In Maryland, if an enterprise is not producing a commodity crop, then it probably could be classified as an alternative agricultural enterprise. Traditionally, commodities include row crops that produce a low profit margin and a dependency on government subsidies. Alternative agricultural enterprises can improve the profitability of farmers, increase the diversity of agricultural enterprises in the region, and foster the development of new jobs in the State’s agribusiness sector.
Increasingly, growers are looking at alternative crops, farm enterprises such as bed and breakfasts and tourism, and other business diversification strategies to improve their farm profits and the quality of their lives.
Alternate crops have received a lot of attention lately. Goldenseal, Echinacea (coneflower), garlic, shiitake mushrooms, cut flowers, grapes, and anything organically grown are a few alternatives that have been in the spotlight because of the decline in commodity prices.
This attention has provided valuable information for farmers, and also a great deal of hype. It is important to look at whether or not these alternatives will work for your farm and family.
"Are these crops and all crops like these, something that could generate positive returns? We'd have to answer that with an astounding 'maybe!'" says Don Schuster, project economist for the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For those just getting in to alternative markets, it is important to do as much research as possible before starting an alternative enterprise. A few hundred dollars spent researching an alternative crop will pay for itself. This research can also save you from deciding to pursue something that isn't worth your time and investment This research should include contacting growers and buyers of potential alternative crops for your operation.
Another important aspect of alternative agriculture enterprises is that most of them require direct marketing skills and outlets to be successful. Seek out your marketing channel or contact the University of Maryland Extension’s (UME) marketing program for assistance in developing and writing your marketing plan.
Despite the need for caution, many farmers are successfully growing and marketing alternative crops, products or services. Before making a switch, you should be able to answer several important questions:
- Does the enterprise, product or service meet my long-term goals for my farm and family?
- Do I have the research and marketing skills to sell the product?
- Does my farm have the right type of soil and climate to meet growing requirements?
- Can I meet standards for this enterprise, such as organic certification?
- Can I provide the required labor management?
- Do I have, or can I afford, the facilities and equipment requirements for this enterprise?
- Does this enterprise fit in well with my other farming enterprises?
- Does this enterprise have a strong potential to meet my financial goals, including level and timing of returns?
Finally, before investing a dime in an alternative agricultural enterprise, you need to make several phone calls:
- Call your local zoning office to determine if it is a permitted business where you live.
- Call your accountant to seek assistance in determining its economic feasibility.
- Call your insurance agent to see what types and the costs of insurance are need for the enterprise.
- Call your local Extension Agent and Regional Marketing Specialist for support with production, processing or marketing.
On the Web
- Alternative Agricultural Enterprises
Texas A & M, Extension Agricultural Economics
Exhaustive collection of alternative agricultural enterprise documents and worksheets prepared by land grant universities, federal agencies and private foundations. (posted 3/13/13)
- ATTRA -- Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas
ATTRA is one of the best sources of information on non-traditional agricultural enterprises. It provides many publications, both online and in print, for those interested in alternative crop and livestock enterprises. ATTRA publications can also be obtained for free by calling ATTRA at 1-800-346-9140, Monday-Friday, from 7am to 7pm CST. (posted 3/3/13)
- List of Alternative Crops and Enterprises for Small Farm Diversification
Compiled by Mary V. Gold and Rebecca S. Thompson, (posted 3/13/13)
- Jefferson Institute
Works with farmers on a number of alternative crops. The feasibility of an alternative crop on your farm will depend on a number of factors including soil type, production methods and farm location relative to markets. (posted 3/13/13)
- Kansas Center Sustainable Agriculture Alternative Crops
List of links to sustainable agriculture resources from some of the top university research centers in the world. On these links you will be able to find information on a wide range of topics -- from Asparagus to Water Quality and Aquaculture to Windbreaks! (posted 3/13/13)
- Missouri Alternatives Center - AgEBB
University of Missouri The Missouri Alternatives Center's mission is to provide Missourians with timely information about alternative agricultural opportunities, to evaluate diverse enterprises, improve management decisions, increase economic returns, and enhance the quality of their lives. Phone: 1-800-433-3704 (Missouri only) Fax: (573) 884-4336. (posted 3/13/13)
- Penn State Ag Alternatives Program
Offers an alphabetical list of dozens of possible production enterprises, with links to fact sheets on each one. (posted 3/13/13)
- Small Farms & Alternative Enterprises
University of Florida Cooperative Extension. This web site provides commonly needed information from "getting started" to "evaluating an alternative enterprise", to "finding a market", all in one place on the web. (posted 3/13/13)
- Agriculture: New Crop Opportunities Center
University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture. The New Crop Opportunities Center coordinates multi-disciplinary teams of faculty, staff and students to research and set guidelines for producing and marketing selected crops at a profit. The Center is funded by a Special Research Grant from the USDA. (posted 3/13/13)
- USDA Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC)
AFSIC specializes in locating and accessing information related to alternative enterprises and crops as well as alternative cropping systems. Librarians/information specialists provide free library services on request: referrals to books, journal articles, internet sites, experts, and organizations and agencies. Their publications, "Quick Bibliographies" and reference guides include Community Supported Agriculture Resources for Farmers; Organic Agricultural Products: Marketing and Trade Resources; and Where to Find Sustainable Agriculture Research Online?. All publications are online. Recently, the Web site added "Organic Roots," a searchable electronic collection of historic pre-1942 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Technical Bulletins related to organic agriculture. (posted 3/13/13)
- Marketing Strategies for Farmers and Ranchers (2004)
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)
20-page bulletin offers snapshots of the many alternatives to marketing commodities through conventional channels. It spotlights innovative, SARE-funded research into a range of marketing options including farmers markets, CSA, tourism, direct-marketing meat, season extension, value-added, sales to restaurants, public campaigns, Internet and more.
- Alternative Enterprises and Agritourism
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), January 2004. This publication serves as a simple guide to identifying alternative income-producing agricultural enterprises and agritourism opportunities. The guide is useful for developing business and marketing plans to help entrepreneurs reduce risk through diversification of farm and ranch enterprises.
- The New American Farmer
USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program. Describing successful farming practices, and details the effects of those practices on farm profitability, quality of life, rural communities and the environment. Can be downloaded free from the website, http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/The-New-American-Farmer-2nd-Edition, which includes a search feature to search the book by keyword, state, problem addressed, commodity, or farmer name. In addition, you can order a hard copy ($16.95) by going to: http://www.sare.org/WebStore/How-to-Order
- Small Farm Today Magazine
A magazine focusing on alternative and traditional crops, livestock, and direct marketing. It is published bimonthly (six times a year). Each issue focuses on one or two topics, with additional stories, and regular departments.