The three elements of a successful grower are the same regardless of farm size, says a Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist. The grower must be hardworking, proactive and creative.

Reza Rafie, a commercial vegetable extension specialist with Virginia State University in Petersburg, Va., says the goal of growers is to make money by growing food for customers, not just growing a crop.

“No matter who, whether it’s a small, medium or large [farm], you’ve got to be involved in the process,” Rafie says. “You must educate yourself about where the opportunities are, and that means being proactive and taking advantage of them. I’ve never seen any success from small to medium-sized farmers without them being extremely involved in their hard work, creativity, human relationships and customer service. All of those play an important role.”

In the program he manages, Rafie works in two areas of fruit and vegetable research, extension and promotion: industry-oriented (traditional) crops and niche crops.

Industry-oriented crops

Traditional crops involve commercial berry production. “Berry crops are something that we are promoting in the region, and that is because the market is very significant,” Rafie says. “The demand is high, and the production cannot keep up with the demand, particularly for locally grown berries. There’s a significant opportunity for growing and marketing berry crops for local markets.”

Raspberries work well for those who want to grow 1 to 10 acres of the berries, which offer potential for several years, according to extension specialist Reza Rafie.

The berry crops Rafie is promoting are strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and specialty berries. He says berry crops have potential for anyone growing 1 to 10 acres, depending on the market they are selling to. “Blackberries, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries are the crops where the market demand is increasing and are potentials for the next several years for growers,” Rafie says.

Tony Holder of Chase City, Va., grows blackberries and recently started working with Rafie on growing strawberries. He met Rafie at a small fruit conference in Savannah, Ga., and the extension specialist convinced Holder to try growing strawberries.

Holder says growing strawberries is labor-intensive because he must plant and cultivate them every year, but he adds, “Berries are a specialty-type product; you get a better price per pound than other [crops].”

With the blackberries, he doesn’t need to constantly cultivate the land, and the vines last 15 to 20 years. They do require some maintenance, and the market for blackberries is very competitive, he notes, with that competition coming from Mexico.

The purple bell pepper is a specialty crop that growers can introduce to customers who are looking for a new type of produce.

“You have to work your way to get shelf space for the produce,” Holder says. “One thing I have found is people don’t like imported berries. They like local, ripe berries when they are picked. A lot of people who buy berries from us buy when they are in season at the local market, not any other time of the year. They freeze them and use them throughout the year.”

He adds that people in metropolitan areas have the same buying habits as those in rural Virginia. He recalls seeing a child entering a grocery store with his father. The child saw a strawberry stand and wanted some berries. The father told his son that he didn’t want those strawberries because they weren’t in season. Holder says that importers pick the berries green so they can ship them to America.

He says customers are willing to pay a little extra to buy local and get a quality product. Holder sells some of his blackberries and strawberries on the farm, but he mostly markets them wholesale where the consumer can purchase them the day after being picked. “Freshness is guaranteed,” he says.

Niche crops

Rafie has a passion for niche crops. He spent 15 years working with small growers in Honduras to develop nontraditional crops for export. He also worked with growers in south Florida for six years, helping them to understand the market for tropical fruits and nursery crops.

He has worked at Virginia State University for five years, helping growers to develop markets and grow niche crops in addition to conventional crops.

Reza Rafie says the long bean is a niche product that can be profitable for growers.

Rafie explains the niche market: “Niche is a series of crops that are small in their market demand and are small in their production potential. If you meet that demand and everybody starts growing niche, then it’s not niche anymore. Then the price falls and nobody will be able to make money.”

To be successful in growing niche crops, Rafie says growers must be ready to follow a very dynamic and rapidly changing process. “You have a target area. You concentrate on your target, hit it, and before you know it that target has moved and everybody else is shooting at it. By the time you realize it, that whole market potential is gone; therefore, you need to be concentrating on a different target.”

Niche crops include ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, bitter melon, winter melon, goji berry, figs, tomatillo and long beans. Virginia-grown ginger is in high demand; Rafie notes that growers can sell it for $7 to $10 a pound. This year, he says at least 10 growers he has worked with are growing ginger.

“The demand of the market is limited,” Rafie says. “The production of 10 growers would be really good for the demand that we have, but if 200 growers start growing ginger, it’s too much production. So what’s going to happen? The prices will begin going down.”

He says successful growers diversify their production system, combining traditional fruits and vegetables along with a few of the niche crops.

Marketing traditional and niche products

Rafie says growers must know how to market new crops and advises they attend a marketing workshop or take a marketing course at a community college.

“Marketing is a strong component of our educational activity, because we have realized that growing food is a very competitive business,” Rafie says. “For farmers to be successful at it, they need to learn how the market works. This is why we conduct test marketing with all the niche crops we are experimenting with at our research farm before we promote them among farmers. Two examples are the annual Virginia Berry Production and Marketing Conference and the Ginger Field Day. The emphasis in these educational events is on both production and marketing for crops.”

When selecting the crop, producing it and marketing it, the grower must be proactive, hardworking and creative in order to be successful. Those three qualities, he says, are like an insurance policy for success.

Rafie says a proactive grower is constantly seeking information, learning new things and coming up with good ideas, rather than waiting for those things to come to him. He says farmers today can no longer sit idle and hope opportunity comes. By attending conferences and workshops, reading trade magazines, and talking with produce and seed companies, they’ll learn what customers are asking for.

“For instance, if your farm is in an area with a large concentration of Asians, it may be a good idea to consider growing Asian vegetables,” Rafie says. “Consider talking to your local chefs; they love experimenting with new niche and ethnic crops.”

Rafie says growers of traditional and niche products can sell to restaurants, farmers’ markets and wholesalers, and can start a community-supported agriculture venture.

“If you understand all of this and tailor it to what your situation is according to those opportunities, then you can take advantage of them,” Rafie says.

A good example of that is a strawberry grower that he works with. The grower runs a you-pick operation, but because his production sometimes exceeds the demand in that area, he sells a good volume of it in the wholesale market.

Wholesalers and retailers are realizing that for farmers to sustain their businesses, growers must take a larger portion of the sales. After all, they are taking all the risks in growing and marketing foods.

“It just depends on circumstances,” Rafie says, “but at the end of the day both sides understand, in order to be able to sustain your business and my business, you really have to be fair to each other.”

Once a grower has established a viable market and fulfilled the sale of his niche product, what’s the next step? Rafie says the life of a niche crop is probably three to five years from the time the grower learns about it until he is able to earn a profit.

Having said that, Rafie believes growers shouldn’t completely abandon a niche product. They can still seek out other markets for that product, although they may or may not make as much money as with the first marketing opportunity.

He also advises growers to seek out new crops and new opportunities. To be successful at this, growers must do their homework and research the market.

Rafie considers Virginia State University’s Randolph Farm a laboratory, where in addition to conventional crops, 20 different experimental crops may be growing at one time. He searches for crops that have potential and shares that information with interested growers. Hopefully, those growers can earn a profit from their hard work, proactive approach and creativity.

Rocky Womack has written about agriculture and business for more than 25 years and currently serves as a contributing writer and correspondent for agriculture and business magazines, domestically and internationally.