Innovative ag research for specialty crops is underway at the NDSU North Central Research Extension Center
Innovative ag research for specialty crops is underway at the NDSU North Central Research Extension Center

Something special is growing in North Dakota, where innovative industry researchers and leaders are working to help the state flourish even more as a leading specialty crop producer in the U.S.

“North Dakota produces over 50 different commodities commercially and leads the nation in the production of many of them, including specialty crops such as dry edible beans, dry edible peas, lentils, potatoes and honey,” says Emily Edlund, who handles the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program through the North Dakota Department of Agriculture (NDDA). “We are now the eighth-largest exporter of agricultural products in the nation. In the last 10 years, we have increased our footprint from exporting to 63 countries to 83 countries in 2015.”

North Central Research Extension Center

Results From Research

At the North Dakota State University North Central Research Extension Center in Minot, a number of research activities are underway to enhance state specialty crop production, according to director Ken Grafton. Local research helps to address yield, disease and pests of specialty crops, which includes fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops.

Some projects are looking into plant breeding, including developing plant varieties that grow better in North Dakota’s land and climate. Plant pathology is being studied to understand and mitigate diseases that impact specialty crops.

Potato breeding and pathology is a big focus as well.

“For example, some grant money was used to research dry beans – pintos, in particular – to reduce the after-harvest darkening,” Grafton says. “That could be a huge economic benefit to dry bean producers in the state.”

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Grafton credits the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program with helping state farmers significantly increase acreages of specialty crops, thanks to the research occurring through the university.

“It’s exciting seeing a number of different specialty crops taking hold of significant acreages,” he says.

Potato research is a hot topic at the North Central Research Extension Center.
Potato research is a hot topic at the North Central Research Extension Center.

Getting With the Program

To help specialty crops flourish across the nation, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the Specialty Crop Block Program more than a decade ago, with grants distributed through state agricultural departments. Since 2006, NDDA has awarded more than $9 million to 133 projects to benefit the specialty crop industry as a whole. NDDA executes the program on behalf of USDA.

The funding has supported a significant increased production of specialty crops throughout the state, Edlund says.

“Fresh vegetable exports have doubled since 2006 and production of pulses such as lentils has grown five times,” she says. “This funding has encouraged North Dakota producers to grow more specialty crops, helping them to diversify their operations and giving them export opportunities. As the middle-class population in developing countries is set to reach record levels by 2020, North Dakota producers growing specialty crops such as pulses have the opportunity to export them to a world market that is demanding them.”

Along with research and expansion, the program is important to help educate farmers.

“The program helps teach young farmers about why these crops are important, and provides research to help them be more efficient when it comes to growing them,” Edlund says.

The Center grew and researched brassica carinata, or Ethiopian mustard, as a promising crop that could contribute to bioenergy production. It’s similar to canola.
The Center grew and researched brassica carinata, or Ethiopian mustard, as a promising crop that could contribute to bioenergy production. It’s similar to canola.

Special Exports

North Dakota leads the nation in agricultural exports, and that includes many specialty crops. The state is the top exporter of dry beans, sunflowers, peas and lentils, among others.

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The North Dakota Trade Office’s specialty crop program focuses on helping state farmers export those crops around the world, giving them more global visibility and reimbursing expenses.

“The intent is to get companies into new markets or expand their presence in a market,” says Dean Gorder, executive director of the North Dakota Trade Office.

According to Gorder, some crops – such as soybeans – are not considered specialty crops by the USDA, but can be marketed as such by the NDTO when grown using non-genetically modified (non-GMO) seeds or as an identity preservation (IP). IP crops are niche products with an intended end use. For example, a Japanese importer may have strict requirements of wanting to know the source of seed, where the crop was planted and from which farm it was harvested.

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