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President’s Note: The Challenge of New Crops
I have been involved in agriculture my whole life, and it seems there is a wave of new crop possibilities every several years. New crops are exciting. Everyone wants to be the first to successfully grow and market a new crop.
I hope I don’t sound negative about new crops. I like the challenge and find new crop possibilities interesting, but many times I think the potential is oversold and new growers don’t evaluate the crop realistically.
My cardinal rule on new crops is to start small and evaluate the potential costs and revenues. This rule holds true for crops new to the grower but with an established market. Many small fruits (blueberries, blackberries, etc.) fall into this category.
Most new crops require market development. They are direct sold to customers so the entire expense of growing, marketing, and selling is handled by the grower. It can be a challenging undertaking.
Customers tend to be comfortable with crops they understand: wheat for bread and baking, tomatoes in the spring and summer, apples in the fall. When I was growing up, you never saw papayas, avocados, and kiwi fruit in the store. Now it is normal, and most people know how to use them.
Alternative grains to wheat include amaranth, quinoa, millet and teff. One plant I see and don’t know how to use is cactus pads. I have too many bad memories of the small thorns to want to buy some and try to figure out how to eat them. But to those who know how to use them, go for it!
There are several keys to new crop acceptance, but education of consumers on how to use them and consumer’s willingness to try something new are important components.
It all comes down to learning how to grow, harvest, process, and market a new crop. Most new crops have small markets, and demand can be quickly filled by new growers. Early promises of high prices for a crop can quickly change when current demand is met and prices fall below breakeven costs.
Some new crops lack the breeding and selection work. This can result in crops which lack consistent flavor and ripening characteristics, not to mention disease and insect resistance.
So what do you need to consider when looking at a new crop?
1) Estimated budgets which cover all costs and revenues!
2) What is the market potential?
a. Who is buying the crop and why?
b. How large is the market?
c. What is the current price, and how low can it drop if current demand is met?
3) Has any selection work been done on the crop evaluating yields, flavor, shelf life, and consistent ripening?
4) Who are the potential competitors?
5) Can you add value to the crop?
6) Is the crop well adapted to my area?
7) Hand or machine harvest?
8) What are the post-harvest handling requirements?
New crops require the grower to seek information which may not be readily available. Budgets are often estimates or best guesses, but are still important. This website from Purdue University on new crops was developed many years ago, but much of the information is still relevant today:
The website below has an incredible list of new crop possibilities:
Let me repeat my main rule on new crops. Start small! Don’t risk the farm on something new. Once you are comfortable with production, marketing, and sales, you will have a better and more educated idea on how fast you can expand.