by Carl Cantaluppi
While working as an Extension Agent, people always asked me what crop(s) should they grow? When I would suggest some, they would ask, “Is there a market for it?” I would answer, “Yes, the market is what YOU make it”, meaning that you have to seek out your own markets for yourself.
What are Some Profitable High-Value Horticultural Crops?
Below is a list of high-value horticultural crops that have been studied in terms of the hours needed to grow each crop, and the yields and income per acre that can be realized. Growers need to get information about how to grow the crop by contacting Extension agents in their state. The following crops are all being sold as fresh market crops, and not for processing. The income per acre received by the grower can range from a wholesale price to a retail price, depending on the quantity grown and the market selected.
Tomatoes are a fairly easy crop to grow and research shows that when comparing two growing systems (staking and caging), tomatoes grown in a cage will yield the same amount of fruit per acre by using ½ the number of plants that are used when staking. Fungicide applications are critical when growing tomatoes in humid regions.
Muskmelons can be successfully grown where fungus diseases are kept in check (in humid areas). Muskmelons that have sutures (grooves) that run radially from the top to the bottom of the melon are called “eastern” melons and ones that have a netted rind are called “western” melons.
Asparagus is a perennial crop that can bring in a good income per acre with a small up-front cost in the planting year with small operating costs for the following 14 years of production, if the plants are well taken care of. No irrigation is needed if the region has 30 or more inches of rainfall per year.
Asparagus requires a period of rest for successful production of spears. The crop is grown commercially only in those regions where the plants are forced into a rest period by cold or drought.
In semi-arid and arid regions, asparagus is grown successfully, even though freezes seldom occur and the temperature is high enough for growth to continue throughout the year. Under these arid, low humidity conditions, the plants are forced into rest by withholding water. This method is followed in the Imperial Valley of California, where irrigation is used during most of the year, but water is withheld for three or four months in the fall and early winter.
Blackberries have come a long way with plant breeders developing flavorful high-yielding thornless varieties that bear their crops on one-year-old wood (floricanes) and ones that bear on the current season’s growth (primocanes).
Blueberries can be grown in almost every U.S. state. The lowbush blueberry is native to the New England states and most are processed into canned blueberries that one can find as an ingredient in boxes of blueberry muffin mixes. They grow prostrate and are harvested using hand-held rakes which “comb” the berries into wooden boxes below the rake.
The highbush blueberries are grown in the Mid-Atlantic States and northern states. The rabbiteye blueberries are grown in the southern states. Rabbiteye varieties developed are ones that have low chilling hours. These chilling hours have to be satisfied to break the rest period that the plants undergo before they move into a state of dormancy.
Highbush blueberries work very well in a PYO operation, with the fruit being easily picked by consumers with minimal bending over. They also have a long shelf-life and can hang on the plants for a long time after ripening.
Seedless table grapes are the sleeping giants in the world of specialty crops. They are members of Vitis labrusca, the genus and species that also include the seeded table grapes such as Concord, Niagara, Catawba and Delaware. Most have thin skins with no seeds, that can be popped into the mouth and eaten like candy. Cultural practices are similar to growing the seeded varieties and can be sold retail at farmers markets at high prices, because few people grow them.
Strawberries can be highly profitable but also carry high input costs, depending on what growing system the grower chooses to use. For the most part, states that have cold winters use the matted-row system where dormant plants are set in the field in the spring, after soils warm up. The runner plants which arise off of the mother plant are allowed to expand into a four-foot-wide bed, with the flowers being pulled off during the planting year to allow the runners to root into the soil where the fruit will be picked during the following year, and in subsequent years, for a total of three fruiting years, before the plants are destroyed, due to the build-up of soil fungus diseases.
In southern and western states, where plants can make good growth during a long growing season, the plasticulture system of growing strawberries is used. This system uses varieties that are bred for fruiting to occur off of the mother plant, and plants are harvested before they produce runners. The growing plants are planted on top of a raised bed that is covered with black plastic mulch with drip irrigation set underneath the plastic, at the same time the plastic is put down.
Plants set in the fall are allowed to grow over the winter in the milder climates and go dormant in the colder climates and are harvested in the following spring. After the harvest is completed, the plants are pulled up and discarded. This is repeated each year in this annual system of production.
The plasticulture system is an expensive system and more exacting requirements are needed in order to be successful. The profits are greater but after input costs are subtracted, net profits are only slightly higher than plants grown in the matted-row system.
Rhubarb is a plant that is highly sought after. It is only found in grocery stores at certain times of the year. In northern climates, it survives well as a perennial, with plants that can last for several years.
Rhubarb is successfully grown as a cool weather perennial in northern states by planting crown divisions, which can be cut into sections that contain a piece of the rhizome and a bud that is planted about one-inch deep in the soil. Rhubarb requires at least 500 hours of winter temperatures between 28 and 49 degrees F. for plants to go into a rest period and adequately form new leaf buds.
When summer temperatures exceed 75 degrees F., plants become stressed and become more susceptible to root rotting soil fungi and bacteria, causing rapid decline and plant death. This severely limits its growth as a perennial, causing it to be poorly adapted to the southern half of the U.S.