Specialty crop Apples peaches strawberries

Specialty crop require constant care. Someone responsible always has to be around.

CENTRALIA, Ill. — Tom Schwartz is a farmer. But not like his neighbors who grow corn and soybeans.

Schwartz produces apples, peaches, strawberries and other fruits at his Centralia farm in Marion County, Illinois. He works different hours, deals with different pests and sells his crops in different ways.

“We have a whole array of diseases to fight and an array of different insects,” he said. “We’ll start applications at the end of March, depending on the weather, and sometimes earlier than that. While a grain farmer may do three or four, we’ll do 15 to 18 applications.”

The number of products is another difference.

“Anybody in specialty crops has a large diversity,” said Elizabeth Wahle, a University of Illinois horticulture educator. “The row-crop grower usually has corn, soybeans, wheat and maybe something else in their rotation. That would be uncommon for a specialty grower to have only two or three items in their lineup.

“I don’t want to lessen the impact of what corn and soybean growers deal with, but there is a much deeper learning curve in terms of management. They deal with a lot of different insects and diseases, for example.”

Apple trees are susceptible to diseases such as bitter rot. Producers must use chemicals such as strobilurins and Captan. Insects such as the coddling moths threaten fruits.

“Bugs have changed too,” Schwartz said. “You have to know the life cycle, the right product and the right timing. We set out pheromone traps this year to catch male coddling moth, which turns into that worm in your apple. After you catch 25 or 30 of these moths, you have 10 days to apply a good insecticide so that guy doesn’t get in your apple.”

Crop insurance is another difference. While federally subsidized insurance is available and affordable for producers of program crops such as corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat, that is not the case for most specialty growers.

“Not all counties are covered. That’s highly variable. And not all commodities are covered,” Wahle said. “There are programs for some crops in some counties. They’re very few and far between. A lot of the growers will say it just doesn’t pay off enough. Insurance is not as accessible and relied upon in the specialty crop market.”

Schwartz compared running an orchard to dairy farming. That is because of the constant care required.

“It is like a dairy farm. You can’t walk off and leave for two or three days,” Schwartz said. “If you don’t prune, you’re beat before you get started. You have to train these trees. These trees are like little kids. If you just turn him loose, he’s going to get into trouble before he hits the first grade. You’ve got to train him so he knows whether he’s going to make firewood or apples. You don’t get a lot of sleep in April because you’re watering because of frost.”

Wahle, who grew up on a dairy, agrees.

“Specialty crops are like dairy cows,” she said. “Someone responsible always has to be around.”

Labor is another issue. Specialty growers are much more dependent on outside labor, especially during harvest. They must deal with government programs such as the H-2A act, which covers the hiring of temporary agricultural workers, many from Mexico.

The biggest difference of all, however, may be marketing. While grain farmers have a ready buyer nearby in the form of a grain elevator, that is not the case for specialty growers.

“A lot of specialty growers don’t have a terminal market where they take their crops,” Wahle said. “They have a very diverse marketing outlook for their crops, including wholesale, retail and after-market. A lot of them are involved in value-added, agritourism and farmers markets.

“They really have to hustle to sell their crop every year. They have some reliance on how they’re going to market their crop.”

Schwartz agrees.

“The biggest thing, I would say, is marketing,” he said. “You have to be fast on your feet and you better know a lot of people. Relationships are so important.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.