One of the most difficult things to know for a person that is interested in growing high value horticultural crops is how to get started. They have many questions to ask and sometimes do not know the right questions to ask.
My purpose in this article is to outline some questions that a potential horticultural crop grower might ask and some important topics growers need to know to become successful.
First, and foremost is, “What do you need?” The desire and willingness to succeed! If you are not afraid of doing what needs to be done, and doing it right, at the right time, with all of your strength and determination, you will succeed. You can’t listen to someone who says it can’t be done.
Why should you grow specialty crops?

  • To supplement farm income
  • To aid in developing a farming system
  • To give tobacco and field crop farmers a chance to practice crop diversification
  • To enhance an existing farm operation

What are some advantages of growing specialty crops?

  • Fits well into part-time farming
  • Conventional equipment can be used.
  • Primary and secondary tillage equipment can be rented or services can be provided for a fee, instead of having to buy equipment.
  • Pesticides are available to control pests.
  • A combination of crops is available to suit almost any land, labor, or market situation.

What are some disadvantages of growing specialty crops?

  • Finding a suitable market outlet can be a problem at first. Many growers have difficulty filling the role of both grower and seller.
  • A high labor requirement is required. Labor on the farm cannot “evaporate” to do other things when proper attention needs to be given to your crops.
  • Your labor force needs to know what tasks need to be accomplished on the farm and done on a timely basis.
  • Constant vigil is required to keep abreast of pest problems and control, otherwise crop losses can be severe.
  • New growers may be inexperienced in marketing, resulting in lost sales income.

Ask Yourself If You Can Successfully Grow and Market Specialty Crops

  • Is there enough time and labor to care for the crops throughout the growing season?
  • Do family members have the desire to do the best job they can to succeed?
  • Are family members willing to learn all they can about growing and marketing?
  • Have you adequately explored and determined where your markets are and the kinds of crops that customers are interested in having you grow for them?
  • Always remember, you don’t grow what you like to grow, you grow what your customers want.
  • Publications are available from your local county Extension office about how to grow certain crops, and the costs involved in growing them.
  • Your state fruit and vegetable growers association holds regional grower meetings during the growing season and brings in specialists during the winter to talk about production and marketing practices, delivered by experienced growers and Extension Specialists. You can attain a lot of knowledge by attending, and can learn from other growers as well.
  • Grow the high value crops. Potatoes, cabbage, radishes, and turnips have a low value when compared to others that have a higher value. This can be observed by visiting grocery stores and farmers markets.
  • Learning to identify and control insects, diseases, and weeds will take time, especially during the first year.
  • Are you willing to accept some losses due to adverse weather?
  • Is your soil adequate for successful crop production?
  • Are you willing to work 3-5 years before your business becomes fully operational?
  • Are you committed to growing high quality produce?

Study Your Available Resources

  • Get a soils map book from your local Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS) office to determine the suitability of your land to grow crops, before you do anything else.
  • Soil must be well-drained with a pH between 6.5-7.5.
  • Soil test to determine fertility requirements.
  • Cool and warm season vegetables need to be planted at the proper times to mature for best quality.
  • Irrigation is a must for crop dependability. Use drip irrigation to conserve water.
  • Seek the advice of a reputable irrigation specialist to lay out and design your irrigation system.
  • Plant in full sun, at least 50 feet away from wooded areas to avoid root competition from tree roots and to increase air circulation to reduce fungus diseases.

To Be Successful, Growers Should be Concerned with the Following:

  • Selecting the proper growing site, including soil preparation, fertility maintenance, and improvement
  • Choosing the best fruit or vegetable varieties, using ones that carry disease and insect resistance
  • Knowing what vegetable crops can be started outdoors from seed versus ones that need to be transplanted
  • Transplants should be purchased from a reputable greenhouse, rather than spending money on building a greenhouse on the site when first starting out. It is much cheaper to buy the transplants.
  • Knowing proper planting techniques
  • Following sound cultural practices
  • Knowing how to harvest, handle, and store produce properly
  • Grow only enough produce that you can market immediately after harvest without having to buy a cold storage unit. As your markets increase, only then can you afford a cold storage.
  • Instead of investing in a cold storage unit, use a “cool bot” which is a device that is inserted into a window air conditioner that bypasses the thermostat that can lower the air temperature down to 32 degrees in a storage room.

How Will You Sell Your Crops?

  • People always ask me if there is a market to sell a certain crop. My answer is, “Yes, the market is what YOU make it. You have to find markets for your crop before you plant.
  • Grow a variety of different crops on a small scale to determine what and how much to grow and what your customers’ needs are.
  • If selling at a farmers market, grow crops that other vendors don’t have.
  • Ask specialty restaurant chefs what they would like you to grow for them when they can’t get produce from their suppliers.
  • Are you willing to deal with the public when selling direct market retail?
  • Try to sell out each day to eliminate the need for refrigeration.
  • Hand out recipes to your customers.
  • Do you want to try Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) where customers pay the grower at the beginning of the year to pick up a bag of produce that he is currently harvesting at a designated location every week?
  • Try to avoid selling wholesale, if possible, because you have no control over the price you will receive. You will be a price taker, not a price maker.
  • Produce wholesalers (such as chain store buyers) want the produce when they say they want it. However, they can refuse your produce for whatever reason they have, especially if the contract between you and the buyer was verbal and was not in writing, OR if they suddenly have more than enough of the kind of produce you are selling in their cold storage, so they no longer need yours.
  • When selling wholesale, you have to grow a large quantity of a single crop in order to realize a modest profit.
  • You also will have large packaging and transportation/refrigeration costs (as specified by the buyer), so along with receiving a low price per pound as compared with selling retail, in the end, you might break even or actually lose money when selling wholesale, because of not being able to know what price you will receive before you sell.