Small farmers have much to consider when choosing their crops. How much does it cost to plant an acre? How long will the crop produce? Are the labor requirements high or low? Is the crop in high demand or high supply? Is the crop prone to failure with an early or late frost?
Farming requires accepting a certain amount of risk. Fortunately, unlike large-scale farmers, small farmers can usually hedge their income by planting many different types of crops on a single farm. The list below has 16 intriguing crop ideas that can be greatly profitable for the small farmer.
Herbs take up little space and are typically annual plants, meaning they can be changed every year, or even multiple times a year. Since they are best fresh, people pay a premium for herbs at farmer’s markets and for local herbs at the store.
As one of the best flavors in the culinary world, basil is a favorite of foodies across the U.S. Basil is an annual that is easy to seed and grows prolifically with ample water and heat. Since fresh basil looks much better than week-old basil packed in a plastic clamshell, it is a great crop for small growers to compete with large growers.
Lavender is an extremely versatile crop, which is one of the reasons it is a great crop for the small farmer. It can be an essential oil, a cut flower, a culinary herb, and a nice smelling potpourri. This diversity of products makes lavender a top crop for small farmers because it can be sold to many different markets.
Lavender is a perennial crop, meaning it comes back every year. Once established, lavender requires little care and continues to produce a crop for a decade after planting. As an added bonus, it makes any farm more attractive for weddings, events, and visitors.
Microgreens exploded onto the U.S. food scene in the last decade because of health-conscious buyers, attracted to the high nutrient value of these tiny greens. These greens have 4-6 times as much nutrient value per weight as typical greens. They also pack a lot of flavor into a small package, making them a favorite of chefs looking for attractive additions to their menus.
Microgreens are ideal for a small farmer because they only take two weeks to grow from seed to harvest. Many farmers grow them in trays, making them easy to handle and transport. Since the start-up cost for a small microgreens operation is very low, and it is easy to scale up, this crop is a low-risk opportunity for the small farmer.
Berries are an ideal set of crops for the small farm. Having a short shelf-life and being difficult to transport, small farmers often have an advantage over big berry growers. Berries can also fetch a pretty penny in the store or at the market! Customers love going to a farm to pick berries themselves, which saves small farmers on labor, distribution, and packaging costs.
It is highly beneficial to have an on-site refrigeration unit to store picked berries before getting them to the market. There are low-cost, high-efficiency solutions to making your own refrigeration room.
Blueberries are one of the greatest crops for pick-your-own oriented farmers. Customers love going to a quaint blueberry field to gorge themselves on the scrumptious berries.
Planting costs for blueberries are high and it takes blueberries at least five years to reach maximum production. But once blueberry bushes hit their high producing years, they will reliably produce heavy loads of berries for many years to come. A typical acre of blueberries will produce about 6,000 pounds per year. Run as a pick-your-own farm, this could be a great crop for small farmers in northern regions of the U.S.
Depending on your area and situation, raspberries could be a top crop for small farmers. Raspberries grow non-fruit bearing canes the first year. These canes then make raspberries in their second year before being cut. While an individual cane lasts two years, a planting will produce a profitable amount of berries for 10-15 years.
Since raspberries are best eaten within a day of picking, they are a great candidate for farmer’s markets or pick-your-own berry farms. However, raspberries are a labor-intensive crop that can be tricky with regard to disease. If you succeed, though, there is always demand for these delicious berries.
Blackberries are very similar to raspberries for the small farmer. Previously, they have been difficult to grow profitably but some notable improvements have been made to blackberry varieties in recent years.
First, some varieties will produce fruit in their first and second year, rather than just their second year. Second, there are now thornless varieties, saving great amounts of labor effort. Lastly, new varieties of blackberries require less trellising than previous varieties, further cutting back on the labor necessary. For these reasons, blackberries are increasingly lucrative for small farmers.
Certainly the least-known berry from this group, goji berries are currently one of the hot superfoods. Dried, they often fetch $10-20 per pound, making them an effective cash crop. The U.S. imports fewer goji berries from China, the world’s largest producer, than it did previously because of concerns over Chinese pesticide use. Economists predict that demand for goji berries will continue to grow, while imports have decreased. This gap is a great one for the small farmer to fill.
Sometimes the best crops are those we can’t see! Garlic and ginseng can be superb crops for small farmers looking for unusual markets.
Ginseng is a root that is native to the Appalachians in the U.S. It is highly revered in Chinese medicine, which explains why the biggest market for the root is in China. Wild ginseng fetches the highest prices, sometimes up to $8,000 per pound. Cultivated ginseng is still quite profitable, regularly selling for to $250 a pound.
One problem with ginseng is that it takes years for it to grow. It usually takes 5-6 years from planting to harvest for a ginseng crop. Moreover, ginseng farms can be raided by thieves in the middle of the night! However, for the risk-tolerant small farmer, ginseng could be an immensely profitable crop. A small patch of ginseng added to a backyard or a farm that is kept quiet could make for some nice side-income!
Most of the garlic seen in stores is softneck garlic. Hardneck garlics, named because their scapes are hard rather than soft, are more intensely flavored, more colorful, and often have bigger cloves than softnecks. At farmer’s markets it isn’t unusual to see gourmet garlic selling for $8 a pound!
Garlic doesn’t require very many specialty inputs except substantial labor to harvest. A drawback to garlic is that farmers can’t see the product until it is out of the ground, and the price of garlic fetches on the market is directly related to how good the garlic looks. That being said, this is a great crop for small farms looking to move into a niche, gourmet market.
Cut flowers can be a fun source of side income for the small farmer. They provide pollination services for crops, beautiful plants for visitors, and a piece of the farm that will brighten up every farmer’s day.
Dahlias are one of the few groups of flowers to have an entire society devoted to them, and for good reason. These show-stopping flowers come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. They are perfect for big events like weddings, or simply for a dining table arrangement.
A single, perfect dahlia flower can sell for up to $8. A field of dahlias makes a lovely backdrop for summer events. These flowers are known for being quite labor-intensive, but the profits on a good dahlia patch are well worth it.
Healthy plants produce huge flowers for months. As an added bonus, farmers dig up their tubers at the end of the season. Since the tubers multiply every year, farmers can sometimes sell these tubers to gardeners as an added source of income.
Less fussy than dahlias, zinnias produce tons of bright flowers throughout the summer. These darling flowers are a favorite of florists and flower enthusiasts because of their interesting structures and colors.
As a small farmer, consider planting a strip of zinnias around a crop that requires pollination, such as berries. The zinnias will attract pollinators to your farm, who will pollinate your crops and increase your yields! Zinnias provide plenty of nectar to attract these insects. These flowers will add value to your farm by making it more pleasant, increasing your crop yields, and adding a source of income as cut flowers! It’s a win-win-win.
Woody Ornamental Stems
While woody ornamentals won’t provide the exclusive source of income for small farmers, they can be a nice side hustle. All stone fruit trees need annual pruning and most stone fruit trees have attractive flowers. Some farmers figured out that, if they prune just before bud break, they can sell the cut branches as ornamentals.
People buy the sticks, which will blossom into flowery branches within a few days. Since these branches flower before the majority of cut flowers in the U.S., they can capture the early season market for local flowers! Florists also love using flowering branches and willow stems to add height and variety to their bouquets.
If you’re looking to put a low-maintenance crop on some marginal farmland, consider planting a Christmas tree farm. Most farmers choose to cut and replant about one out of eight trees every season since the trees take about eight years to mature.
The costs of a tree farm are mostly regular maintenance, such as weeding and pruning the trees. A well-managed tree farm can make about $15,000 per year. A farmer who does most of the labor himself can keep the vast majority of this as profit since few inputs are needed to grow conifers.
Of course, fruits are always an excellent option as a crop for small farmers. Small farms can offer fruits packed with the most flavor of any farmers. Customers are more willing to pay higher prices for fruit than, say, grains or vegetables.
Baskets of bright cherry tomatoes are a summer staple for small farmers. Since these sweet delights are usually sold by the pint, it is best to grow the larger varieties of cherry tomatoes. That way, it takes fewer tomatoes to fill per pint, therefore less labor picking and packing.
While rarely grown in the U.S., passionfruit has great potential as a top crop from small farmers. This plant can only be grown in warmer regions of the U.S. and does best in places with no frost. The demand for passionfruit is so high that it is being sold for $1-2 dollars per fruit in U.S. stores. As anyone who has grown a passion vine knows, these vines grow rapidly (30 feet per year) and have prolific production of fruit.
I know a family that grows passion fruit along their fence in their backyard. Local restaurants buy the fruit at $8 a pound from them. Their vine produces hundreds of pounds of fruit in a season, with little-to-no maintenance!
Of course, growing passionfruit on a bigger scale requires labor for ripping out and planting the vines, which only produce profitably for a few years. However, with demand showing no signs of slowing down, and very few people commercially growing the fruit in the U.S., it could be a great crop for small farmers looking forward.
Pawpaw is a fruit native to North America with a fascinating history. The tree provides the largest fruit native to the U.S. It is from a tropical plant family and resembles tropical fruit in every way. While demand for the fruit all but disappeared during the 20th century, it is regaining popularity.
The pawpaw grows best in the Midwest and has a short shelf-life. Being relatively unknown, it is best sold at a farmer’s market where farmers can interact directly with their customers. The interesting history and rich cultural heritage of pawpaw in the U.S. make it an unusual and potentially very rewarding crop for small farmers.
Article written by Evan Levy on September 30, 2020.