Alternative Crops, Page 3
|Grown on 2 million acres in the U.S., dry edible beans command higher prices than soybeans, in part to cover more care in harvesting and post-harvest handling. |
– Photo by Mandy Rodrigues
Managing an alternative crop presents different challenges than raising a more traditional crop. Producers trying alternatives may need to tap into a loose network of other growers. Crop-specific organizations or newsletters can provide valuable information. (See “Resources”)
Always begin with small test plots rather than large acreages of an unfamiliar crop. Planting single rows or small patches of three or more alternative crops – multiple varieties if possible – the first year can yield invaluable information. In the second year, increase the area devoted to testing and perhaps reduce the number of varieties or crops. By the third year, it will be evident which crops and varieties offer the best potential.
Seed selection. For most alternative crops, far fewer seed varieties are available. Often, you need to look far afield from the typical seed sources. Contact crop buyers before purchasing seed to see whether they have contract stipulations for certain varieties. Obtain university variety test data or test a few varieties before planting a large acreage of a single variety of an unfamiliar crop.
Planting. Most alternative crops have not been bred for vigorous seedling growth and thus can be more difficult to establish. As with any crop, careful planting is crucial to its success. For specific planting guidelines, talk to your seed dealer, Extension educator or the organizations listed in “Resources”.
Although many summer annual crops have a reasonably wide window of planting times, especially in southern regions, winter annual crops must be planted by a specific time to survive. No-till planting is possible with many alternative crops, but mediocre seedling vigor, shallow planting requirements and lack of effective insect control can be challenges for no-till establishment.
Pest management. Pest management for alternative crops depends both on the potential marketplace – organic or conventional – and the availability of pest control tools and strategies. Since few, if any, pesticides are registered for most alternative crops, you may need to rely on organic pest control strategies such as crop rotation or biological control agents.
Harvesting. Alternative fruits and vegetables may require labor-intensive hand harvest. Mechanical harvest of alternative grains and oilseeds is usually feasible with conventional equipment, but equipment adjustments or modifications may be necessary, at least to adjust for seed size.
Some alternative grains have “lodging” or seed shatter problems that make a timely harvest especially important. Since many alternative crops do not dry down evenly in the field before harvest, some air drying of stored grain may be necessary.
Insurance. Although producers can obtain crop insurance for sunflowers and other widely grown alternative species, it is not available for some new crops. USDA disaster payments may sometimes be applied to alternative crops when droughts or other widespread crop losses occur. If federal crop insurance does not cover an alternative crop, producers can apply for “non-insured crop disaster assistance” through their local Farm Service Agency office. See USDA’s Risk Management Agency website for more information. <www.rma.usda.gov/policies/>
Challenges to Diversifying Your System
Like any new venture, diversifying your farm will pose some new challenges. However, being prepared and calling on experts for advice (see “Resources”) can help you surmount most obstacles. Some of the most common include:
Market development. Expect to conduct substantial research.
Information on varietal performance, best management practices and post-harvest handling and storage may be hard to find. See “Resources” for groups that can help.
Seed selection may be limited and plant establishment may be difficult.
Pesticides labeled for alternative crops may not be available. Diverse systems can help break pest life cycles.
A need to modify or replace equipment. Consider that hand labor may occasionally be the only viable option.
Harvesting, post-harvest handling and storage considerations, with possible additional costs.
Locating local businesses and infrastructure for handling, transporting, processing, storing and marketing.
Price swings for alternative crops. The more diverse your crop list, the better you can buffer your economic risk.
Contracts. Sometimes contracts are not available for alternative crops every year – or at all.