Should I Grow [Insert Crop Here]?

— Written By Paul McKenzie
en Español / em Português

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There’s no way to count the number of times a farmer or landowner has asked me, “How do I grow [insert crop here]?” The number would certainly be in the hundreds, and I’ve been asked about everything from blueberries to bamboo, vegetables to venus flytraps. I’m asked those questions, I suppose, because I’m seen as an “expert”. It’s true that I do have some education, and even some quite varied hands-on experiences, but when a seasoned farmer recently told me the definition of an expert (“someone from out of town holding a briefcase”), I had to concede it was a fair point.

I do try my best to answer those questions, drawing on the experiences I have, sharing research-based resources from land-grant universities, and consulting with specialists on the topic at hand. But at the end of the day, I’m often left wondering if it was the right question to begin with.

Perhaps, I’ve come to suspect, a better starting point is: “Should I grow [insert crop here]?”

And while I’m marginally qualified to answer the “How do I” question, I’m wholly UNqualified to answer the “Should I” question. But perhaps I can help you answer it for yourself.

The starting point, I think, is to have a clear picture of your own needs and expectations and it probably boils down to one or more of the following:

  • You own a piece of ground and want it to grow something useful.
  • Growing the crop provides you with a sense of connection to your history and ancestors.
  • You’d like to have some of the harvest for personal use and to share with friends, family, neighbors, community.
  • You love working outside.
  • You like the look of goats grazing the pasture, a field of ripening corn or an orchard blooming in the spring.
  • It provides you with deep personal satisfaction to harvest the fruits of your own labors.
  • You want your children to share the experience.

These are all one hundred percent valid reasons to start growing a certain crop, but I feel like something is missing. Hmmmm….what could it be?

Oh yes, profit!

Many landowners and farmers (although not all) are interested in making a profit as a result of their efforts. In your case, profit may be your primary need, a secondary need, or completely irrelevant. And it’s all good! But let’s stipulate that any farm enterprise you initiate is going to require an up front cash investment of many hundreds if not thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention countless hours of blood, sweat and tears. I would also suggest that agricultural enterprises carry unique risks compared to many others. If you want to start selling handmade scarves or start a web design business, you probably won’t have to worry about weather, insects, disease and extreme market fluctuations, for example. Nor will you need a $50,000 tractor.

You might think that the risk level would vary depending on the type of agricultural enterprise. Allow me to share share my opinion about the relative failure risk for various scenarios:

  • Traditional agricultural enterprise – High
  • Any agricultural enterprise with a contract – High
  • Any agricultural enterprise that someone told you is a “sure thing” – High
  • Any new agricultural enterprise that someone told you is extra special – High
  • Any other agricultural enterprise, including the one where you can “get in on the ground floor”, or that is “about to take off like a rocket” – High

Admittedly this “tongue-in-cheek” perspective lacks nuance, and this is not to suggest that no one should ever become a farmer. I think it’s important, however, to have a clear picture of your risk tolerance and profit expectation before planting the seed. Furthermore, in most cases I think a detailed business plan will be essential. A business plan will give concrete numbers for the capital requirements and profit potential.

Consider the following table, which suggests a strategy based on your level of risk tolerance and profit expectation. Find the intersection between your risk tolerance and profit needs to see my recommendation. Again, this is simply a statement of my opinion, and is obviously oversimplified.

Crop Growing chart

A business plan is not something you wrote on a napkin, and it’s a whole lot more than a vision board. Writing a business plan is well beyond my expertise, but probably includes complicated businessy sounding things like:

  • Market analysis
  • Marketing strategy
  • Management strategy
  • Capital investment requirements
  • Income projections
  • Cash flow projections
  • Enterprise budgets

I suspect you need a page or two of text, tables and calculations for each of those components, and probably a few more. If you wrote your business plan one evening after work, you probably have lots more work to do. To do it correctly, get expert help from someplace like SCORE, NC Farm School or the Small Business Center at your local community college. You should also consider doing it with the AgPlan app from the University of Minnesota.

In the end, “How do I grow blueberries?” is a much easier question to answer than “Should I grow blueberries?” But that “should I” question is probably a whole lot more important, and it’s one that an “expert” probably can’t answer for you.