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:
- 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 costs of insurance needed for the enterprise.
- Call your local Extension Agent and Marketing Specialist for support with production, processing, or marketing.