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Niche crop brings young farmer home

07/28/2011 @ 9:39am

When Donny Lassiter came home from college to join his parents, Bobby and Debbie Lassiter, on their farm near Jackson, North Carolina, he faced a familiar obstacle for beginning farmers: The farm couldn't support two families.

At the time, Lassiter Farms was a 2,000-acre operation, primarily growing peanuts, along with corn and cotton.

“We were in a period of transition,” Donny Lassiter says. “The farm had lost a lot of income because the government had withdrawn subsidies for peanuts, and other commodity markets were in a slump. My father suggested I find a crop to grow other than a commodity crop, a specialty crop that would earn a better price.”

Lassiter, now 33, has a graduate degree in ag education. Finding and building his own niche in the business was the key to securing his future as a full-time farmer.

The outgrowth of Lassiter's efforts is a niche crop that he markets to hunters and wildlife lovers. Chufa, an African bunch grass, has a peanut-like undergrowth and is a favorite food of wild turkeys and waterfowl.

He launched the business in 2000, growing 2 acres that yielded 5,000 pounds. Today he's one of the largest growers in the U.S., direct-marketing 60 acres. Lassiter's wife, Jamie, is involved in the sales and marketing of chufa.

“I return calls from our customers, place orders, and get shipments ready to go out,” she says.

The value-added enterprise now earns one third of their annual net income.

Lassiter Farms also has grown to 7,000 acres, making room for a younger brother, Mark, 29, to join the business.

Decision-making steps

Based on his experience, Lassiter suggests taking five steps to explore and to develop a niche business.

1. Compile a list of ideas based on your interests. “It all started from my interest in wildlife and hunting,” he says.

2. Research the crop. Lassiter learned that chufa grows in a range of soils and is easily acclimated. Two key factors were whether current farm equipment could be used and how well the new crop's production cycle would fit with mainstay crops. “Tubers must be dug, like peanuts, and the dirt removed,” he says. “I modified existing equipment to harvest and to clean the chufa.” Chufa is planted in April and harvested in early September.

3. Grow slowly from a small start. “After my research, I prepared an information booklet to share with Dad,” he says.

4. Match production growth to market opportunities. To sell his first crop, Lassiter advertised in a state hunting magazine. He started with 50-pound bags; today he offers a 25-pound bag and a 10-pound bucket. He delivers to his largest customers in the Southeast. He and Jamie sell at the Dixie Deer Classic in Raleigh, a regional hunting show, and they ship seed through their website (cypresskneechufa.com).

5. Consider whether a direct marketing business niche fits your personality. “I like dealing with people,” Donny says. Jamie agrees. “We enjoy building and keeping up with customers,” she adds.

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