Being able to grow a new crop is one thing, being able to market it is another. Those are probably the two most important points producers need to remember when looking at “new crop” options, say two western Canadian crop production specialists.
A new crop is one of two things. It could be a brand new novel or niche market crop that very few people are familiar with, or at least hasn’t been grown in your area before, or it could be a crop commonly grown, but has never been produced on your farm before.
Where do you start? How much do you grow? Mark Olson, pulse industry development specialist with Alberta Agriculture in Stony Plain, advises that nailing down a realistic and reliable market is the first order of business, and Elaine Moats, a regional crop specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture in Weyburn, says producers have to evaluate all their risks, look at the management required, and find out if they have a “feel” for growing the new crop.
“I think the first question has to be ‘is there a market for this crop?’” says Olson, referring to new, special crops, that aren’t well established. “People can come along and put numbers together and talk about the potential, but is there someone willing to give you a contract for so many acres and put down cold, hard cash? And if you don’t have that it can be a real struggle.
”It’s all about market pull or market demand. Is there a real market for this crop, and at what value? To bring a new crop into your rotation, you have to substitute acres. So the new crop has to be at least equal in value to what you have been growing, and I would even say if it doesn’t offer a price or value premium, why take the risk?”
He also says it is important to have a fall-back position. What happens if the intended market for this crop doesn’t materialize? You’ve grown the crop, and either because of quality reasons, or some other factors, the intended market isn’t available. Before you grow it, look at your options. If what you’ve produced can’t be sold into the human food market, for example, can it be used as livestock feed, or by some other processor?
Olson says sometimes farmers can be considering an excellent crop, but unexpected market forces conspire against it. He points to faba beans as an example. “It is a great crop, there are a lot of great farmers who do an excellent job of producing it and it is an excellent protein source,” he says. “It has so much potential. But then along comes the biofuel industry, which encourages the production of canola and soybeans and you have this flood of other meal protein sources on the market, and when formulating a least-cost ration how do faba beans compete? So you can have a crop with a really strong upside, but other factors affect the market.”
On the other hand, he figures producers may be missing the boat if they don’t have a “new” old crop like field peas in their rotation. “Field peas have been around for 25 years — it is a well-established crop,” he says. “It grows well from Milk River to Fort Vermilion (southern to northern Alberta), and we will see nothing but continued demand in growing world markets such as India.
“We often think about growing peas and reducing fertilizer requirements, which is true, but there are so many other benefits as well, to your farm and to the whole area of the environment. And along with export markets, we are now starting to see a lot of North American food processors interested in peas for components such as fibre, starch and protein.
“With the potential for peas, it is a no brainer, in my view. I feel if producers don’t have it in rotation, I don’t know how they will be sustainable in the long term.”
He points out that not every crop has all the potential of peas, but if the crop is new to Canada or just new to you, if there does appear to be realistic market potential, next see how it grows. Olson says don’t start out with 160 acres as a new crop test, but at the same time, don’t make the plot so small, or so remote on your farm that you forget about it either. Ask other farmers who have produced the crop for advice, or if it is so new, check with researchers or ag extension specialists to find out what they know. Follow all the proper recommended production practices.
Elaine Moats says along with marketing, producers need to run through a checklist of how this “new” crop fits with their farming operation and their management.
“What are the risk factors of growing the new crop?” she says. “With a crop like chickpeas, for example, farmers need to understand the disease risk, the fungicide requirements and weed control limitations. If they use a certain herbicide, soil residues can affect cropping choices the next year.”
Understand disease and pest issues related to the new crop. Flowering lentil crops, for example, are at greater risk from grasshopper damage, than chickpea flowers. That may increase the risk of growing lentils.
Other factors to consider with new crops include, machinery and mechanical requirements. If you’re planning to produce field beans, do you have a bean ladder in the bin, or a belt conveyor to reduce the risk of seed damage? Combine modifications are needed for harvesting sunflowers.
Find out how the time of harvest of this new crop will affect your other harvesting plans. With some special crops, you may have to harvest them late in the season or even on frozen ground. Are you prepared for that?
In evaluating a new crop, start with a reasonable-size test plot — probably in the 10-to 40-acre range, and be prepared to observe the crop for two or three years. Basing a decision, on a one-year success or a one-year failure, may not tell the true story. The average over two or three or five years is what counts.
“You need a reasonable-size test area that is practical for the size of your field equipment,” says Moats. “And you have to keep in mind what you are growing and the world market. I remember a few years ago, with some of the new spice crops, some farmers decided to seed half a section to try it out, but in some of these niche markets, a half section of crop is almost enough to create an oversupply in a small market.”
Another point in growing a small test area, is realizing that even a high yield may occupy just a small area of a large grain bin, until the crop is marketed. Be prepared for that.
“In your overall approach to a new crop consider what is manageable, and you don’t want to invest so much time and money that you can’t sleep at night, or the prospect of a late harvest is going to cause a lot of stress,” says Moats. “Another important point is to decide if you have a ‘feel’ for this crop. Some farmers do a better job of growing a certain crop than another farmer. That is the culture part of agriculture. Some people have a real ‘feel’ for producing crops and some don’t. You have to go with your strengths.”
Lee Hart is a field editor for Grainews in Calgary, Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]