Many crops have come to the United States through migration or trade. Every wave of immigrants brought seeds and plant cuttings to propagate in their new locales. In addition, plants native to any given region naturally provided an indigenous food source for settlers.
Many crops became primarily associated with a specific region. Okra or collards best known in the South, chiles in the Southwest and the Concord grape in New England are examples of crops firmly rooted in one region, but now often produced outside of the geographic area.
Season extension techniques, as well as breeding improvements, have allowed many crops to be grown commercially in areas in which they may not otherwise have been viable, becoming niche crops for growers no matter the longitude or latitude. Conversely, consolidation of the food system has focused some crops into specific regions, despite that they once were commonly grown across the nation. But an emerging local food system is, to some degree, reversing that design.
Today, growers in different areas of the country are developing new trends, growing crops not traditionally associated with their region or revitalizing efforts to cultivate historically important crops. Here’s a look at some growing trends in different parts of the United States.
Almost nuts down South
Southern growers have become interested in commercially growing a landrace crop: Carolina African Runner Peanut, or CARP. Known for its sweet flavor, perfect peanut butter and oil, CARP is similar to modern varieties of runner peanuts. Last commercially harvested in the 1950s, this very small, full-flavored peanut, once renowned for its oil, was thought to be extinct.
“It was known to be the original peanut – by way of Bolivia, through West Africa (and) to be the first of peanuts imported to East Coast ports, sometime in the late 1600s or early 1700s,” Dr. Brian Ward, Clemson University Research Specialist and head of the Organic Research Farm at the Coastal Research and Education Center (CREC), said.
Ward is researching the viability of returning this almost lost, but once prevalent, crop to farmers across the South. He procured two dozen of the only remaining seeds known, from North Carolina State University’s peanut germplasm facility, and planted and carefully cultivated the seeds in 2013. After collecting and saving seeds from the 12 plants successful plants, Ward grew over 1,200 plants in 2014.
In 2016, 31 growers, as well as the researchers at the CREC, plus fields at several other of Clemson’s Research and Education Centers, planted CARP acreage. Twenty-five small acreage growers, along with six larger operations, are spread across Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia and other select spots in the region. Growers will be saving seed and logging yield and quality information.
With at least 150 frost-free days needed for maturity, CARP takes longer from seed to harvest than other peanut cultivars. Thus far, it has been growing alongside today’s mainstream commercial cultivars, showing similar growth and no unusual requirements.
“Everything we have done thus far is to determine where this almost lost, culturally significant, yet small peanut variety fits in the peanut commodities and potentially specialty crop environment,” Ward said.
Reviving landrace varieties such as CARP – the peanut that built the North Carolina peanut industry – not only brings back diversity, but it opens doors to further possibilities.
“When I hear heritage crops, I hear history and culture,” Ward said. “As a scientist I see resistance to disease, virus, yields and quality for interactive work with classical breeding, leading to improved varieties to help growers of South Carolina and the Southeast be more successful and profitable.”
Spirited history in Colorado
Colorado is known for its beer. These days, it’s also known for a growing a variety of craft beverages. At Jack Rabbit Hill Farm, a 70-acre farm in Hotchkiss, Colorado, their Peak Spirits Farm Distillery uses only local fruit to craft an array of alcoholic specialties.
The farm uses its own grapes and hops, and pears, peaches and apples from nearby family farms to craft their premium spirits. Fruit is fermented whole, in small vat batches, without yeast or other additives, so the taste is pure.
“We just feel we’re making a better product because our source fruit, we feel, is tastier, more expressive, more complex,” owner Lance Hanson said. “I think it all comes back to the quality of the fruit we’re growing in our valley.”
Colorado’s North Fork Valley was, historically, a fruit-growing region, beginning in the late 1800s. The climate is ideal for grapes, still boasting a plethora of vineyards and wineries today, as well as for tree fruit. Craft beverages are offering farmers another outlet and economic opportunity for orchard production. And some, like Jack Rabbit Hill Farm, are opting to open their own farm distilleries.
Historically, many regions of Colorado have produced award-winning fruits. Without the humid climates that make fruit growing in many other regions – such as the Northeast – so difficult, Colorado was once a prized fruit-growing state, and orchards were plentiful, boasting a diverse array of cultivars.
Colorado now has approximately six dozen craft distilleries. Producers are using a variety of ingredients, from potatoes to sweet corn to peaches, which are locally grown. Fruit too scarred or off-sized for fresh markets is often used, offering farmers a secondary market and reducing food waste. This interest in locally-crafted spirits also has awakened a recognition of the region’s orchard roots.
Digging gingerly in Texas
“What I do know is that ginger is not grown on a commercial scale in Texas. I hope my research will change that,” Joe Masabni, Extension Small-Acreage Vegetable Specialist, Overton Research and Extension Center, Texas A&M University, said.
Masabni has been researching the opportunities that ginger may provide to Texas growers. Ginger requires shade and temperatures above freezing. A tropical, perennial crop propagated from root cuttings, it is adapted to growing below a tree canopy. Filtered sun – whether from a high tunnel or a shade cloth – provides ideal growing conditions.
Other needs include well-drained soil with regular irrigation and good fertility. High phosphorus fertilizer is recommended for the first month after planting. Masabni hasn’t had any pest issues, such as white flies or aphids, during his trials, but expects that in Texas, grasshoppers may be a problem if grown in high tunnels.
“Water regularly and never let the crop stress from lack of water,” Masabni said. “My yields regularly ranged from about 8 ounces to 16 ounces,” for each 2-ounce piece of root planted. “I had about eight times yield harvested compared to what I planted. National U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics indicate a yield of 30,000 lbs per acre, with a wholesale price of $1.60/lb. Grocery stores want to buy a large volume, not just 100 to 200 pounds. The marketing or business skill of the producer is key to success here.”
The crop promises to offer opportunities for regional growers. As a perennial crop, the root can be left in the Texas ground and grown to larger sizes.
“Ginger is a good specialty crop for Texas because the climate is suitable, consumer need exists as knowledge of its health benefits and culinary uses are common among chefs and homemakers. So, market demand already exists, we just need to produce enough to meet the local demand.”