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 into 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 the level and timing of returns?

Finally, before investing a dime in an alternative agricultural enterprise, you need to make several phone calls:

  1. Call your local zoning office to determine if it is a permitted business where you live.
  2. Call your accountant to seek assistance in determining its economic feasibility.
  3. Call your insurance agent to see what types and costs of insurance needed for the enterprise.
  4. Call your local Extension Agent and Marketing Specialist for support with production, processing, or marketing.

Explore Alternative Enterprises


  • Marketing Strategies for Farmers and Ranchers (2004)
    Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)

    The 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 (2004)
    Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
    United States Department of Agriculture

    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, 2nd Edition (2005)
    USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)

    Hailing from small vegetable farms, cattle ranches and grain farms covering thousands of acres, the producers in The New American Farmer, 2nd edition have embraced new sustainable approaches to agriculture. They are renewing profits, enhancing environmental stewardship, and improving the lives of their families as well as their communities. The second edition builds on our popular first book. We have updated many of the profiles originally researched and written in 2000 and added 14 new profiles to represent every state and two U.S. territories. The book now features more than 60 successful farmers and ranchers.
  • Understanding a Community Supported Agriculture Agreement: What Should Be Included in a Good CSA Membership Agreement?
    Paul Goeringer , Ashley Newhall , Sarah Everhart , and Wele Elangwe
    Agriculture Law Education Initiative (ALEI)
    University of Maryland Extension


  • Agricultural Alternatives
    PennState Extension
  • Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC)
    National Agricultural Library
    United States Department of Agriculture
    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.
  • ATTRA - Sustainable Agriculture Program
    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.
  •  Center For Crop Diversification
    The Center for Crop Diversification is managed through a collaboration between the Department of Agricultural Economics and the Department of Horticulture at the University of Kentucky.
  • Kansas Center Sustainable Agriculture Alternative Crops
    The website provides a 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
  • List of Alternative Crops and Enterprises for Small Farm Diversification
    National Agricultural Library (NAL)
    United States Department of Agriculture
    Compiled by Mary V. Gold and Rebecca S. Thompson; Updated by Stacy Brody, January 2020
  • Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises
    The University of Florida Cooperative Extension. This website provides commonly needed information from "getting started" to "evaluating an alternative enterprise", to "finding a market", all in one place on the web.
  • Trending Enterprises in Maryland
    Maryland Rural Enterprise Development Center
    The University of Maryland Extension.
    Discover alternative enterprises trending in Maryland including Cottage Food Industry, Honey Bee Enterprise, Hop Production, Mushrooms, and much more. Each enterprise is presented with many resources that you can explore.
  • Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Publications
    Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics (AREC) and Agriculture Law Education Initiative (ALEI) partnered with the Maryland Department of Agriculture and Maryland Farm Bureau to develop materials to better aid farmers in developing their own contracts. These materials have been developed with a Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program grant through USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.