Horned melons, jicama, purple sweet potato, starfruit – visit a local supermarket or specialty food store in even a small city today and you will find an array of fruits and vegetables such as these that would have bewildered many a shopper of just a generation ago.

While many of the unusual products were originally grown and shipped in from overseas then introduced to the marketplace as mysterious and exotic offerings, increasingly today, North American farmers are successfully growing and marketing fruits and vegetables their mothers and fathers never even heard of, much less considered to be possible to plant, grow and profit from.

Unusual crops can improve profitability

Unusual fruits and vegetables, successfully introduced, can be significant profit centers for farms of all sizes. A pound of an exotic vegetable or fruit can sell for two, three or even more times the price a more ordinary product commands. A marginal operation able to convert from reliance on an ordinarily priced fruit or vegetable to one that can be successfully grown and reliably marketed for two or three times the price of the ordinary product can dramatically increase the ability to not only survive but thrive.

Sea buckthorn berries, for example, driven by an enthusiastic reception by Dr. Mehmet Oz, known as “Dr. Oz,” have become a sensation in the health food and cosmetics marketplace. A pound of dried berries can sell on the Internet for between $12 and $20. Other unusual fruits and vegetables can bring equal, or even more spectacular premiums.

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The sea buckthorn is a heavily thorned, deciduous plant found in northern Europe and Asia. Research done at Washington State University’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, Washington, demonstrates sea buckthorn can be grown with excellent results in areas like Mount Vernon, a temperate, maritime region similar to some of the areas the plant thrives on in its natural habitat.

A switch to an unusual crop can be thorny

Popularity and a good price are not always enough to assure success when venturing into the business of raising an unusual crop.

Sea buckthorn has been cultivated and studied on a limited basis by Gary Moulton at the Mount Vernon center for some time. In a 2009 paper published by Moulton and other members of the WSU team, the results of the sea buckthorn plantings were reported: “Not all crops that are well adapted horticulturally in our region are suitable for commercial production in this area. In some instances…market factors are unfavorable, with cheaper product available from other regions. In other cases, there are problems of harvest (sea buckthorn) and processing for which technology or infrastructure are not readily available.”

Research by Dr. Carol Miles, a vegetable Extension specialist investigating alternative crops at WSU’s Mount facility, also demonstrates some of the difficulties a grower might face when working with an out-of-the-ordinary crop. According to Dr. Miles, four issues need to be carefully considered when a grower decides to diversify by growing and marketing an unusual fruit or vegetable. “Variety suitability, market, equipment, and profitability are primary considerations before trying a new crop,” she says.

A new grower then must understand that the variety selected needs to be one that can be successfully grown with good yields. A market for the yield needs to be developed. Equipment suitable to the harvest and, if necessary, the processing of the products needs to be available. The selling price must be high enough to justify the risk involved in planting, growing, harvesting, processing and marketing an unusual product.

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In the case of sea buckthorn, for example, Moulton’s investigation into sea buckthorn demonstrates that, in an area like Northwest Washington, a grower interested in entering the marketplace in any serious way would likely have to be willing to invest in the specialty equipment needed to harvest, preserve and process the product or, alternatively, a small-scale farmer could grow the plants, harvest them by hand (watch out for the thorns), and sell them fresh or dried either through local channels like farmers markets or via Internet marketing.

Professionals at your service

The example of the sea buckthorn also illustrates an important point anyone looking at growing and selling an unusual product should consider when thinking about growing and marketing that product. Much of the research necessary to assess a new product’s viability is, as often as not, just a phone call, or a few keystrokes on the computer keyboard, away.

Ongoing research like what Dr. Miles is engaged in at WSU is being done every day across the nation and much of it is freely available through extension services like WSU’s and other outlets (the USDA has a website on alternative crops). Dr. Miles routinely published papers on the results of her work; most of them are available on the Internet. “It’s important to me that growers, especially those with small to mid-sized farms, have access to the results of our work here,” she said. “So I try to make sure those results are available on our website.”

Review “common” fruits and vegetables

While exotic fruits and vegetables seize the “unusual crops” limelight, more ordinary produce fills the definition of “unusual” when successfully grown and marketed in regions historically out of the crops’ usual range.

Few would consider the tomato to be an “unusual” or “exotic” plant but, much of Dr. Miles’ work on alternative fruit and vegetables is oriented towards finding ways common fruits and/or vegetables can be successfully grown and marketed locally in areas not previously suitable for cultivation of the plant.

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Dr. Miles points to the tomato as an example of how new approaches to growing can change the marketplace. “It can be challenging to profitably grow tomatoes in Western Washington for a number of reasons,” she said. “So, for years, nearly all the tomatoes sold in our stores and other outlets were shipped in from elsewhere.”

However, through research at the Mount Vernon facility, Dr. Miles and her peers found that “…high tunnel-grown tomato was three times more profitable than open-field tomato production,” in the region and the characteristics of the high tunnel made for a better quality fruit than could usually be grown in open fields.

Today, at least in part to the research done at the WSU Mount Vernon facility, “There are literally hundreds of high tunnels producing quality tomatoes throughout Western Washington and Oregon. Now, locally grown tomatoes are not only available in the marketplace but are common.”

The result of the high tunnel work, Dr. Miles said, is not only enhanced profitability for the farmers of Western Washington and improved quality for local residents, it is also the environmental benefits that come when products can be grown and sold locally rather than having to be shipped in from afar.

Following up on the work of growing tomatoes in a high tunnel, Dr. Miles and her students are now investigating vegetable grafting. “With a high tunnel, depending on the location and soil characteristics, yield can be increased by two to six times,” she said. “Grafting tomatoes can increase yield another two times.”

Expert advice

So, to take advantage of the potential for profit and other advantages that come with growing an unusual crop what should a farm owner or manager do first?

In general, Dr. Miles said, “I recommend looking to see what sells well in big markets close by, what seems to be trending in what I call the ‘glossy’ magazines (Epicure, Organic Gardening, Sunset, etc.), and how much of the crop/product can the market in your area bear. Also, what products have demand in the times of the year that you can grow it?”

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Regarding what crops have seen success in Western Washington and Oregon, Dr. Miles said, “I think baby leaf salad mix is still a good choice; it needs to be high quality and as year-round as possible. Pea shoots are easy to grow and are still underutilized. Wasabi is hot in several ways; it’s hard to grow but brings top dollar. Novelty melons harvested when ripe (not under-ripe as needed for shipping) have unbeatable flavor. Yellow and orange watermelon is easy to grow even in a cool climate like the Northwest if you use the right variety and also have a wonderful flavor. Other food types that are trending include bitter and fermented products such as bitter melons and fermented kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles.

Both types of research by experts like WSU’s Carol Miles and market experience by growers demonstrate considerable opportunity exists for especially small and mid-sized farms with owners willing to do the work necessary to successfully cultivate and market unusual crops. Growers attempting to take advantage of the opportunity are well advised to look carefully before leaping. Using the expertise offered by research centers like Washington State University’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center to guide the leap greatly improves the chance the new approach will be “unusually” rewarding.