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7 Tips for Finding New Markets

Millennial consumers aren’t likely to come knocking on your farm door. Retooling your farm to grow something they want will require initiative on your part. 

Of course, there are no guarantees. You might call a potential buyer of an alternative crop and get a polite, “We don’t need you.” Or, you may end up saying, “That’s not for me,” and moving on.

In fact, tracking down viable alternative markets isn’t easy. For every call that gets a, “We need new growers,” there are 10 dead ends. That’s discouraging. But eventually, there is that 11th call. Keep calling.

Also, there are no get-rich-quick crops. (Repeat that.) The ones that sound the best attract a crowd. So, the new crop that could work for you likely isn’t on anyone else’s list.

Jason Grimm knows that. He has a day job helping farmers find new markets as a food system planner for Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development. At his night job, the young entrepreneur practices what he preaches at North English, Iowa, growing New Boss crops on a few acres he rents from his grandfather. He offers seven pointers.

1. Get a beginner toehold.

“The new food movement is an opportunity for new farmers,” says Grimm. “You can bring a new generation back to the land and do this. Maybe it takes just a few acres of the traditional farm.”

2. Network, network, network.

“Call people,” Grimm stresses. “Visit with other farmers who are doing it.” His favorite conference every year in February is the MOSES Organic Farming Conference (mosesorganic.org) in La Crosse, Wisconsin. It’s about networking, learning what others are doing, and seeing farm equipment for no-till and no-chemical crops. 

3. Inventory your skills.

“When people call me,” says Grimm, “the first question I ask is, ‘What do you like to do?’ If they say grow corn, I tell them there’s a market for open-pollinated corn for the tortilla market and the no-gluten market. That’s an opportunity. 

“If they like growing soybeans, there’s a black bean for food,” he says.

“The beauty of those markets is that you can use your conventional planter and most of your other farm equipment,” he says.

4. Consider beans.

Grimm grows an edible bean called the black turtle bean. While it only yields about 15 to 20 bushels an acre, he sells them wholesale to a few local restaurants and grocery stores for $2.50 a pound. In soybean math, that’s $150 a bushel. 

5. Look inside the school lunch box.

All schools that participate in the national school lunch program are mandated to serve a legume (edible beans) at least once a week. Many school kitchens embrace the idea of local foods, too.

6. Trump the organic label.

Alternative crops that are waiting for you – like vegetables, beans, or grains – often do not require organic certification. “My crops aren’t,” says Grimm. “My customers don’t insist on it. They do want me to use common organic practices, so I don’t spray directly or use commercial fertilizers. 

“Most customers want a product that is fresh. They want to know where it came from and who grew it. That trumps organic,” he says.

7. Keep in mind that size doesn’t always matter.

Grimm only grows enough black turtle beans to service a few customers. “You could start with as little as 2 acres and a couple of customers,” he says. “If your crop is a specialty meat, maybe that takes more volume – but not necessarily a lot. 

“You need to be able to supply buyers for multiple weeks. That’s why I like edible beans. I dry, store, and deliver them as my buyers need them,” he says. 

“Consumers can go to a store or restaurant I supply and know my product is there year-round. They look for my name on it. I’m building relationships with consumers, more than with the grocer or restaurants,” Grimm says.

Do You Have a Market Guarantee?

David Trinklein is very cautious when talking to farmers about markets for alternative crops. “With traditional crops like grain or livestock, you’re usually guaranteed a market someplace. It may not be at a profit, but there’s a buyer,” says the University of Missouri horticulturist. 

However, he continues, with alternative food crops, there is no such guarantee. “Some buyer may say to you, ‘Bring me some of that, then we’ll talk.’ That’s not a guarantee, but you’ve already made the investment.”

Many suggest to go very slowly with a new crop to limit initial investment or to get a contract that guarantees a market and price. “With vegetables and fruits,” says Trinklein, “buyers may want to see the quality you produce before committing to it.”

He offers one other tip to beginners. “The new crop can’t be of secondary importance when it needs your full attention. When it’s time to harvest, vegetables can’t sit in the field because you have hay to make. The new crop may not be your primary income, but there is a time when you have to give it your primary attention.”

The Market You Might Not Know About

There are three markets you should consider if you want to take your farm into alternative crops such as vegetables or fruits.

  1. The fresh retail market. You already have access at your local farmers market or your own on-farm store. You meet consumers directly, and you’ll do the sales work yourself.
  2. The wholesale market. Typically, you become a supplier to a grocery store or restaurant. They’re the middlemen, and they do the sales work. 
  3. The processing market. My company, Iowa Choice Harvest, is one of these. We’re the only one inside of Iowa and one of the few in the Midwest. (Find others at wallacecenter.org/foodhubcollaboration.) Very few farmers now utilize or have access to this market or are even familiar with it. Besides marketing to grocery stores, we also market to restaurants, schools, and hospitals. Our company finds them and does the sales work.
    The right crops produced for processing could really benefit your overall income, including profits. We believe that more and more farmers will work with processors like ICH in the future. 

– Penny Brown Huber, President, Iowa Choice Harvest

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