What’s the Next Big Thing for NC Agriculture?

— Written By

In 2004, the US Congress passed legislation that ended a decades-old tobacco allotment program that had set a minimum guaranteed price and kept many NC small farmers in business. It was a dramatic change for North Carolina’s number one cash crop.

In the years since, the number of tobacco farmers declined dramatically and there has been much speculation on what will be The Next Big Thing for NC agriculture. Although many tobacco farmers retired or took off-farm jobs, others began to look for an alternative crop that would be equally profitable. It was a tall order. While I wouldn’t dare categorize tobacco as an “easy” crop, it was profitable enough and reliable enough that a hard-working family could earn a modest income on a small acreage.

To date, there has been no single crop that has emerged as The Next Big Thing. Instead, ambitious and entrepreneurial former tobacco farmers entered into a wide variety of agricultural enterprises. Those ranged from livestock to berries to nursery crops to produce and more.

Nonetheless, farmers with an ear to the ground (and trust me, they all have an ear to the ground) often hear rumblings of something new that supposedly has great potential. Of late, the speculation has centered on things like hops, malting barley, industrial hemp, and even bamboo.

Could one of those be The Next Big Thing. To be clear, those questions are best answered by someone way smarter than me, a fully functional crystal ball, or more likely by the passage of time. However, I can offer the enterprising farmer or landowner some thoughts on how to decide what to try next.

For a farmer considering a new enterprise, there are many things to consider. What equipment is required? Which cultivars perform best? What pests should I expect? How do I manage them? How much fertilizer is needed, and when? What are realistic yields? Where do I sell the harvest? And these are but a few examples.

For enterprises with a history of commercial production in North Carolina, the answers to these questions are known, and the markets are well-established. Your friendly local Extension Agent can readily advise you on the best strawberry cultivars, feed rations for hogs, pest management on cabbage, and yield expectations for asparagus. In most cases we can provide detailed enterprise budgets with comprehensive data on production costs. What’s more, the information we can provide on those crops is based on actual research performed at one of our land-grant universities. It doesn’t mean that any of those crops is a sure thing, but it does mitigate the risk.

For new and emerging crops, we don’t have those answers. In the case of industrial hemp, for example, we don’t know which cultivars are best suited for different areas of North Carolina, when is the best time to plant, or which diseases might be problematic in our growing conditions (e.g. hot and humid). Nor do we have a good handle on production costs, and the facilities that will purchase and process the harvest are only beginning to be developed.

Of course, the person selling you the seed for that new crop may try to convince you otherwise. They may even have numbers showing yields, production costs and prices, and give convincing assurances about marketability.

One time, when I was buying a used truck, I asked the salesperson about the towing capacity. Without hesitation he gave me a number, and added that he used to work for a dealer that sold that brand. He came across as confident, sincere and knowledgeable. I bought the truck, but months later discovered he had told me the wrong number. I honestly believe he thought the number was correct, and in the end it didn’t really matter. I was quite happy with my purchase, and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy another vehicle from that salesperson. But if towing capacity was important to me, I would have been wise to verify the number from an independent source.

The point is, the person selling you the seed, even if they have the utmost integrity, is not an unbiased source of information and you should treat it accordingly.

Farming is risky business. A farmer buys some seed at the beginning of the season, knowing that they have many long days of hard labor ahead with precious little assurance that it will pay off at the end. Farming new and emerging crops is even riskier. Of course, sometimes the early adopter will make out like gangbusters. However, successful entrepreneurs often have stories of multiple failures before they discovered the enterprise that was profitable.

If you decide to take a risk on a new and emerging crop, I urge you to fully consider those risks and carefully evaluate your ability to recover from a failure. I also urge you to seek competent legal counsel if participation in the new enterprise requires any type of contractual agreement.

In truth, there may not be a Next Big Thing for NC agriculture. Or rather, the Next Big Thing may be that the grand diversity of crops we have in North Carolina continues to grow. Already we are among the most agriculturally diverse states in the nation. We can grow pickling cucumbers, poultry, Christmas trees, peaches, sweet potatoes, peanuts, cotton and much more. We have successful farmers that raise crops on thousands of acres, and successful farmers that cultivate less than 10. And really the important question is what’s the next big thing for your farm.

Here are links to more information on some of the crops mentioned above:

Malting barley – http://content.ces.ncsu.edu/nc-grains-for-brewing-and-distilling-faq
Industrial hemp – http://industrialhemp.ces.ncsu.edu/
Bamboo – http://www.aces.edu/timelyinfo/ForestryWildlife/2011/March/TIS-Update-Bamboo.pdf
Hops – http://newcropsorganics.ces.ncsu.edu/specialty-crops/nc-hops/