Making the leap: How niche crops go mainstream

Iowa State University horticulture professor Ajay Nair grew sweet potatoes on a university farm to gauge their viability in the Midwest. (Photo by Amy Mayer, Harvest Public Media)
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January 28, 2014 - 6:30am

In the Midwest, agriculture is dominated by the major commodities – corn, soybeans and wheat. Diverting acres away from a major crop to an un-tested crop is risky, but if farming practices and market forces align farmers can reap the benefits.

Sixth-generation Iowa farmer Andrew Pittz calls himself the Farmer in Chief at his family’s Sawmill Hollow Family Farm, where they grow aronia berries. He says theirs is the first commercial-scale aronia berry farm in the United States. The dark, native fruit has the common name black chokeberry.

Pittz says it started when his father observed the growth of the so-called superfruits, acai and goji berries. They decided to start an aronia operation when the elder Pittz noticed aronia berries were in many of the products made from superfruits. He wanted to capitalize on the fad.

“My dad said, `I think we can grow this here,’” Pittz said. “[He] looked into it. There was no knowledge of growing the aronia berry.”

Photo by Amy Mayer, Harvest Public Media

Andrew Pittz and his family operate a commercial aronia berry farm in Iowa, which supplies berries and value-added products to retailers nationwide.

Photo by Amy Mayer, Harvest Public Media

Boone County, Iowa, farmer Greg Rinehart grew sweet corn last year for the frozen food giant Birds Eye. This year, he’ll grow corn and peas. 

But they found some plants and gave it a go. Now, planting the bushes and harvesting the fruit make up one critical part of the business. But, Pittz says, equally important is courting and nurturing the market.

“When you’re doing something new you develop both simultaneously,” Pittz said. “So we’ve been developing the best practices in agriculture as we’ve been developing the best practices in the marketplace.”

Pittz’ work has paid off. His berries are found in products sold nationwide from chili starter and salsa to health supplements. And now other Midwestern farmers are growing the fruit, too.

Another option for diversifying is to expand a crop currently grown on a small scale. Iowa State Extension horticulture professor Ajay Nair says the momentum for local foods across the region prompted him to consider whether the Midwest could grow more of its own sweet potatoes, a crop normally grown in California and the South. He’s found that it does grow well in Central Iowa. But he cautions against planting without adequate planning.

“Before growing it on a larger acreage, growers have to, first, identify their markets,” Nair said. “Because if there is no market, there is no point. If the crop is a specialty crop or a commodity crop, if you can’t sell it, it doesn’t make any sense.”

That’s why the vegetable that’s currently leaping from specialty niche crop to commercial scale is sweet corn. Birds Eye Foods, the Minnesota frozen food giant, came south looking for growers last year.

Gary Paulson, ag manager at Birds Eye Foods, says the company needed sweet corn earlier than it could harvest up north. Field corn dominates in Iowa, so to get 600 acres of sweet corn, they offered central Iowa farmers some business incentives.

“They like to know what their risk is and what types of guarantees that we have to offer them. So those are the sort of things that we’re prepared to talk about,” said Paulson, who was back in Iowa meeting with farmers this month.

Greg Rinehart is one of the Boone County, Iowa, farmers who met with Birds Eye and last season he planted 55 acres of sweet corn, which Birds Eye sent its own crew and equipment down to harvest. Thanks to contracts that guaranteed prices and soil that yielded well, the experiment worked.

Rinehart displays a small sign in his dining room that says “Peas… farm fresh.” This year, he’ll grow those for Birds Eye, too. The company wants 1,000 acres of peas and 2,000 acres of sweet corn in central Iowa this year.

“They want early production of peas down our way before they start their pea picking up and around the Minnesota area,” Rinehart said.

By guaranteeing both market and price, Birds Eye has little trouble attracting growers.  That’s a common model and researchers at the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff hope to emulate it on the plains of western Nebraska—but with a very different crop and market in mind.

“Fenugreek is primarily a crop of India,” says professor Alexander Pavlista, who is a potato expert at the center. “It is commonly used as a spice but it’s also a medicinal crop and that’s actually where it’s more important.”

Pavlista and a colleague are studying fenugreek and introducing it to farmers with the hope of realizing a system that Pavlista calls “farm to pharma.”

“Where we can go right from the farm right to the pharmaceuticals,” he said. “So it’s a vertical system.”

Pavlista says it’ll be three to five more years before farmers could be harvesting their first fenugreek crops. But he says both the University of Nebraska Medical Center and area farmers are interested.

With corn prices falling and more international competition for commodities like soybeans and wheat, the shrewd business owners on Midwestern farmland need to have innovation and change—and maybe someday sweet potatoes or fenugreek—in their toolkits. 



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