Weinzierl: Opportunities exist in specialty crop market

The rise in demand for local foods has created opportunities and challenges for specialty crop growers

Published on: Jan 11, 2013

     The rise in demand for local foods has created opportunities and challenges for specialty crop growers.

     Rick Weinzierl, University of Illinois Extension entomologist who served as chairman of the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism, and Organic Conference in Springfield, said demand for local food currently is outpacing production statewide.

     “One of the big opportunities is there is a lot of demand for local food,” said Weinzierl, who was a keynote speaker at the event. “But one of the challenges is we don’t have as many growers as we need to meet that demand.”

     The University of Illinois this year will increase the number of local food systems and small farms educators to 14 statewide, Weinzierl noted. USDA also offers a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.

     A common goal is to increase the number of new farmers who produce fruits and vegetables, Weinzierl said.

     “The demand for local food says there are opportunities for beginning farmers,” he said.

     And the investment for a beginning farmer, on average, would be much less to produce specialty crops compared to row crops, which could open the door for more new farmers.

     “It wouldn’t be unrealistic to say if you want to make the majority of your income from row crop (corn and soybean) production, you’d need at least 500 acres which would have a buy-in cost of around $5 million (based on average land values of $10,000 per acre),” Weinzierl said.

     “On the other hand, if you talk about making the majority of your income on fruits and vegetables on 10 acres, the buy-in cost is ‘only’ $100,000,”  he noted.

     Specialty crop growers also must adapt to consumer preferences and stricter food safety regulations, however, to take advantage of the local food movement.

     “Growers have to adapt to more sophisticated marketing (that goes beyond selling crops at a roadside stand or farmers market),” he said.

     He encouraged specialty crop growers to make farm safety plans and take training for good ag practices.

     “If we want local food systems to be something that gains a greater share of the consumer dollar, we also need to figure we’ll be held more accountable (for food quality and safety issues),” Weinzierl said.

     Another challenge specialty crop producers will face in the future is climate change.

     “I think we have to acknowledge it’s a reality and we’ll have to deal with things like drought and heat,” Weinzierl said. “But we can do all sorts of things to adapt to change.”

     Weinzierl said farmers can adapt to changes in the climate by improving their irrigation systems, choosing different crop varieties, and buying crop insurance.

     The use of cover crops also can improve the situation as cover crops scavenge excess nitrogen, sequester carbon, increase organic matter in the soil, and provide deeper roost channels for primary crops, he added.

     For more information visit the website {specialtygrowers.org}.