Alternative Agronomic Crops
Patricia Sauer and Preston Sullivan
NCAT Agriculture Specialists
This publication provides an overview of the considerations involved in selecting, cultivating, and marketing alternative agronomic crops. Experimenting with alternative crops can be profitable but involves risk as well. Before venturing into an alternative crop, it is wise to investigate the market and determine whether any new equipment will be required. It is also advisable to talk to others who have grown the proposed crop. Many additional resources for alternative crop information are referenced in this publication.
Table of Contents
- Inventory of Available Resources
- Crop Selection
- Crop and Industrial Use Research
- Markets and Marketing
- Starting Points to Consider
Various factors have stimulated interest in crop diversification in recent years: commodity price instability, decreased or eliminated farm subsidies, increased pesticide-resistance in pests, and losses in genetic biodiversity. At the same time, consumer dietary changes have generated new markets for alternative food products.
Experimenting with an alternative crop involves both risks and opportunities, from both the production and the marketing standpoints. An alternative crop may make a positive contribution by increasing the diversity of the farm's income base, spreading out risks, reducing weaknesses in the farm system, or broadening the base of operations.
While some alternative crops provide additional markets or greater profitability compared to standard crops, others are not necessarily higher-value crops. Rather, they are added to a rotation to break up insect pest, weed, and disease cycles, to scavenge nutrients for other crops, to improve soil tilth and fertility, or to clean up weedy fields. They are used to spread out the workload, to make farming more fun and interesting, and to add system flexibility, especially with crops that can double as livestock feed or forage in bad crop years.
Farm diversification using alternative crops requires considerable research and planning,
from assessing available resources, to selecting potentially feasible crops, to exploring the crop market. Information regarding alternative crops is somewhat limited, especially when compared to that available for crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans. However, a lot of valuable information can be obtained by networking with other producers.
It's a good idea to begin by inventorying your available resources. This inventory might include some of the following information (1):
Land, Soil, Water
- How many acres do you own or rent?
- What are the soil types, soil tilth and fertility, erosion potential, and drainage?
- What is your source of water (surface or groundwater)?
- Do you rely on an irrigation system for current needs?
- What is the quality of the water and are there adequate supplies for irrigation?
- How are wastes and wastewater managed on your farm?
- Are water storage and water treatment facilities adequate?
Buildings and Equipment
- Do you have facilities and machinery that are underused and can they be used or adapted for other crops?
- Is grain storage available?
- Do you have access to a company or individual that manufactures specialized equipment or modifies existing equipment?
- Do you have off-farm employment?
- What are your slow months?
- How many employees do you currently have and are their schedules flexible?
- Do you have access to seasonal employees?
- Is your farm easily accessible and what are the conditions of the roads?
- What is the population within a 50-mile radius and the number of communities?
- What are your monthly and annual income needs and does your farm income meet these needs?
- What is your debt-to-equity ratio?
- Do you have access to additional capital?
- What are your current production costs per bushel/ton/pound/cwt.?
Business Management and Marketing
- Do you have a business plan?
- Do you maintain farm records and prepare and analyze balance sheets, income statements, cash flow records, labor flow records, and unit budgets?
- What does each labor hour you invest earn and what is your rate of return on investments?
- Do you compare major financial and production efficiency factors from one year to another?
- Do you network with other producers?
- How do you market your current commodities?
- Do you think of new ideas and enjoy planning new enterprises?
- Do you enjoy dealing with the public and can you manage people effectively?
- Do you try to find benefits when things don't turn out the way they were planned?
- Do you enjoy problem solving and do you learn from past mistakes?
The Small Farm Handbook (2) is one source of additional inventory topics and discusses all aspects of small farm operation and success. It serves as an applied discussion of small-scale farm operation in California for farms that raise organic and ethnic produce and unusual plant varieties. Topics include requirements for successful farming, finances, marketing, growing crops, handling of perishable crops, alternative agriculture, and labor management. Another source is Farming Alternatives: A Guide to Evaluating the Feasibility of New Farm Based Enterprises. (3) Worksheets are available in this publication to help assess the feasibility of diversifying farm operations. For more information on business planning, request the ATTRA publication entitled Evaluating a Rural Enterprise.
Alternative field crops are categorized as cereals and pseudocereals; grain legumes; oilseeds; industrial crops; and fiber crops. Table 1 below lists many of the crops that fall within these categories. Feasibility of a specific crop depends on a number of factors including the suitability of the crop for local growing conditions. Climate, soil characteristics, and pest problems affect crop productivity. Also worth considering is whether the alternative cash crop has other uses as well. For example, a number of the legumes and cereals have value as livestock forage. Should crop quality or markets be too low in a particular year, its usability as forage makes such a crop a less risky investment. The Appendix provides an extensive list of alternative crops, including area of adaptation, compiled by Kansas State University. (4)
The Alternative Field Crops Manual (5), from the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin, is a comprehensive source of production information on 48 alternative agronomic crops adapted to the upper Midwest. Detailed information is provided for each crop, including a brief history, growth habits, environmental requirements, cultural practices, yields, performance, economics and primary markets, and information sources. This manual is probably the single most informative resource available to farmers and Extension agents on this topic.
New crops and industrial products from these crops are being researched. Due to the complex nature of new crop production and development, progress seems slow. The following processes are involved in the development of an alternative crop: collection of cultivars, plant breeding for disease resistance and desirable plant traits, development of production and cultivation practices, and market considerations.
On national and state levels, a number of organizations transfer current research on cultivation and production of alternative crops. Some of these groups include:
- Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (Beltsville, MD) (15)
- Carrington Research/Extension Center (Carrington, ND) (16)
- Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products (St. Paul, MN) (17)
- Cooperative Extension Service (contact a local county office near you) (18)
- Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, Small Farm Program, USDA (Washington, D.C.) (19)
- Indiana Center for New Crops and Plant Products (West Lafayette, IN) (20)
- Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture (Poteau, OKB] (21)
- Missouri Alternatives Center (Missouri residents only) (Columbia, MO) (22)
- Small Farm Center (Davis, CA) (23)
Research is also being conducted on industrial products that can be manufactured from alternative crops. Industrial use updates on crops such as castor, lesquerella, crambe, industrial rapeseed, guayule, jojoba, kenaf, and milkweed are available from the New Uses Council. The New Uses Council's 1997 Bioproducts Directory (6) lists companies, organizations, researchers, and suppliers of products made from renewable agricultural, forestry, or livestock materials or residues. (The '97 version is the latest "paper" edition. A 1999 Web version of this directory is available at www.newuses.org.)
The Minnesota Agricultural Utilization Research Institute works to create new uses and new markets for Minnesota's agricultural commodities and alternative crops. (7) They publish a free newsletter called Ag Innovation News. They also do market research, technology transfer, and work one-on-one with Minnesota farmers and business people.
Several conference proceedings from the new crops meetings have been published. Many of the papers presented at these conferences are very technical in nature and may be of more use to researchers than to farmers. These proceedings cover a wide variety of new crops and many aspects of their growth, adaptation, and production. Their titles are:
- Advances in New Crops, edited by Jules Janick and J.E. Simon. 1990, 560 pages (8)
- New Crops, edited by Jules Janick and J.E. Simon. 1993, 710 pages (9)
- Progress in New Crops, edited by Jules Janick. 1996, 660 pages (10)
- Perspectives on New Crops and New Uses, edited by Jules Janick. 1999, 528 pages (11)
The Association for the Advancement of Industrial Crops (12) is an international, nonprofit educational and scientific organization that educates its members, the public, industry leaders, and government policy makers on utilization and commercialization of industrial products from agricultural crops. Over half of the membership is involved in research and development of industrial crops. For information on upcoming conferences as well as program abstracts of past meetings, see the AAIC.
The bottom line in raising crops is whether the projected receipts for the crop will be greater than the projected costs for producing it. It is the responsibility of each producer to carefully evaluate the marketing potential for an alternative field crop before getting into production.
Market supply and demand, depth of market in terms of how much of a crop is needed to saturate the market, and market stability are very important topics to research. Availability and location of the nearest market, marketing strategies, and access to processing are also important considerations.
Markets for alternative crops can vary greatly, depending on the crop. For a few examples:
- Approximately 95% of the buckwheat produced in North Dakota and surrounding states is exported to Japan where it is milled into flour and used to prepare noodles for human consumption. (13)
- Grain millet grown in Florida and Georgia is becoming a major feed source for broilers in these states, a substitute for maize that reduces the need for high protein supplements in feed. (13)
- Proso millet is marketed through elevators where it is grown locally and is used for birdseed.
- Spelt is grown under contract and sold to health food stores as grain, white flour, and processed products such as pancake mix and cereals. It is marketed as a wheat alternative for people who have wheat allergies.
Many alternative crops are marketed by contract to processors or packers. It is unlikely that alternative crops are handled by local elevators or marketing channels. Elevators in some locations will take alternative crops, but they should be contacted before planting specific crops that are intended for delivery to them.
It is common for companies developing products based on unusual alternative crops to integrate vertically. That is, they lease land, use their own managers, and hire local labor. As mentioned earlier, when considering an alternative crop, it is necessary to carefully research all aspects related to the production, processing, and sale of that crop.
There are several resources available that provide information on alternative crop markets and marketing. The National Organic Directory (14), is updated annually and focuses on organically grown commodities and alternative crops. Specific marketing information on organically grown wheat, oats, and sunflowers, and a list of some markets for these crops, are available in Northern Plains Organic Crops Marketing Analysis. (13) The Cooperative Extension Service in some states has compiled a list of buyers of some alternative commodities. Commodity groups may also have such a list. Also, many state agriculture departments and land-grant university agricultural economics departments may have market information for specific crops.
Talk to others who are already doing it. If you don't know anyone already involved in the enterprise, locate the state, regional, and national groups involved and get a list of local contacts. Avoid being swayed by hype. If possible, also talk to some folks who have tried and failed. We often learn more from failure than from success.
Read all you can about your proposed enterprise. The popular farm press commonly picks up on new trends and features articles on new crops. Furthermore, there are typically a wealth of newsletters and journals that arise following the introduction of new crops and other enterprises. The Internet also offers a new, rapid means of accessing information on new topic areas. If you don't own a computer, you can usually get internet access at your local library or Extension office.
Learn about the equipment for any new crops. Where feasible, choose crops that only require adjustment or some modification of your current equipment, rather than requiring significant investment in new or different equipment.
Study the markets. Get a good sense of the market possibilities for any crop or product you are considering producing. Identify wholesalers, retailers, brokers, direct marketing options, and other resources that can be helpful. Ask other producers how they market.
Learn the specialty market standards required. Evaluate your ability to meet standards for cleanliness, packaging, crop quality, etc. Some requirements are rather unique. For example, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides may not be used on a field for three years before a harvested crop may be sold as "organically grown."
Establish your market connection BEFORE you grow your crop. This is especially critical for highly specialized commodities like edible soybeans. The seeds of edible soybeans are often colored differently from conventional beans, making them difficult or impossible to sell through conventional channels as a fallback option.
Become techno-smart. Get comfortable with the idea of using the phone and the computer to market your products.
Be flexible. When dealing with niche enterprises, it is often necessary to move quickly in response to rapidly changing market conditions. Farmers must constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve and innovate.
Think (w)holistically. Consider more than just immediate, short-term profits when investigating new crops and enterprises. Diversification may not actually increase profits. What it can do is make profitability more reliable by smoothing out the ride between good and bad years. There may be additional benefits. Perhaps adding a new crop to the rotation will reduce problem pests... or maybe it will build soil fertility. Develop a whole-farm business plan and study carefully how well a new enterprise can be integrated.
Internet resources. Surf the internet to find organizations, such as ATTRA, that provide information on alternative field crops and sustainable agriculture. Many Web homepage addresses are included with the citations in the reference section of this document.
Farmers interested in alternative crops should inventory their current farm resources and carefully review the production and marketing potential of these crops before planting. Networking is an essential part of this process. ATTRA and other organizations mentioned in this publication have more detailed information on specific crops and the suitability of these crops for certain regions and farm production systems. Seed sources and marketing information can be obtained through elevators, Extension personnel, commodity groups, processors, and other channels.
- Hoffman, Steven M. (ed.). 1987. ADAPT 2: Ag Diversification Adds Profits Today-100 Ideas for Farmers. Proceedings of the Successful Farming Magazine Conference, held December 3-4, 1987 in Kansas City, Missouri. (OUT OF PRINT. See local library interlibrary loan department.)
- Small Farm Handbook, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Oakland, CA.
To order send $20.00 + $4.50 S & H to:
University of California
6701 San Pablo Avenue
Oakland, CA 94608-1239
800-994-8849 or 510-642-2431
- Grudens-Schuck, Nancy, et al. 1988. Farming Alternatives: A Guide to Evaluating the Feasibility of New Farm-Based Enterprises. Northeast Regional Agricultural Engineering Service, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
To order, send $3.75 to:
152 Riley Robb Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
- Shroyer, James P. and Donald B. Erickson. 1987. Specialty and Non-Traditional Crops. MF-844, Cooperative Extension Service, Kansas State University, Manhattan. January. 6 p.
- Alternative Field Crops Manual. 1989-1992. University of Wisconsin-Extension, Cooperative Extension, University of Minnesota Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products, and University of Minnesota Extension Service.
Available online at www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/index.html.
- Harsch, Jonathan (ed). 1997. The New Uses Council's 1997 Bioproducts Directory.
To order ($40.00 for members, $80.00 for nonmembers) contact:
New Uses Council
295 Tanglewood Drive
East Greenwich, RI 02818-2210
- Minnesota Agricultural Utilization Research Institute
P.O. Box 599
Crookston, MN 56716-0599
Newsletter: Ag Innovation News (free subscription).
- Advances in New Crops.
Paper version out of print. Web version available at www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/CropInfoSources/NewCropsBook1990_info.html
- New Crops.
Paper version out of print. Web version available at www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/CropInfoSources/NewCropsBook1993_info.html
- Progress in New Crops.
Available for $79.95 + $7 shipping and handling from:
113 South West Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-2857
Web version available free at www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/CropInfoSources/NewCropsBook1996_info.html
- Perspectives on New Crops and New Uses.
Available for $99.95 + $7 shipping and handling from ASHS Press (see above reference). This publication is not available on the Web.
- Association for the Advancement of Industrial Crops (AAIC)
c/o U.S. Water Conservation Laboratory
4331 E. Broadway Road
Phoenix, AZ 85040
- Stearns, Larry, and David Watt. 1993. Northern Plains Organic Crops Marketing Analysis: Wheat, Oats, Sunflower. Agricultural Economics Report No. 293. Department of Agricultural Economics-Agricultural Experiment Station, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND.
This publication provides useful information on organic production including wheat, oats, and sunflowers in the Northern Plains. A survey of organic producers was conducted in the region. Supply and demand information along with producer experiences, buyer/processor responses and distributor/retailer responses are included. A list of organic buyers is included.
To order this free publication, contact:
North Dakota State University
Department of Agricultural Economics
Morrill Hall, Room 217
Fargo, North Dakota 58102
- National Organic Directory. Community Alliance with Family Farmers. Davis, California.
This document provides extensive information on organic farming and sustainable agriculture. Included is a list of farmers, wholesalers, farm suppliers, resource groups, manufacturers/processors, commodity groups, and importers/exporters.To order send $51.15 (includes shipping) to:
National Organic Directory
Community Alliance with Family Farmers
P.O. Box 363
Davis, CA 95617
Order line only: 800-852-3832
- Alternative Farming Systems Information Center
USDA's National Agricultural Library
10301 Baltimore Avenue
Beltsville, MD 20705-2351
This information service provides literature searches including information on potential enterprises for diversification, association and agency contacts, and current research by USDA and other organizations.
- Carrington Research Extension Center
North Dakota State University
P.O. Box 219
Carrington, ND 58421
The center will provide some assistance in determining the adaptability of some alternative crops to specific locations. A report of agricultural research including alternative field crops and extension in North Dakota is published annually. The latest publication available is volume 38, December 1997.
- Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products
University of Minnesota
352 Alderman Hall, Room 352
1970 Folwell Avenue
Saint Paul, MN 55108
612-624-4217 or 612-625-5747
Newsletter: BioOptions (published quarterly; cost is $10.00).
- Cooperative Extension Service: see your local county office or refer to this list of extension Web sites for most states.
- USDA Small Farm Program Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service
For publications write to:
Mail Stop 2220,
868 Aerospace Center, 901 D Street
Washington, D.C. 20250
Free newsletter: Small Farm Digest
- Indiana Center for New Crops and Plant Products
1165 Horticulture Building
West Lafayette, IN 47907-1165
The Center's homepage is dedicated to new crops and plant products and includes sections on announcements, upcoming symposia, meetings, a new crops library, copies of New Crop News, and a directory of new crop experts.
- Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture
P.O. Box 588
Poteau, OK 74953-0588
- Missouri Alternatives Center
531 Clark Hall
Columbia, MO 65211
800-433-3704 (Missouri only)
Newletter: Ag Opportunities (free for residents of MO; out-of-state subscriptions $10.00; also available on-line at the Web site).
- Small Farm Center
University of California-Davis
1 Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616
Newsletter: Small Farm News
See pages 9-11 in the PDF version of Alternative Agronomic Crops [PDF/ ).
Alternative Agronomic Crops
By Patricia Sauer and Preston Sullivan
NCAT Program Specialists
Tiffany Nitschke, HTML Production
This page was last updated on: August 28, 2014