PHOTO BY PILIPPHOTO/THINKSTOCK.

Diversity, as it applies to agriculture, can mean a number of things. Is diversity growing more than one primary crop, or is it growing many varieties of one type of crop? Maybe it refers to growing produce and raising livestock, using a diverse mix for a cover crop, or enhancing your crop rotations and adding biodiversity to your soils.

Perhaps it’s not about what you grow, but rather how you sell your products. Adding retail markets, pick-your-own options and agritourism attractions, as well as selling wholesale, can diversify a farm enterprise. If you make some of your fresh product into value-added foods, your farm diversifies even more, into food production as a way of extending the harvest and capturing a higher profit margin. Adding a forestry component, such as maple, mushrooms or lumber, can better utilize different farm environments, as well as expand the product line.

No matter which options you choose, diversity can grow your farm, but it has to make sense economically.

In “Diversity of Conventional Farming in Northeast Iowa,” a historical case study conducted for the Leopold Center’s Marketing & Food Systems Initiative, Alice Topaloff noted, “For diversification to be attractive, more income has to be generated to balance the cost of extra labor.”

In other words, it might cost less in the long run to do only one or a few complementary things, and do them well. In order to diversify successfully, there has to be an economic benefit that offsets any expenses required by the diversification.

A diverse flower mix is used for companion planting in fields with potatoes at Rockey Farms in Center, Colorado.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ROCKEY FARMS.

Biodiversity

Farming in a monoculture means growing the same crops on the same soils year after year. Over time, soils become depleted, disease pressure increases, and a crop failure can mean a farm failure. Production techniques such as cover cropping and crop rotations are actually a way to add diversity to such a system.

Brendon Rockey, a potato farmer in Center, Colorado, said that an important step in diversifying a farm with one primary crop is introducing biology that has been missing from the system. On the 500-acre Rockey Farms, half of the acreage is planted in potatoes each year, and half in a green manure crop, or cover crop.

They started out with a strict potato/barley rotation, but the green manure mix has become increasingly diversified and now includes over two dozen species. Beginning slowly, they first added Sudan grass in an attempt to target issues with nematodes. After that successful trial, they added buckwheat, radish, turnip, oats, peas and vetch to the mix and never looked back.

“Each of the green manure crops has a specific benefit. Any time you introduce more life into the system, [it is beneficial],” Rockey said. “Now you can see how many different species I’m planting on my farm, all for the sake of growing a potato crop.”

In the publication “Increasing Farm Biodiversity,” Annette Wszelaki, commercial vegetable extension specialist, University of Tennessee, explained the benefits of such biodiversity, as well as implementation techniques.

Adding biodiversity may reduce risk and provide economic gain without adding another cash crop. If healthy soils reduce disease pressures, or flowers from a diverse cover crop mix bring in pollinators and increase the population of beneficial insects and soil microbes, then inputs needed to grow a healthy crop can be reduced.

Product and income diversity

Another approach would be to diversify the farm by growing more than one primary crop. For example, an operation might grow everything from early spring greens to a mix of summer and fall crops, and maybe even overwinter cold-tolerant greens. Community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements, where members buy a share and receive a weekly delivery of produce throughout the harvest season, capitalize on this form of diversity. Many farms add meat into the mix, as well as eggs, dairy products, maple syrup, flowers, honey or fiber.

Growing a variety of crops spreads out the economic risk. It could, however, potentially add cost if new crops involve labor, skills or infrastructure not already present on the farm, or if there’s no market for the new products.

The Schlossers have turned their long-term dream into a reality by hosting weddings, Farm-to-Fork dinners and other events at Sandiwood Farm.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SANDIWOOD FARM.

“People like to see fennel, but it’s a loss leader,” said Sara Schlosser of Sandiwood Farm in Wolcott, Vermont.

Maple sugaring in their 35-acre sugar bush has “huge potential,” but they’ve scaled down. The maple sugaring operation is a complementary enterprise to the rest of the farm. Most maple customers have visited the farm or are customers at the nearby Stowe Farmers’ Market.

“It’s a labor of love. It’s more labor than income, and the income is sporadic,” Schlosser said of their maple sugaring operation. For now, their energies are best directed elsewhere, but they’re exploring future options.

Schlosser and her family run a very diversified operation. They began with selling flowers and garlic at farmers markets, but a problem with the garlic one season convinced them they needed more to offer. The flower bouquets became labor-intensive, so they began to re-evaluate. They ran a CSA before such arrangements were mainstream and began to offer meats to satisfy customer requests, Schlosser said.

At Rockey Farms in Center, Colorado, the focus is on potatoes, but they grow several different varieties.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ROCKEY FARMS.

They no longer operate a CSA, and will no longer offer beef after this season. Grass-fed beef is popular now, but the labor and investment in the cows can be better spent elsewhere, she said. Being vegetarians, they prefer not to raise the beef.

“We’ve become smarter about what we’re growing,” Schlosser said. “We know our 10 or 12 best crops.” With that knowledge, they’ve been “pushing the envelope” of the growing season with greenhouse use.

After many years of planning, the Schlossers are fulfilling their long-term goal of hosting on-farm weddings and other special events. This agritourism focus includes on-farm dinners. Daughter and chef Sandi Schlosser has a certified kitchen and runs Vermont Harvest Catering from the farm, using Sandiwood Farm’s harvest as well as other locally grown products.

Schlosser has found that these endeavors are challenging due to the management work involved – advertising, marketing, planning, hiring labor, meeting infrastructure needs, working with insurance providers, and having weather contingency plans. It can also take away from the actual work of the farm. Weeding, for example, has become the No. 1 farm activity, taking priority over reseeding or harvesting the crops. After all, guests who pay to come to an event don’t want to see weeds; they want the picture – perfect storybook ideal of a farm.

Sandi (left) and Sara Schlosser in the greenhouse. Farm-fresh produce is a mainstay of the gourmet on-farm dinners at Sandiwood Farm in Wolcott, Vermont.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SANDIWOOD FARM.

Assessing and reducing risk

Before going out and adding crops or other enterprises to the farm, it’s advisable to ascertain that these strategies will be economically sustainable. Finding out that the market is saturated or the labor is too intensive to offset any financial gains should happen before you make that first move, not after.

Dr. Robin Brumfield, farm management specialist, Rutgers University, said that identifying a market need is a primary concern when looking to develop a niche for your farm. Finding a niche that is underserved or unfulfilled would be a good start.

“What demand problems are you solving with your business?” Brumfield asked in a webinar presentation titled “What Do I Plant and How Much?”

A question growers need to answer before deciding what to grow is “Why buy from you and not somebody else?” Brumfield said, “It may not make sense to grow generic things. Even if you’re a wholesaler, you have to think about the end user.”

Vegetables grown on-site are served during a Farm-to-Fork dinner at Sandiwood Farm.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SANDIWOOD FARM.

Consider diversifying your operation by fulfilling a demand that exists in the supply chain. Adding delivery, using special packaging, increasing quality or adding convenience are ways to diversify your farm without adding other crops, and they can give you an edge over the competition.

Sandiwood Farm has found their niche by becoming an event destination and offering gourmet local fare. Using products grown on the farm has decreased the expense of purchasing food. Still, the profit margins are slim. As the competition for farm dinners has increased, the dinners at Sandiwood Farm have “evolved,” Schlosser said.

“We found our niche. Ours is very high-end gourmet food, with many, many courses,” Schlosser explained. It made sense for the Schlossers to take this approach, since their daughter is a New England Culinary Institute-trained chef.

What about those who grow a perennial crop as their primary product and don’t want to change that? Growing more than one variety would be a way to add some diversity. Growing two dozen apple cultivars, for example, can extend the growing season and lessens the risk of a total crop failure.

Another way to add a cash crop and diversify an orchard with little investment in equipment or additional labor is to plant vegetables that can be harvested around the same time as your primary crop in underutilized orchard areas where newer trees aren’t causing too much shade.

You can also diversify to “produce inputs that can help out and that fit in with your total business,” Brumfield said.

Producing your own biofuels, or using diverse cover crops to enhance your soil fertility, benefits your bottom line. Adding value to your product through some type of enhancement that improves its appeal to customers is another way to diversify operations. For example, if customers don’t buy your nuts because they won’t shell them, adding a certified kitchen and selling shelled nuts might make sense. The labor, infrastructure, skill set and marketing required in any such enterprise would have to be part of a cost-benefit analysis to determine economic viability.

Tamara Scully is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit http://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.