Specialty vegetables, of course, don’t have to be weird, odd-shaped, or off-colored cousins of their traditional counterparts. More often than not, they are not weird at all, but are simply vegetables that are not available or grown on a large scale for traditional market outlets. They may be vegetables that are grown quite commonly in other parts of the world, but are not yet known as a traditional staple crop here (ethnic specialty vegetables). They may simply be miniature versions of full-sized fruit (baby or miniature vegetables) that are available at a time when they are traditionally not in season (early or late season extension) or are an unusual or different variety (heirloom, local cultural favorites, etc.).
Regardless of what makes them special, these vegetables may offer the small to mid-sized farmer opportunity to capitalize on the higher per unit prices and potential demand these vegetables garner in the marketplace. They are particularly well suited to the farm entrepreneur who has the ability to seek out and sell to the niche specialty market population. The key competitive advantage of a specialty vegetable operation is the unique product offering that is unavailable at other venues. It should be noted, however, that specialty vegetables are relatively new, meaning that production methods and marketing channels have not been developed. There is substantial work and risk in establishing markets and production for these new crops.
The specialty ethnic vegetable market is growing throughout Maryland. Growth in the ethnic population in the Mid-Atlantic region has created a strong demand for produce similar to that found and used in their homeland. Not only are these foods familiar to these populations, they provide a sense of home and can be an important part of cultural and/or spiritual ceremonies as well.
First-generation immigrants originate from hundreds of countries throughout the world. Finding the specific crop and end-product for that group is key to success in this niche market. While two consumers may be from the same region or continent, their taste and expectation for food may be very different. Considerable time should be taken to understand and develop marketing relationships with prospective buyers. Visiting community markets or stores to see what is selling, and offering fresh produce for them to try is a common method to gain market space. Working with specialty food distributors may also help direct your crop selection. Major ethnic markets are developing in Maryland include the Asian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Indian, and African markets.
Almost any annual vegetable crop can be grown in the Maryland climate. Standard cultural practices are recommended for these crops. Do not try to grow tropical plants. Start with the standard growing regime for the most similar traditional crop available; for example, grow callabaza as you would pumpkin. Crops in the solanaceous family (tomato, eggplant, peppers, potatoes) and cucurbit family (vine crops--melons, squash, gourds, etc.) should and usually are grown on plastic mulch with drip irrigation.
A major production challenge is sourcing quality disease-free seed that is domestically available. Check with your local customers or produce broker/buyer as they may have good sources of seed. There are several specialty seed companies that carry ethnic product lines as well. Many growers will save seed from their own plants as seed source. Use caution with this technique as many diseases may be carried by seed from one year to the next. Pest control is also more challenging with ethnic produce. Pest complexes have often not been identified and control measures not yet set forth.
Baby or Miniature Vegetables
Whether you call them Teenage Varieties, Personal Sized, Mini-Sized, Baby Vegetables, or Midget Vegetables, they are all the same--smaller sized examples of vegetables. Mini-vegetables first caught on in the 1980s. An article written in 1985 by Georgia Dullea in the New York Times states, “At Frieda's Finest Produce Specialties in Los Angeles, a major distributor to supermarkets and specialty stores, a spokesperson, Judi Greening, said: ‘Babies are booming… People are going crazy over these darn little things. They're easy and fun. On the other hand, they're expensive.’” Since that time, the demand for miniatures has waned, but is coming back.
Miniature vegetables are popular at farmer's markets and at finer restaurants for use with salads and dessert bowls, and as attractive garnishes for dishes. Mini’s have excellent direct market and roadside potential where they are seen as cute, novel, and unique, and may help as a good branding tool. There is very good potential for trade in the premium restaurant arena where they are a good fit for salads, specialty dishes, and desserts. There is some potential for specialty wholesale markets, especially with caterers and food service companies.
The major disadvantage to miniatures is their cost of production, particularly for labor inputs. Many more fruit must be picked to equal the same volume as with traditional crops, therefore, labor costs are high. There are multiple mechanisms to produce miniature vegetables. Many miniatures are immature fruit picked early such as squash, zucchini, onions, baby corn, lettuce, and cabbage. Some are genetically compact or bred by plant breeders to be small varieties such as muskmelon, watermelons, baby bak-choy, peppers, and eggplant. Finally, some are a combination of both variety and growing and maturity, such as carrots. Some general guidelines to follow when producing mini-sized vegetables include:
- Most miniatures are more perishable and do not ship as well as their full-grown counterparts.
- Labor requirements are very high and often is limiting profitability factor.
- Time from planting to harvest is much reduced in some species, such as squash.
- Harvest period is very short in some cases and harvest frequency is greater.
- Frequent, successive plantings are needed.
Off-Season Specialty Items
Vegetables and fruit produced in high tunnels, or with other techniques to extend the traditional harvest season, are in high demand in Maryland. An explosion of the number of high tunnels has occurred in the last decade.
The most popular vegetables for early season production in high tunnels are tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and strawberries. Having fresh tomatoes 4-5 weeks ahead of the traditional season can result in a 100-200 percent increase in price. Lettuce and fresh salad greens are also popular high tunnel crops, especially if sales to restaurants can be made.
There are a variety of season extension techniques. Crops may be grown as transplants and set out early under floating row covers for a 2-3 week jump on the market. Mini-hoops placed over the individual row may be used for cool-season crops to push the season. With sweet corn, the crop is planted under clear plastic in mid-March for harvest 1-3 weeks ahead of the earliest bare ground corn.
The most intensive season extension technique is the use of high tunnels, where the crop is often heated and may be harvested 4-6 weeks early. Prices must be at enough of a premium to justify the added expense and labor of extending the natural season. Choose crops with a high demand and ability to garner premiums. Small fruit, such as brambles, will produce good yields. However, the added income frequently does not offset the added expense.
Unusual or Different Varieties
There are farmers who grow specific varieties of produce that are in demand by the marketplace. These are mainly heirloom varieties, but may also be local cultural favorites. Heirloom varieties sell well in both the retail and specialty wholesale marketplace.
Production challenges are normally greater with older heirlooms varieties because they have not been selected for disease and insect resistance or for production parameters. You should expect reduced yields of heirloom varieties. The other notable difference with heirloom’s is they do not ship or handle well after harvest. Therefore, they must be sold readily after harvest and care in transport to the market must be taken. Even with the stated challenges, a farmer who grows heirlooms or special varieties may do very well. High quality heirlooms are in short supply. They cannot be easily shipped from outside regions so a natural market niche exists.