Specialty-Crop: Producers Look Past Corn and Soybeans For Profits

October 4, 2016 07:30 AM

Many farmers are focused on bringing in the harvest and mapping out marketing decisions for the fall and winter. Yet there are plenty of entrepreneurs willing to look past rows of corn and soybeans to the potential profit locked inside unusual plants.

U.S. producers are investigating sales possibilities for crops such as hemp, pawpaw fruit and edamame, three different crops with similar challenges. Farmers who intend to grow them must learn all of their agronomic needs, crunch the numbers on costs and ensure the necessary infrastructure is in place to process and market them. For those who break into a niche, the revenue can be tremendous.

Hemp's Fiber Ceiling Shatters

Ryan Loflin bet the farm in 2013. The Springfield, Colo., farmer ordered hemp seed by mail from Europe and dotted 60 acres with the crop. He waited for a cease-and-desist order to arrive—but Uncle Sam never came knocking. As a result, Loflin became the first U.S. farmer since the 1940s to grow industrial hemp.

Amid low commodity prices, hemp is beckoning U.S. farmers. Federal prohibition remains in place, but some states are moving forward with legalization. As a result, 29 states have passed legislation allowing hemp cultivation for research or pilot programs.

"The potential is there for $1,800 per hemp acre and even higher."

However, political wheels turn slowly. Industrial hemp production was banned due to marijuana association. Both are in the Cannabis sativa family, yet hemp is marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin.

Hemp and hypocrisy are tight bedfellows of U.S. policy: Buy, manufacture, even eat hemp products but don’t dare to grow it. More than 30 countries benefit from the U.S. being the world’s top consumer of hemp goods.

Producers choose hemp for one of three purposes: seed, fiber or medicine. In 2016, Loflin planted 520 acres, 120 for seed and 400 for medicine. “There’s good money in seed,” Lofl in says. “You can pull $300 per acre right now at a minimum, but the potential is there for $1,800 per acre and even higher.” —Chris Bennett.

Read more about hemp:

Not Pot: U.S. Hemp Farms Take Root Under State Pilot Programs

Colorado Hits Another Cannabis 1st with Certified Hemp Seed

Tennessee Farmers Backing Away From Hemp Farming After 2015 Struggles

Pawpaw: The Forgotten U.S. Fruit


In 1976, curiosity enticed Neal Peterson to pick a ripe fruit from a pawpaw tree along the wooded banks of West Virginia’s Monongahela River. The taste was phenomenal, a soft blend of mango and banana. The flesh is orange, and most large varieties can reach 1 lb.

Led by Peterson’s drive for more than 30 years and the work of university researchers, the pawpaw is slowly beginning to emerge in the marketplace.

The tree’s natural range is roughly from Chicago to New Orleans, eastern Kansas to the Chesapeake Bay, and northern Florida up to northern New Jersey. Peterson established a business, Peterson Pawpaws, which sells six pawpaw varieties. Most pawpaw demand comes from farmers markets, restaurants, wineries and breweries. —Chris Bennett.

Edamame Waits In The Wings


The edible soybean known as edamame is a perennial mystery crop for U.S. agriculture. Almost every edamame crunch is cash for Asian producers, despite U.S. farmers having the soil, climate, know-how and demand waiting in the bag. Why are farmers leaving edamame on the table? Because if edamame isn’t plucked, shucked and frozen in quick fashion, it fades like a snowflake in summer.

Green in harvest color, edamame remains out of reach for most farmers due to a severe lack of logistics and processing plants. Edamame is the same crop species as grain-type soybeans. However, it’s seeds are larger and have a sweet, nutty flavor that is served in vegetable form. It has been eaten in Asia for centuries as a snack. There has been limited edamame planting in the U.S., but production has increased in the past decade. In the early 2000s, edamame began catching the attention of more Americans. Most U.S. supermarkets now carry edamame, but flip the bag over and note the countries of origin: China and Thailand.

Awareness of edamame is building, but acreage is not, adds Linda Funk, executive director of The Soyfoods Council. —Chris Bennett.

Cash In On Row-Crop Variants

There are plenty of out-of-the-way crops producers can pursue. Yet there are also variations on crops such as corn and soybeans they’re already very familiar with. As local and international consumer marketplaces change, farmers who cater their crop-diversification strategy toward organically grown food or healthier options might find themselves with ready buyers for these kinds of crops, too.

Organic Corn


Only hippies and anti-GMO zealots grow organic crops, right? Wrong. Just ask Timothy Gertson of southeast Texas, who has found a profi t window in organic corn. As grain prices tank, necessity is the mother of organic acreage for many producers. USDA’s 2014 Organic Survey showed $3.3 billion in total value of crops sold, a big jump from 2008’s $2 billion. Corn for grain had the fourth-highest 2014 sales of any organic crop at $155 million. An attractive big price of $10.50 per bushel convinced Gertson to plant 220 of his 2,000 acres to conventional corn. G5 Farms has gained organic certification, but Gertson says the process was lengthy and frustrating. He plans to increase organic production. —Chris Bennett.

Read more about organic corn:

Cashing in on the Organic Market

Organic Feed Boom Means U.S. Cows Feast on Romanian Corn Instead

Midwest Farmers Transitioning to Organic Can Get Aid

High-Oleic Soybeans


In northeastern Indiana and western Ohio, John Nidlinger says switching to high-oleic soybeans three years ago helped him charge forward. Farmers are growing high-oleic soybeans to meet consumer demand for fewer trans-fats and to help win back share of the edible-oil market. Currently, 450,000 acres of soybeans are dedicated to high-oleic production in the U.S., but it will take 18 million acres of high-oleic soybeans to meet U.S. demand alone, according to the United Soybean Board. Producers who’ve taken the plunge find that extra management is typically rewarded with a 50¢ premium compared to commodity soybeans. —Sonja Begemann.

Read more about high-oleic soybeans:

Genetics Bring High Value to High Oleic Soybeans

Coming Soon: A New Customer for High Oleic Soybeans

High-Protein Soybeans


Diminishing protein levels are a cause of concern across the U.S. soybean spectrum, say Dan Corcoran and Jared Hagert, both of the United Soybean Board. Soybean meal is the Cadillac protein source for an insatiable global livestock market. As U.S. soybean protein levels slide, competing products become more viable: dried distillers grains (DDGS), canola meal and synthetic amino acids. New varieties typically take seven to 10 years to develop. A concerted effort to build a better soybean and turn production in a new direction must catch wind with farmers. “We need to select for increased protein and oil, and not sacrifice yield,” Corcoran says. —Chris Bennett.

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