In the last few decades, the number of traditional farms in the United States and Canada has dropped by half or more, but a new type of farm is growing faster than a prairie weed.
These new farms are much smaller than traditional farms. Instead of hundreds of acres, they may be only an acre or two – even as small as a quarter acre for some specialty crops. Many of these new “microfarms” are springing up in and around the fringes of larger cities and towns, where customers for the specialty crops are close by. Many of the new growers choose to grow plants not just for profit, but also for the satisfaction of tending a crop and the quality of life it provides.
Many are part-timers, like the lawyer who grows gourmet garlic in his spare time to de-stress in addition to making a profit, or the retired school teacher who earns most of her retirement income from a half-acre of potted exotic bamboos, or the stay-at-home mom who cares for her three kids while growing mushrooms for market in a backyard shed.
This trend is growing so big, so fast, the agricultural experts at the U. S. Department of Agriculture have given it a name, “exurban microfarming.” One reason this trend is growing so fast is the zoning regulations around large towns and cities, where land division is restricted. This has left a large number of smaller 2 to 5 acre parcels. Owners of these parcels soon discover that they can either mow a lot of grass or put the land to more productive uses.
Grow More – With Less
It is simply amazing how productive a small piece of acreage can be. A recent university extension service study found 760 families in one county alone making a good living with specialty crops on plots averaging 3 acres. As one retiree remarked, while tending her garlic patch, “My only regret is not doing this sooner. My grandkids love helping me and learning about gardening. The country seems to be falling apart, so this is one way to keep families together.”
- While there are hundreds of very profitable plants – including quite a few illegal ones – there are only a few that qualify for the top choices. Here’s what to look for:
- Is it growing in popularity every year?
- Is there enough demand to support profitable prices?
- Is it reasonably easy to grow?
- Is it a beneficial plant for consumers?
- Is it a “high-value” crop – one that allows a grower to earn a solid income from an acre or less?
Four specialty crops that qualify on all counts are bamboo, garlic, ginseng and oyster mushrooms. Let’s take a closer look at each of these money makers:
For thousands of years, bamboo has been an everyday part of Asian life, providing food, shelter and raw material for everything from garden fences to flutes. Several varieties of bamboo are grown just for their edible shoots, producing an edible harvest of up to ten tons per acre.
In North America, bamboo is being rediscovered as a landscaping plant and many growers can’t keep up with the demand. Bamboo is not just a tropical plant either – many varieties are grown in Japan and China, where the climate can be just as harsh as our northern states and provinces.
Landscapers are also using more and more bamboo instead of traditional shrubs. Why? According to one grower, “You can use bamboo as a hedge, a screen, as a specimen plant or as a shade plant. Bamboo keeps it’s green color through the winter, and it’s easy to grow. Plus, you can get a big plant quickly, unlike trees that take years to mature.”. Potted bamboo plants can bring as much as $150 each retail, and value-added bamboo products, such as fencing and garden art.
Garlic is a member of the same plant family as onions, shallots, leeks and chives. For thousands of years, garlic has been used for cooking and medicinal purposes. Recent scientific research has proven many of the historical claims for garlic’s healing powers. It’s chemical ingredients can fight bacteria, lower cholesterol levels and act as an organic insecticide.
According to a vegetable crops professor at Cornell University, “There’s a booming market out there for fresh local garlic. Those growing it can sell every clove they produce. Elephant garlic, for example, retails for $8 a pound and produces up to 15,000 pounds per acre.”
Garlic is an ideal crop for the small grower, as it is almost foolproof to grow. Because it tolerates a wide variety of soils and weather, it’s very hard to lose a crop. For decades, growers have nicknamed garlic “the mortgage lifter” for that very reason.
Most small growers use “value-added” methods to get a higher price for their garlic, such as garlic braids, fresh garlic greens and garlic powder. One Pennsylvania grower has found even more ways to add value to his garlic. In addition to garlic braids and bulbs, he sells “garlic gardens” sized to grow on a windowsill. He also discovered that the Chinese have long harvested the garlic greens for fresh seasoning, much like chives, so he now sells greens and a recipe for garlic greens pesto sauce for $15 a pound in season!
Once called “Green Gold”, ginseng is an ordinary looking plant that grows on the shaded forest floor. It’s value lies in it’s slow growing root. The Chinese have valued the ginseng root for thousands of years as the most potent of herbs and as a regenerative tonic. Since it was discovered in the U.S. almost 300 years ago, most ginseng has been exported to Asia.
According to experts at North Carolina’s Horticultural Crops Research Station, “American ginseng has great potential as a small-scale cash crop. But growing ginseng is not a get-rich-quick scheme. By it’s nature, ginseng requires patience.”
Although it takes 6 years before the slow growing ginseng roots are ready to harvest for market, most growers sell seed and two-year rootlets to earn an income from their ginseng crop in the years before the harvest. At current ginseng prices, a half-acre ginseng patch could produce $100,000 worth of seeds, rootlets and mature roots over that 6-year period, or over $16,000 per year. As any ginseng grower will tell you, that beats growing most any other crop by a country mile!
Bob Hanson and his wife Kathy started growing gourmet mushrooms a few years ago, and now grow shiitake, portobello and oyster mushrooms. They sell their entire crop at the Farmer’s Market, where regular customers line up to buy the freshly harvested mushrooms every week.
Hanson, who believes in sustainable agriculture, grows all his mushrooms in his barn, where “high technology” consists of a fan and a 40-watt light bulb. He keeps the operation small scale, with he and his wife supplying all the labor. Hanson is fond of his oyster mushrooms, because as he says, “They are so easy to grow.” He just mixes spawn with straw and puts the straw in plastic bags with slits. A few weeks later, he has mushrooms.
He is optimistic about the prospects for small-scale mushroom growers. He knows other growers who sell their fresh gourmet mushrooms to restaurants and local grocers. Says Hanson, “There are a lot of different niches that people can go into. As long as you can grow a good product, you can market it.”
In most areas, it’s hard to find gourmet mushrooms, such as oyster and shiitake. Both have a short shelf life, and do not stand up well to long distance shipping – a barrier to large mushroom companies. That’s why small local growers will always have the “freshness advantage” with local consumers who want a high quality product.
What do consumers like about gourmet mushrooms? With the trend to healthier foods, mushrooms fit the bill nicely. Gourmet mushrooms are fat-free, cholesterol free, pesticide free and have many medicinal benefits. Consumers are also concerned about their food safety, and gourmet mushrooms can be grown without harmful chemicals.
Oyster mushrooms are fast growing – ready to harvest in just six weeks – which gives new growers a fast payback on their investment, as well as the flexibility to increase production to meet additional demand.
Oyster mushrooms also produce heavy yields – the average is one pound of mushrooms for each pound of straw used to grow them. Most growers average six “crop cycles” per year. This allows growers to produce lots of mushrooms in a small space. A 200 square foot growing area, for example, can produce 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of mushrooms each year.
Current prices range from a wholesale price of $3 per pound up to $9 per pound when selling direct to the consumer, such as restaurants or at the farmer’s market. Prices will vary from region to region, but in general, the fresh local mushrooms always bring top dollar.
Here’s why growing specialty crops is a perfect spare-time business.
1. It’s something anyone can do. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past, or how old you are, or how far you got in school… you can easily do this. All you need is a growing space and a few hand tools.
2. You can work on your own schedule. If you can spare an hour or two a day, you can grow specialty crops.
3. You’ll be doing something you love. If you love growing plants and gardening, you’ll look forward to tending your crop and it won’t seem like work at all.
4. You can turn it into a full-time business. You can get started in your spare time, with just a small investment, and if you choose, expand it to a full time business.
5. It’s a “low-tech” business. You don’t need expensive equipment or years of horticultural training to succeed. You can earn as you learn.
6. You don’t even need to own the land. Many growers simply lease their growing area from landowners for a small share of the profits.
To learn more about starting your own microfarm and growing profitable specialty crops, read Golden Harvest.