Farmers investigate new ag horizons with specialty crops

Nebraska is more than just corn and soybeans as far as the eye can see.

Farmers appear to be trying different kinds of crops as a way to supplement their incomes, or simply out of curiosity. Nebraska Extension Educator John Porter said there are several types of alternative crops showing up around the state that may surprise you.

“In terms of things outside of the corn and soybeans that are top of mind, we have several farmers around the state branching out into vegetables for the first time,” Porter said. “The number of small farmers growing vegetables has really skyrocketed. The Department of Agriculture keeps the stats and shows that roughly 500 farmers in the state are growing vegetables.”

He said farmers markets are popping up around Nebraska, with that number currently around 100 across the state. Those farmers markets are one place that producers can take some of those vegetables and make some money. After vegetables, the list of alternative crops might get a little less familiar to the average Nebraskan.

“One of the biggest alternative crops is called the Aronia berry,” Porter said. “The Aronia berry has taken off recently because of reports that the berries have really high health benefits. It’s a fruiting shrub, but you don’t want to eat them straight off the bush as they’re really sour. They’re sometimes referred to as ‘chokeberries’ because of that sour flavor when you eat them raw.

“There are a lot of farmers growing them, not just for farmers markets but also for processors that make the berries into juices and other things. I was visiting with a farmer in the Plattsmouth area and he said they grew over 10,000 pounds of Aronia berries. One or two companies in the state are currently processing those berries into products for sale, both in-state and out of state.”

Hops is another alternative crop that some folks in Nebraska may have heard of. However, what they may not know is the industry is still growing around the state.

“People are very interested in home brewing,” Porter said. “We also have a lot of breweries popping up around Nebraska as the interest in craft beers continues to grow. In Omaha, you almost can’t spit in the air without hitting at least one brewery.

“More and more farmers are growing hops and selling them either to in-state or out-of-state processors. Extension has taken notice of the interest and we now have someone that works specifically with hops farmers.”

Wine enthusiasts will be glad to know that grapes are another up and coming alternative crop in Nebraska.

“I believe there are between 30 and 40 wineries in the state,” he said. “Every one of them has to grow at least a portion of the grapes that they turn into wine, so there’s a grape growing industry in Nebraska, as well.”

Porter said the alternative crops are growing in number but are still a small percentage of Nebraska’s overall agriculture. Those crops also make up a small percentage of the overall amount of food that Nebraskans eat. Porter said farmers aren’t just looking at some of these alternative crops as a side business.

“There’s been a lot of growing interest in some of these things like fruit and vegetable farming,” he said. “People are looking at it as either a side project or full-time income. We have a lot of things growing and a lot of things taking off.

“Corn and soybean growers who may farm a large number of acres are having trouble making any money because of commodity prices. Some of them are starting to set aside a few acres here and there for alternative crops like fruits and vegetables.”

Typical Nebraska winters don’t seem conducive to growing some of these alternative crops, like grapes. However, Porter said some of them require a Nebraska winter to flourish.

“Some of the fruits actually have to have some cold temperatures,” Porter confirmed. “There’s a theory going around that the variety of crops we grow in Nebraska will expand in the future because of climate change. The weather is getting a little crazier and the winters aren’t going to be as cold in general. You’ll still see crazier storms and temperatures at times; however, we think the list of things we could grow will expand in the future.”

Chad Smith can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.

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