Let’s begin by defining “nutraceutical.” It is a product isolated or purified from foods that is generally sold in medicinal forms not usually associated with a food. A nutraceutical is demonstrated to have a physiological benefit or provide protection against chronic disease.

That’s how Evan Elford, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Rural Affairs new crop development specialist, explained the concept at the most recent Great Lakes Expo. He presented “Adding Value to Nutraceuticals and Other Alternative Market Crops” – or, he said, how to take advantage of “specialty cropportunities.”

In some further definitions, Elford explained that nutraceuticals are different from functional foods, which are similar in appearance to (or may be) conventional food, are consumed as part of someone’s usual diet and are demonstrated to have physiological benefits and/or reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond their basic nutritional functions.

Also different are a natural health products (NHPs), which include probiotics, herbal remedies, vitamins and minerals, homeopathic medicines, traditional medicines (such as traditional Chinese medicines) and other products like amino acids and essential fatty acids. These are more like value-added products.

“A good example of a nutraceutical is Aronia/chokeberry,” Elford said. “It’s high in antioxidants.”

Aronia is often lumped into that amorphous “alternative crop” category, which Elford defined as a niche crop not covered by mainstream horticulture/agriculture. It is typically a low acreage/high value crop. An alternative crop may be new to your region or an underutilized species there. It could also be a re-emerging crop – such as hops.

Other examples include elderberries, which can be sold fresh, processed (in jam, juice or syrup) or for dye, and its flowers can be used for elderflower cordial.

Haskap (or honeyberry) is often touted as a functional food. Growers can sell fresh and frozen berries, juice, wine and preserves. Sea buckthorn is very high in vitamin C and omega fatty acids; it is used as a functional food and in cosmeceuticals (cosmetic products that have medicinal or drug-like benefits).

Hops have culinary value for brewing (beer and hard cider), for non-alcoholic beverages (hop water), as hop asparagus and for flavorings. Elford noted that sparkling hop water has grown a lot in popularity recently. The crop has medicinal value (as a sleep aid) as well as a place in some cosmeceuticals.

Hops also have ornamental value (as potted plants and trellises). “One brewery captured more value using hops as decoration for events than harvesting them for beer,” Elford said.

Nutraceuticals, functional foods and NHPs can all be sourced from alternative crops. However tempting the market may be, though, alternative crops are not for everyone or for every farm.

Elderberries are one example of an alternative crop that has seen a recent surge in popularity. Photo by Courtney Llewellyn

Challenges for Alternative Crop Producers

Elford outlined the following as challenges a grower may face with alternative crops:

  • Markets: There’s often no established market; a lack of consumer knowledge may limit market development; niche markets are easily saturated; your idea may not be novel; and there’s a cyclical nature to the popularity of alternative crops
  • There’s often unknown or limited production information; they can be capital intensive; and it may be difficult to finance a start-up
  • Unique growing conditions/requirements – Growers may need season extension tools (plastic mulch, low tunnels, high tunnels, etc.); and the new crop may be labor intensive
  • Difficulty obtaining desired cultivars/genetic material – This can be true for seeds, vegetative propagules and plants or improved cultivars
  • There may not be the money – or desire – for research on a specific crop

Benefits of Alternative Crops

On the other hand, those willing to make the leap have a few things going for them:

  • The crops are typically high value and grown on small acreage – and can be great for new farm and small farm businesses
  • They provide a new challenge for those eager to learn
  • The crops draw customers to increase revenues – this can create a better financial situation/risk management plan for some growers, who can gain more control of the market chain; they can improve cash flow and off-season income (through storage or value-added products); and they can even finance expanded on-farm employment (for farm family members and/or the next generation)

Figuring out the “next big thing” is tougher than ever these days, as it can take several years to grow a crop and consumers deal with shorter and shorter attention spans. In trying to identify alternative crop trends, Elford suggested looking at your personal situation and what health food/nutrition stores are selling as well as organic stores/specialty grocers. What are media outlets saying in regard to the crop in food, restaurants, medical blogs and TV programs? What about the demographics and statistics of your market?

“Personal health issues are often a catalyst” for growers attempting a new crop, Elford said. Demographic shifts are an indicator but it can take a long time for trends to emerge.

Steps to Follow

For those willing to risk the time, effort and funding to trial an alternative crop, Elford presented the steps below to help begin the process.

First, find and understand the markets. What is the market need – and is there one? Do your research and look into nearby competition. Also consider the specific varieties or growth stages of the crop that the market would need. Customer and end user expectations should be a part of market considerations.

Next, consider your objectives and the fit for your farm. Can you grow the crop for the market need? Can you actually grow it in your climate or on your farm? And it will it just survive there, or will it thrive?

As for the crop type, look at its agronomic requirements for soil type, irrigation, season extension, rotation, nutrition, harvesting system and storage.

Look at your farm resources and sales/distribution requirements (time, labor – including detailed recordkeeping – and equipment). Will you need special equipment? Will you need licensed or specialized facilities? Typically, the more processed the product, the higher the investment costs.

There may be some legal requirements for the crop itself, such as for those growing hemp. Rules and laws can cover sales, labeling, pricing, farm market regulations, liability, equipment and transportation. Do your research to know what you can put on a label.

“While there can be some steep hills to climb, opportunities exist,” Elford said. “Understand there is no silver bullet, however.”

by Courtney Llewellyn