FarmLead Co-Founder and COO Alain Goubau shares his take on how farmers can stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing ag market. Goubau previously built chemical plants in China, co-founded a Softbank-funded company called Altaeros, and worked on the global ag strategy team at McKinsey.
Considering a new crop? While both exciting and frightening, there are big considerations to make before you start picking out seed. Like many other producers, you are likely thinking about:
- Diversifying crop base for rotation/agronomic benefit purposes
- If there’s more money to be made growing a new crop
- Limiting risk to crop failure or crop price fluctuations
You are not alone. However, before you go out and buy seed, you need to consider which crops are worth your time. You’ll need information first and foremost. There is absolutely no point in making any investment unless you know if there is a market and if and how you can successfully grow the crop.
At the farm-level, you already know what you need before adding a new crop into the mix. You know what equipment you already have that can be adapted or used ''as-is''; you also have a deep understanding of your own local climate and soil. So with that information already in your back pocket, which new crops should you consider?
Start with gathering intel! There are so many sources of information, several of which you’ve certainly used or have come across here. But how can you tap those information sources to make the best decision about adding new crops?
Where to Look and What to Consider
Trade shows are a great source of inspiration and ideas. I find I learn the most by attending trade shows from farming regions far away from me. I’m not talking driving across the state – I’m talking traveling to the other side of the country, or even a Canadian or European ag show. Of course, a region’s crops represent what grows best there – but we often overlook how crops can grow in regions that you would consider quite different.
It could simply be a question of gaining experience or knowledge in growing the crop, adapting your growing approach to local conditions, or perhaps even finding locally adapted varieties. Talking to the seed reps at those trade shows, seeing the machinery and meeting grain buyers can give you a sense of what is out there. It is a great chance to get new ideas and educate yourself on your options.
Once you have a potential new crop or crops in mind, there is still a lot of homework to be done. First, you need to consider the agronomic conditions the crop requires to grow well. Make sure you have a strong understanding of nutrient and soil requirements, impact of the crop on your soil fertility, whether there are varieties more suited to the growing conditions where you are from, what cultivation techniques can be used to grow the crop, and any trade-offs between different cultivation techniques.
Also consider how to ensure the final quality of the crop (for crops where quality is critical), where you can find a dealer for seed or equipment in your region, and whether they know of any producer associations, extension schools, or growers in your vicinity who may know a thing or two about the crop. Intel gathering, as you can tell, is a huge part of what can make or break your investment in a new crop!
In addition, it is incredibly important to pay attention to trends and see if you can connect them to the underlying crops that might fit market demand. A few examples of new crop opportunities currently on my mind and questions I’d ask:
- Oat milk! It seems like oat milk is getting a ton of market buzz as of late. Oats are easy to grow, but is there an opportunity to grow a certain quality of oat for the oat milk market?
- Plant-based protein is another big consumer trend, but how and where can you best grow peas or other leguminous crops?
- Specialty breads have been around for more than a decade, but consumer popularity hasn’t waned. Whatancient cereal varieties or specialty oilseeds could be a strong addition? Micro-breweries -- need I say more! While they need malt, why not consider growing hops?
As a farmer in the age of the internet, you are well-placed to research production techniques, so make time to read up on papers and research from ag extension schools, etc. By the way, just like going to trade shows outside your area, reading about agriculture in other areas can give you lots of interesting crop ideas!
Making the Final Call
The point is that even though you aren’t going to drastically change your cropping strategy based on some new trend you read about once or learned about at an event, being curious can give you ideas and a starting point for your research.
Once you have identified a crop you are interested in, follow the work of relevant agronomists/ag extension researchers closely. Actively talk to the local folks who know or have tried a new crop in your area. Ask them to give you a sense of potential buyers and/or what the local market for the crop, if any, might look like. At the same time, leverage their experience and get first hand exposure to the ins and outs. In your research and conversations, keep this checklist in mind before investing in a new crop to stack the odds of success in your favor:
- There is a market for the crop you want to grow
- The agronomic conditions in your area fit the crops requirements
- Factoring input costs and your likely yield, the crop is going to be profitable
- Trying the crop doesn’t require significant investment in new equipment
- Local resources are available (other growers, agronomists, extension schools, seed providers) to help you succeed in growing the crop
Never be afraid to try something different in the mix -- you might be pleasantly surprised.