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Alternative Agriculture

Posted Apr. 1, 1997

During the eighties, the buzz word we all heard a lot was alternative agriculture. Horticultural crops, particularly vegetables or "truck crops" gained the most attention. I was a horticulture student at OSU in the mid-eighties and I rode that wave of alternative ag and all that it promised. The following are some of my observations.

The excitement got started in the early eighties when wheat was barely bringing over $2 and corn and soybeans weren't much better. On the other hand, watermelons might bring $1,000 an acre and tomatoes were worth $.75-$1 per pound. Of course, that sounded interesting to many farmers and politicians; so, soon we saw a revival of the old-fashioned farmer's market.

The question many people have is, are horticultural crops a viable alternative to conventional crops?' I will have to answer that like an economist and say 'it depends'. These are high value crops, and if a producer can find a niche, good money can be made. However, there is a little more to consider than just dollar signs per unit. Alternative agriculture will mean a major change from your conventional ag lifestyle.

First, the type of labor required usually involves a lot of stooping and hand work, tying vines, picking fruit, loading heavy melons, etc. Also, these are usually highly perishable crops. Handling is different and timing is of the essence. Speaking of time, many growers will be surprised at the inordinate amount of time such a small acreage requires. An acre of tomatoes might take as much time and effort as 100 acres of most field crops.

You may spend time developing your own markets. These are not traditional crops grown here (except maybe watermelon). Several farmer's markets are in place, but in reality this is a limited market. An ambitious salesman might have $1,000 in gross sales per week if the market is strong (which you can't always count on), but the selling season will probably be 14-16 weeks at best.

Wholesale markets can provide an avenue to move more produce, but your business may have to grow. You will need quality, quantity, and consistency to interest most wholesalers. This can mean a big investment in specialized equipment, packing equipment, packaging, coolers, and labor to get it all done all for wholesale prices. In addition, shipping is cheap, so growers in our climate have a hard time competing with South Texas, Florida, The Great Lakes States, etc.

Selling on the farm is the answer for some people. Some advantages are retail prices without a middleman, ability to sell blemished produce that would be culled for wholesale, and you don't have to pack up and sit at a market all day. However, remember that if you open your farm to the public, they will come. Do you want strangers wandering across your farm and showing up at all hours?

You can remedy that to a degree by setting open hours, although you nearly have to lock the gate in off-hours because most customers think those hours don't apply to them, especially after driving all the way from town. Also, remember that if you set hours, you have to be there. You can't go to Junior's ball game, or go to watch your cattle sell, and you can't be out in the field spraying even though you need to be.

Horticulture is loosely defined as intensive agriculture. The demand for fresh produce is there and the price can be good. The question again is whether or not this is a viable alternative. Well...that just depends on how intensive you want your agricultural lifestyle to be.

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