.
Hoover has been conducting trials of day-neutral strawberries and is excited by the promise these berries now hold. "Newer day-neutral cultivars have shown remarkably high fruit quality and high yields in recent field trials," she noted. When planted in May, "The harvest begins around the end of July and continues until temperatures are so low the plant freezes." Treated as an annual, no disease issues have emerged to preclude production. Most newer cultivars are bred for California or Florida climates and will not readily overwinter in cold northern climates.
Another new twist on strawberry production is the increasing demand for gourmet berries, said Michael Wellik, owner of The Strawberry Store (http://www.thestrawberrystore.com). Gourmet hybrids grown commercially in Europe, such as the day-neutral 'Mara des Bois', hold great potential, as do the gourmet pineberries. Pineberries are white strawberries with a distinctive taste. They are produced commercially on a small scale in Europe, Wellik said.
The most in-demand gourmet berry, however, may be the alpine strawberry. "I have customers in the U.S. and Canada growing alpines alongside standard hybrids and offering them in their farm markets," Wellik said. "I will note that one factor influencing the demand is immigrants from Europe, both western and eastern, that were able to purchase fraises des bois [alpine strawberries] from local produce markets at home. They come here and find that they can't buy the fruit at any cost."
A plant walk through the orchard at Hilltop Community Farm.
Photo by Ian Aley.
There are complications that keep alpine strawberries from becoming more commonly grown, but as more growers plant them, production methods and information on harvesting will develop, he added.
Finding and developing a market
"Traditionally, variety trials focused on production and yield, but if you can't sell them effectively, then there is no point in growing them," Hadad said. "I am definitely interested in making these crops something that can make decent money for growers."
Hilltop's SARE project includes addressing the challenges in finding a market and establishing pricing. Moving into 2014, data gathered from surveys, tasting events and outreach will be analyzed and should provide an idea of the pricing constraints and the acceptance of these unusual fruits in the marketing region. Initial feedback from consumers suggests that customers seeking local foods want farmers to earn a fair living wage and indicates a willingness to pay for sustainably grown local fruit.
Their research also found that $5 per pint for berries is a common price point acceptable to consumers. Interestingly, after participating in tasting events featuring the unusual perennial berries being studied, consumers increased the price they would pay by 20 to 40 percent.
Customers favorably responded to recipes, cooking demonstrations, and tips on preparation and storage. Fruit and fruit product tasting events are integral to the process. Offering consumers a chance to tour the orchards, learn about fruit production, sample fruits and value-added products, watch cooking demonstrations, and provide feedback led to the conclusion that storage and usage tips are in demand and are an important part of developing a market, Schneider said.
"Growing it isn't enough," Hadad said. "Knowing what the produce is used for, how to cook with it, and what it tastes like [is imperative]. So many people might be enticed into trying these new foods too. If the farmer doesn't know anything about it, they aren't going to sell very much."
The most in-demand gourmet berry may be the alpine strawberry, or fraise des bois.
Photo courtesy of Michael Wellik, The Strawberry Store.
Fill the void
In cases where a market already exists, it may be an issue of tapping into that demand, rather than creating it. Alpine strawberries have that demand.
"I get a fair number of inquiries from caterers trying to locate fruit in season," Wellik noted. "It's not uncommon in the spring to get calls or emails asking for 500 or more pounds of fraises des bois. It's usually associated with a convention or meeting of European-based associations or businesses." He's also aware of an ethnic grocery store chain that's interested in year-round sales of "a staggering amount of fraises des bois."
While the market may be ripe for the picking, there may be complications. These products may have specialized growing, harvesting or packaging requirements, or may be so fragile that getting them to market has to happen quickly. Production costs can limit the amount grown by any one farmer.
"Some growers want to think in terms of big acreage, but need to scale down if they want to focus on high-value crops like these," Wellik said. "They quickly learn that they need an army of workers." They also discover that the price they need to get from the market is high, due to short shelf life, small fruits and increased labor demands.
Cooperative sales techniques, which pool crops from several farms, can be used to meet a large demand and spread out the risk. Incorporating these crops into a system that has room to accommodate them without negatively impacting existing crop production is a good way to start. Orchards could add a few quince trees, or raspberry growers could add gooseberries or currants. Hydroponic growers could add alpine strawberries to their existing production.
Adding a crop that provides off-season local food fills an existing void.
"As the demand for locally grown increases, eating in season becomes more important," Hadad said. He's conducting a trial of older varieties of beets and melons, those meant to be stored. Historically, food production was geared toward storing foods to make it through the winter, Hadad explained. Today, growing varieties that have been selected for their storage properties allows eating local to happen year-round.
Another way to expand marketing for products - particularly those that may be fragile or have limited fresh-market demand - is freezing them for later sale. This practice is being explored as an important part of local and regional food systems.
Sampling currant chutneys at Hilltop Community Farm.
Photo courtesy of Hilltop Community Farm.
Growers may also find that small processors making value-added products can be a viable market outlet. Small on-farm creameries or dairy cooperatives making ice cream or yogurt often seek local fruits for flavorings. Bakers and distillers are also seeking local products.
Look around, know your microclimate, plan some innovative crops to complement your standard produce and spice up your farm production. But before you do, study your market: Interview your farmstand customers and visit local bakers and chefs to gauge their interest in different items. Don't forget to talk to your extension specialist. Choosing the right combination of traditional and obscure produce can help you gain an advantage over the competition and provide a profitable niche.
The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey.