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Alternative and Specialty Crops

confectionary flower field

Specialty Crop Production:
Vegetables, Herbs, and Other Uncommon Crops

Jeanine M. Davis
Department of Horticultural Science

Many North Carolina growers are looking for alternative crops to produce. If you are one of them, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself before you start growing something new and unusual. First of all, what kind of crops grow well on your farm? What kind of equipment do you have? Do you have irrigation? Do you have a greenhouse? How intensively managed a crop are you willing, or able, to take on? How do you want to market your new crop? Do you want to grow large volumes and sell wholesale to chainstores or through a melloncooperative? Do you want to sell direct to small specialty retailers, restaurants, and caterers? Or do you want to sell direct to consumers at a roadside stand or farmers' market? You need to consider all these factors before trying to choose a particular crop. Let's look at some of the options.

Let's start with something easy and trendy--ethnic vegetables. In most instances, if you can grow standard vegetables, you can grow most ethnic vegetables. Ones that are particularly "hot" on the market right now are Hispanic or Latino vegetables. All of the produce publications are talking about them. The demand is not just from the growing Hispanic population but from the increasing taste for Mexican food by people all over the country. Take jicama, for example. This is a root crop. Although it is usually grown in much warmer climates then North Carolina, we have successfully grown it at a research station in the southern mountains of that state. To get a marketable root that far north, we need touse black plastic mulch and the plants have to be trellised. The roots we grow aren't as large as market display of vegetablesthose coming from more tropical regions, but some consumers prefer a smaller root. There are a wide variety of hot peppers that can be grown. They come in hundreds of colors, types, and levels of heat. Tomatillos, a little husk-type tomato, are increasingly popular and used in many Mexican dishes. If you can grow tomatoes, you can grow tomatillos.

The Asian population in the U.S. is also growing at a rapid rate. There are many fruits and vegetables that people of Asian descent are accustomed to eating that are not readily available in the U.S. For example, bitter melon is a hard to find Asian vegetable. We trellis it to maintain high fruit quality. There are a large number of Oriental type melons which are increasingly popular. Several of these varieties are being developed by the Specialty Crops Program for eastern NC growers. There are also a large number of Chinese greens, mustards, and radishes that you may want to experiment with. Asian peppers can also add variety to your crop mix. Our researchers are developing a special sweet potato, called Boniato, which is preferred by Asian and Hispanic markets.

Beautiful melons can be produced in much of eastern NC. Another NC State University researcher is looking at a large number of specialty melons for the region. Already growers are producing red, yellow, and orange-fleshed seedless watermelons and canteloupes.

lettuceThis is a good time to point out that growing specialty fruits and vegetables is not easy and supplies are usually limited. As a result, prices for specialty crops are usually considerably higher than for conventional produce. This can bring higher returns for the grower, but only if the produce sells. To sell specialty produce takes a certain kind of market located in the right area. But most importantly, the produce must be of the highest quality. Use the strictest of grading standards and package carefully. The consumer will be paying premium prices and expects premium, high-quality products.

Lettuce seems like a common enough crop, but how much is grown in North Carolina? Most of the lettuce sold in this state is shipped from Florida or California. Think of how tender, sweet, and tasty lettuce is right from the garden. That's because it is fresh. We can grow lettuce in most regions, if not all regions, of North Carolina. Many of our organic growers have already figured out that there is a strong market for locally grown lettuce.

The consumer loves peppers; all different kinds. And we can grow some of the prettiest peppers in North Carolina. Try many varieties including hot ones, sweet ones, colored bells, and unusually shaped ones. Don't over plant, though. Most people only buy a few specialty peppers at a time, but having a vast variety attracts attention.

grape tomatoTomatoes are also very popular, especially unusual tomatoes, heirloom varieties, grape tomatoes, and small pear shaped yellow tomatoes. Experiment with many different kinds, and if you are growing heirloom varieties, be sure to advertise that point. There are some consumers who will go out of their way to buy a ‘German Johnson' or ‘Brandywine' tomato!

Don't overlook crops such as leeks, tiny new potatoes, kohlrabi, garlic, elephant garlic, and beets. These are probably not going to be large volume crops for you, but with the right market, they can be quite lucrative. These kinds of vegetables usually do well at a farmers' market, especially if people can count on you having those kinds of vegetables all the time.

Look in any grocery store and you are sure to see at least three different kinds of mushrooms. There is very little local mushroom production in North Carolina, so the mushrooms in the supermarket have been shipped a long way, and they usually look like it. Also, there is a very limited selection available. Most mushrooms, however, are easy to grow. Information on growing shiitake mushrooms is readily available and the Specialty Crops Program is considering starting a mushroom program to look at many different kinds of mushrooms in the near future.

Herbs have never been more popular than they are now. There are so many opportunities in herbs for North Carolina growers. Most of the fresh-cut, culinary herbs in the supermarket are wilted and tasteless. If you can get your fresh, local product into the store, herb sales would increase just because the herbs are fresh. Many of the health food stores and specialty groceries carry fresh basil and they often can't get a consistent supply. Rosemary, cilantro, mint, thyme, chives, tarragon, and sage are also in high demand. White tablecloth restaurants also need fresh herbs.

pineapple sageSales of herb plants have been strong in North Carolina for many years. The herb festivals held at farmers markets and small communities across the state continue to bring in record crowds. Production of herb plants is often a good niche market for small-scale greenhouse operators. When people buy herb plants they buy lots of plants but only one or two of many different kinds. These plants range from tender annuals, such as basil and cilantro, to woody perennials, such as rosemary and lavender. Caring for such a large variety of plants is best suited to smaller operations who can give each plant the special care it needs.

Medicinal herbs and alternative health care continue to be news makers across the country. Although this market has softened over the past few years, there are still niches to be filled and new manufacturers coming to the region. Spring of 2001 I received a phone call from a soft drink manufacturer moving into the area who wants to buy local herbs for his product. Medicinal herbs cover a wide range of plants. Some medicinals can be grown as agronomic crops in an open field with mechanized planting and harvests. Examples include Echinacea, feverfew, St. Johnswort, and dandelion. Some of these plants are quite attractive and can also be sold as ornamental landscape plants. There is a growing demand for native medicinal herbs for the home garden and naturalized gardens in the forest.

Growing medicinal herbs in the greenhouse is new and we don't know if it is economically feasible or not. But some herbs in demand can't be grown in North America very well, and when supplies are short, may be feasible as a greenhouse crop, at least for part of the year.

Many of our native woodland plants are highly desirable medicinal herbs. Examples include goldenseal, ginseng, black cohosh, pinkroot, bethroot, and blue cohosh. At NC State University we are developing cultural practices for many of these plants, both for production in natural woods and under artificial shade cloth structures.

black cohoshBefore getting into a crop like medicinal herbs, however, you need to do quite a bit of homework because production, equipment, processing, and marketing will be very different from anything else you have dealt with.

Another specialty crop opportunity to consider is organic production of fruits and vegetables. The organic industry has matured considerably over the past ten years. You can still sell your organic produce at a tailgate market but now you can also deal with a large wholesaler or marketing cooperative. Some of the most popular organic crops are tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, broccoli, strawberries, blueberries, garlic, and potatoes.

There are some non-food crops to be considered. We conducted research on luffa sponge gourds for several years and developed a production system for this tropical crop. Because of competition from China and South America we never established a big NC luffa industry, but we do have growers making money growing luffa. They sell to the craft industry, soap makers, and manufacturers of natural cleaning products.

Cut flowers are a profitable crop for more NC growers every year, both organic and conventional producers. Cut flowers sell well in areas with consumers with a fair amount of disposable income. Since more and more of our state matches that criteria, it means more opportunities for growers.

And let's not overlook producing value-added products. A mountain organic grower has found that he makes the greatest profit margins off his value-added products such as jams, jellies, cinnamon buns, salsa, and pesto. He tried wholesaling one of his products but did not like that method of marketing. His family has a devoted customer base at a local farmers' market and that is where he sells most of what he grows. Other growers are producing salad dressings, cheeses, herbal butters, and herb breads and rolls.

There are also non-food, value-added products that you can produce such as herbal soaps, essential oils, and lotions. We have many small home-based companies making these kinds of products now using crops they have grown or crops from NC producers. Several of these companies sell over the internet and one has developed an international trade.

Every crop and product example I have provided here has been marketed in some creative, non-traditional manner. For example, many of the herb companies got their start at herb festivals. Many of these festivals are sponsored by the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, NC Cooperative Extension Service, and the NC Herb Association and are held at the state farmers' markets. These festivals are a great way for new businesses to test the market and develop their products. A similar thing has been done for organic growers. Grower cooperatives are experiencing a resurgence in interest. An organic growers cooperative, a regional vegetable growers cooperative, and a medicinal plant growers cooperative operate in the state at this time.

Many of our growers are inviting the consumers right to the farm. Some herb businesses have herb shops and greenhouses open to the public. Many have display gardens which attract tourists who can't help but buy some plants, a few bars of soap, and some herb tea. Others have gone into entertainment and educational farming by offering festivals and holiday functions at their farms such as strawberry festivals, workshops on wildcrafting herbs, and haunted houses with pick-your-own pumpkin patches. Corn mazes, petting zoos, and fishing ponds have also brought in new income to some farms.

These are just a few ideas and considerations for getting into alternative agricultural enterprises. Fortunately, there are many resources available to you to help you learn how to grow and market alternatives.

In North Carolina we are fortunate to have the Specialty Crops Program. Initiated in 1997 in Kinston, it is now a statewide program with the goal to "fast track" new crop development for NC The key to the program, and what makes it unique, is that it is a cooperative program between research, extension, and marketing utilizing personnel and services from NC State University and the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Marketing. In this program, working with a grower advisory committee and a marketing advisory committee, new crops are chosen for study. The crops are grown in research plots to develop the best production methods and identify the best varieties. At the same time, test marketing is done and packaging, labeling, and promotional materials are developed. If successful in the market and in grower field trials, educational sessions are held for growers and growers who decide to grow the crop are provided with assistance in growing and marketing the crop. For more information on the Specialty Crops Program, visit the website at Other states have similar programs.


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Dr. Jeanine Davis
Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center
455 Research Drive
Mills River, NC 28759
Phone: 828.684.3562 ~ Fax: 828.684.8715

Maintained by: Bryan A. Konsler

Content updated October 2001. Format Updated July 11, 2008