Since the late 1990s, North Carolina has seen an uptick in the production of specialty crops – or those crops not commonly produced in the state for commercial sale. These crops – which range from specialty melons to muscadine grapes – have not only added to the assortment of farm-fresh products for consumers, but have also introduced farmers to new and innovative growing techniques, helping to sustain many family farms through diversification.
Necessity Breeds Invention
Jackson Farming Company in Autryville began transitioning from traditional row crops to specialty crops with watermelon, eastern cantaloupe and sprite melons in the mid-1990s.
“[By introducing specialty melons,] we were able to enhance what we were already doing with watermelons and cantaloupes. The volume we were producing made it a natural fit in order to increase the melon varieties that could be marketed to our current base of customers,” says Matt Solana, vice president of operations/supply chain for Jackson Farming Company.
Solana says the farm has also successfully experimented with strawberries, pumpkins, broccoli and sweet potatoes, the latter of which continues to grow in volume.
“From a sales standpoint, the specialty melons are a small part of our business, but as a whole are another source of revenue and have a niche with certain customers we have developed over time,” Solana says. “By having different crops across the growing season – and year round with sweet potatoes – we are able to optimize the returns of the crops based on the market conditions and weather of that season. Much like a stock pick, we do not always win, but by being diversified and utilizing the information at hand prior to planning out each season, we have been able to grow our business, which is to us the first rule of sustainability.”
Variety Boosts The Bottom Line
Doug Patterson of Patterson Farm Inc. in Mount Ulla echoes the importance of diversification.
His family farm began diversifying in 1935, when his grandfather transitioned from traditional row crops to growing tomatoes after a boll weevil outbreak. While tomatoes still make up the bulk of the farm’s portfolio, Patterson also grows a number of specialty crops, including jalapeño peppers and muscadines.
“We have definitely diversified our crop, so we don’t have all of our eggs in one basket,” Patterson says. “In 2004, we grew 350 acres of tomatoes and that was basically it, and then the tomato market seemed very volatile. In 2010, we started trying to find substitutes or a way to cut back on tomato acreage and reduce our exposure. Jalapeño peppers worked well in the mix because they are grown with very similar production methods – black plastic, drip irrigation, stakes.”
That same year, Patterson Farm started growing bell peppers and long green cucumbers, decreasing the tomato acreage by half.
“We started with 20 acres of bell peppers and 10 acres of long green cucumbers in 2010. Since then, we’ve found a customer who markets those for us. We’re now growing 120 acres of bell peppers, 60 acres of cucumbers, about 200 acres of tomatoes and 20 acres of jalapeño peppers,” Patterson says.
“We’ve also been experimenting with watermelons, sweet corn, cantaloupe, squash and zucchini. In 2006, we put in 2 acres of muscadines. Every year we look at what we grow and whether it was profitable or not, and how the markets were.”
Der Xiong, Catawba County extension agent, says immigrant farmers are also a catalyst for experimentation with specialty crops because they bring a new perspective to farming. She works with local Hmong farmers to help them farm more sustainably and profitably. North Carolina has the fourth-largest population of Hmong people, whose heritage is tied to China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
“They see farming opportunities that most traditional farmers don’t see,” Xiong says. “One of the biggest examples is the plant amaranth. To a traditional row crop producer growing soybeans or corn, amaranth is nothing but a weed. Hmong farmers see amaranth as a type of vegetable – both nutritious and high in vitamins.”
Xiong says immigrant farmers introduce new crops and reintroduce old crops to small growers who want to expand and diversify their farm operations.
“For example, bitter melon is an uncommon plant, but more and more consumers are trying to find it because it’s believed to help lower cholesterol and high blood pressure. No farmer would want to grow the vegetable just by looking at the crop, but understanding more about the crop allows farmers and consumers to see the potential of the plant,” she says. “By diversifying the crops that farmers take to market, there are more varieties for consumers to purchase and less competition between farmers.”