5 Things You Should Know Before Planting Niche Crops

11:44AM Jan 22, 2020
The switch from traditional row crops to specialty crops can be intimidating. Here are the five things you need to know before getting started.
( Courtesy Van Groningen & Sons Inc. )

Is it time to test-drive a niche or specialty crop on your farm? Of course, there’s risk, but the rewards could be high. Don’t be afraid to try something new, but at the same time, don’t let the excitement of a new possibility make you lose sight of your bottom line. Answer these questions:

1. Is there a market for the product?


North Dakota farmer Jared Hagert has seen farmers get burned by planting a niche crop. Before he added edible beans to his crop roster of corn, soybeans and spring wheat, he confirmed a delivery point and secured revenue guarantees to cover his costs. Don’t assume a buyer will be ready and waiting for your product, he cautions.

2. Will major agronomic and management changes be necessary?

Vegetable production is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for someone who wants to switch in and out of crops quickly. Mike Pasztor raises corn, soybeans and vegetables in Ontario, Canada. None of the vegetables he grows have herbicide tolerance, which means every weed is pulled by hand or mechanically.

“We spend about $400 per acre for manual and mechanical cultivation weed control; that’s become common,” Pasztor says. It can vary greatly based on labor costs.

3. How much will infrastructure or labor costs change?

Cody Goodknight, raises cotton, wheat, soybeans, grain sorghum and sesame in Oklahoma. He relied heavily on agronomic advisers to help him through specialty crop decisions. His goal was not to drastically change his management style. For him, planting a variety of crops provided a wider planting and harvesting window. More crops also efficiently stretched his labor force.

“Instead of planting 2,000 acres of cotton in two days, we have two months to get all of our crops in the ground,” he says.

4. What premiums or cost savings are possible?

North-central Iowa farmer Zack Smith started growing high-oleic soybeans in 2017 because he could earn a 45¢ premium compared with traditional soybeans. The choice was easy, especially considering he didn’t have to make additional machinery investments.

5. How hard will it be to walk away if it doesn’t pencil out?

When Missouri corn, soybean and specialty crop farmer Johnny Hunter started growing popcorn in the mid-2010s, it was a logistical dream. However, factors outside of his control quickly made his popcorn farming days a short endeavor.

“The pros versus the cons started to tip, and the popcorn market lost its strength,” he says.

Because Hunter used his normal planter and the processing facility hauled the popcorn for him, it was easy to switch away from popcorn when the market fell. 


Read how these producers have learned to mind the details and manage risk of specialty crops at  AgWeb.com/beyond-corn-soybeans