December 21, 1999 | By: Mark Eclov
Lexington, KY

With every fluctuation in livestock, grain crop and tobacco prices, there rises a chorus of demands for alternative forms of crop and livestock that will bolster farm income.

To some folks, fruit and vegetable crops are considered the "silver bullets" that can save the farm.

"There isn't any one crop that is going to be the panacea for what everyone is looking for," says John Strang, Extension horticulture specialist in the UK College of Agriculture.

"There isn't any one crop that is going to be the panacea for what everyone is looking for," says John Strang, Extension horticulture specialist in the UK College of Agriculture.

Strang. "Horticultural crops are much more critical on timing than on tobacco and some of the other agronomic crops."

That may not be an easy combination of skills to come by, even for extremely successful growers who have many years of farming experience.

"For the last ten years or so, the University of Kentucky has put out horticultural test plots across the state that demonstrate how to grow peppers and tomatoes on raised beds and black plastic," said Strang. "And every year we have people who end up with good returns and we also have growers, using the same type of land with the same inputs, who barely break even or even lose money."

While good management skills are crucial, there are other factors that can make or break the bottom line in the business of fruit and vegetable production.

"Patience is an important virtue for successful vegetable and fruit growers," said Strang. "There are some steep learning curves to successfully grow some of these crops and many of the fruit crops require years of growth before the first fruits form."

Farmers who have grown most of their crops from the seat of a tractor are going to find that some crops demand a lot of time working with their hands and they may also have to hire others to help with all the hand labor.

"We recommend that a producer start each new crop with a small acreage and gradually increase production as they get comfortable with the demands of that crop and also develop a market for that produce," said Strang.

Growing a crop is only half the challenge. Selling even top-quality produce can be a problem if there aren't enough buyers or if you can't sell it at the right time.

"Determine your market possibilities before you plant that first seed," warned Strang. "I would go talk to your county Extension agent for agriculture to get an idea of what has done well in that area. After that I would talk to the consumers as you begin to market your first produce. Ask the customers what they are looking for, what can't they find at the local grocery store."

"Right now, I see roadside marketing as the brightest option for producers in Kentucky," said Strang. "That's basically because they have control over their produce."

Strang says the success of most roadside markets in Kentucky are based on quality. They offer fresh produce that has added shelf life. Locally-grown produce also tastes better than many store products because it is picked much closer to peak maturity than products shipped in from other states foreign countries to chain grocery stores.

Some Kentucky vegetable and fruit growers are still making a profit in the wholesale sector. Some of the most successful of those are selling their product directly to farmers markets in neighboring states at times when those areas have shortages of produce that Kentucky growers can grow either earlier or later in the year.

Producers need to start making decisions right now about what we might want to try next year. An important meeting is coming up in early January that can help Kentucky producers better understand this ever-evolving business.

The Kentucky vegetable growers annual conference is slated for the Lexington at the Holiday Inn North on January 3 and 4. The event is comprised of two all-day meetings and most of the time there are four concurrent sessions all going on at once.

"Everything from grape production to organically-grown crops to marketing strategies will be discussed and there will also be a trade show," said Strang. "It will provide a real good snapshot of what is happening in the fruit and vegetable markets around the region." Kentucky County Extension agents for agriculture will have meeting details for any interested growers.


Writer: Mark Eclov (606) 257-7223
Source: John Strang 606-257-5685