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Should I grow the latest new crop?

Angela Lovell asks the experts whether or not getting in on a hot new trend is a good idea

Niger, quinoa, fenugreek. These are just a few of the new crops starting to appear on a very small number of acres across Western Canada, but the biggest question farmers should be asking about them is — who’s going to buy them?

“With any new crop, farmers should make sure they’re not listening to marketing hype, but that there is somebody buying and using the product, even if it’s on a small scale,” says William May, a research scientist who works with new crops at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada at Indian Head, Sask. “Then they have to consider where is the market, what’s the cost of getting it there, what quality the buyer needs, and how it compares economically to the crops they are currently growing.”

Camelina is a good example of a crop that was over-hyped to begin with, but which has developed a niche market that’s doing well. One company ran into financial difficulties in 2012 when it couldn’t meet its projected sales expectations for the camelina it had contracted with producers. By contrast, Three Farmers of Midale, Sask., has successfully established a specialty niche market for camelina oil as a healthy oil for human consumption. “It’s a great example of where one part of the market has been successful with a new crop and another has moved away from it,” says May.

How do I grow it?

The next question is: “How do I grow it?” May and his colleagues do the background agronomic work on new crops so that if they offer some opportunities for producers, they have the agronomics to support production. “It’s important to get the agronomics in hand at an early stage so that it can be given a fair shake as a new crop,” says May. “If nobody knows how to grow it, and they grow it the wrong way, it gets a bad rap and then it’s twice as hard to promote it the next time.”

Farmers can run into production issues it they adopt a crop wholesale, before it’s proven itself under different conditions. “I always worry about over-enthusiasm for a new crop,” says May. “You can run into problems in production practices going from a small, isolated area to a bigger area that you didn’t expect.”

If everyone jumps into a new crop at the same time there can be overproduction and too much supply, which has happened in the hemp industry, says May. “Hemp seed production increased faster than demand in 2015 and now we’ve overproduced, so hemp production is going to fall back a bit before it can move ahead again,” says May. “With minor crops there’s always that risk as well.”

Niger, quinoa, fenugreek?

So what’s the prognosis for the three crops we started this article with?

Fenugreek is used as both a culinary and medicinal herb, and is a common ingredient in Indian food such as curries. It is rich in vitamins and minerals, and is also high in protein. “There’s a small acreage of fenugreek used by Emerald Seed Products in Avonlea, Sask., that is fractionated and sold for several high value products but it is difficult to predict how fast that market is going to expand,” says May.

Quinoa is a highly nutritious, gluten-free, ancient grain that comes from the Andes region of South America. It has become popular with health-conscious consumers in recent years after celebrities like Oprah Winfrey touted its nutritional benefits. About 5,000 acres of quinoa were grown on the Prairies in 2015 and one company projects acres to reach 100,000 by 2018. “I’m interested in seeing what the actual area of adaptation is for quinoa because there are some issues there,” says May.

Niger is an oilseed crop that has been cultivated in Ethiopia and India for several thousand years, where it’s used mainly as a cooking oil. It’s also imported as a bird feed in Europe and North America. Niger has a small but established market as a bird seed and is currently grown by a few farmers in western Canada that sell to local stores or farmer markets. However, currently regulations dictate that Niger be heat sterilized at a USDA approved facility before it can be imported into the U.S. which limits the market of niger produced in Western Canada.

But… you never know

The good news is that there’s always somebody out there looking for opportunities. “You never know when all of a sudden somebody has a market demand for something new and there’s potential to produce it here,” says May. “For farmers, they’re looking for new opportunities, and it often depends how well they are doing with their other crops whether they’re interested in assuming more risk with some newer crops, that in the long term could be economically advantageous for them.”

About the author

Contributor

Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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