June 27, 2007 | By: Laura Skillman

Since its birth seven years ago, the University of Kentucky New Crop Opportunities Center has provided research and information on new and emerging crop options for Kentucky’s once tobacco-dependent producers.

To date, the center has funded 63 projects, of which 34 are ongoing. These projects are often collaborative efforts between departments. Researchers from seven departments within the UK College of Agriculture have had projects funded through the center, which receives federal grant money to operate and pay for the research efforts. This funding has provided research in areas that otherwise may not have been conducted, said Dewayne Ingram, center co-director and horticulture department chair. David Van Sanford, UK wheat breeder, is the center’s other co-director.

“The bottom line is we want to help farmers,” said Christy Cassady, center coordinator. “We’ve had good research and enabled farmers to try new things. Part of our role is to determine the most economically feasible ways to produce these crops.

“One of the dangers is to not let people get too excited about a new crop too early. People come up with ideas, and it sounds really good on the surface, but you don’t want people to jump into it too fast before we have more information for them,” she said. “If people come in too quickly and then they end up losing money, they just write that crop off. They think there’s no hope for it. That’s why you’ve got to be careful and not over promote something until you have adequate information in place before growers invest.”

The center began in July 2000 as Kentucky was starting to transition from a tobacco-based agriculture economy to a more diverse economy. Knowing there would be a need for alternative sources of income for Kentucky farmers, UK established the center with a special interest toward horticulture and specialty grains.

“We look for the opportunities to do research on a number of crops that would provide fairly high income for Kentucky growers,” Cassady said. “This has been very diverse from the start with a lot of different people from several departments in the college. It has always had a multidisciplinary approach.” 

The center shares its research results and other crop information with farmers through agents with the UK Cooperative Extension Service, as well as through a Web site and at meetings. Cassady said the center’s crop profiles are quick snapshots of what is required to produce a particular crop so a farmer can quickly decide if it is one they may or may not want to consider growing. The profiles give farmers an opportunity to compare crop growing requirements to their resources.

Since it began, the center has seen a number of successes. One of those was a project to find disease-resistant varieties of bell peppers that could be grown in the state.

“They were experiencing huge losses from disease before this research,” Cassady said. “That research has made a big difference. Basically, 95 percent of the varieties grown now in Kentucky were varieties recommended as a result of this research.”

Small fruits production, especially blackberries and blueberries, has also increased in the state and research efforts on cultivars and other production practices have enabled growers to be successful. A project now under way focuses on the organic production of blueberries, as well as value-added frozen and dried blueberry products. With the increasing number of blueberry acres in the state, this research could make a real difference for producers, she said.

Cassady noted there’s been quite a bit of interest in organic production. Although she’s not sure how many people will go into organics, research such as a new project on developing an organic apple orchard, gives them the needed information. The center has funded several research projects on organic vegetable production in addition to organic fruit and organic grain cropping systems. The center’s web site has information on the organic certification process as well as a recent survey of organic production in Kentucky. Extension agents, specialists and organic growers were surveyed for their ideas on crops that are easy or difficult to organically grow in Kentucky. The information gathered helps people learn from the experiences of others when it comes to deciding what to organically grow.

The center is collaborating with Kentucky Department of Agriculture on a project to optimize Romaine lettuce production in Kentucky primarily because of interest by a produce company.

“We are looking at what cultivars work best, what production practices work best, and grower and agent training. It looks like it has potential if we can work out the bugs,” Cassady said.

With many of these crops, marketing is also a vital piece of the puzzle. This can be the most difficult part, Cassady said, because you can’t change a person’s personality and some people just don’t have it in them to do the face-to-face marketing required for some of these crops. 

Some other research funded through the center includes white wheat production, sweet sorghum varieties for Kentucky, high tunnel production practices for season extension, sustainable management of insect pests and diseases of nursery-grown maples in Kentucky, optimizing pot-in-pot nursery production, and several biofuels projects.

Center Co-Director Ingram noted that the center has played a vital role in Kentucky’s efforts to diversify its farm economy but there’s still more for the center and its research efforts to do.

“Kentucky agriculture is not through transitioning. It is still in transition,” he said.

To see the crop profiles, research reports and other information on new cropping opportunities, visit the center’s Web site.


Christy Cassady, 859-257-1477, Dewayne Ingram, 859-257-1758