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The Next Big Crop

What would the ideal crop look like to you?

Last winter a hunter at one of my farms was trying to tempt some deer into a clearing for deer season.  He threw out some turnip seeds by hand after the beans were out of the field. 

In the early spring, I drove up to that field and was shocked to find hundreds of volleyball sized turnips sticking out of the ground.  This started me thinking about the fact that we could have grown multiple semi loads of turnips on those 50 acres with almost no input cost.  However, there would have been no crew to harvest them and probably no demand.  

Still, this makes me wonder what we’re missing.  From a supply standpoint, lately all you hear about is how the world is over-supplied with wheat, corn, and soybeans.  Normally, when there is too much of something, you don’t want to add to the over-supply.  You want to find the under-supplied products and provide them instead.

Most people don’t know the history of soybeans in the United States.  A hundred years ago soybean production in the U.S. was virtually non-existent.  In the late 1920's, there was a wheat over-supply that was putting financial pressure on family farms and also limiting demand for agricultural equipment.  This problem came to the attention of Henry Ford, who started looking for ways to spark agricultural equipment demand and also establish a cheap, steady supply of oils for automobile component production.  Ford spent over $1 million on soybean research (a lot of money at the time) and planted 300 soybean varieties on his own land.  Ford became a huge promoter of the soybean, famously stating, "There is a bushel of soya beans in every Ford car."  By the end of the 1930's production was booming, and now we are producing well over 4 billion bushels a year.  

What will we be growing 50 or 100 years from now that is virtually non-existent today?  Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer, but here is a short list of some alternative crops to think about: carmelina sativa, linseed, sesame seed, chickpeas, flaxseed, hemp, switch grass, bamboo, miscanthus, canola, buckwheat, lentils, quinoa, and field peas.  In addition, the explosion of microbreweries across the land is sparking demand for locally grown hops and malting barley.

Recently, I posed the question to some farmers, "What would the ideal crop look like to you?"  Here are their answers.  They would like to plant it only once every 5 years.  It would have a large grain head on it that produces a lot oil and meal (protein).  It would grow whether there was little rain or copious amounts and could be grown in marginal soils.  You would be able to harvest it maybe two or three times a year, depending on waterfall and temperatures.  

I spoke with Barry McMillan, one of the largest horseradish farmers in the country (who also grows a lot of soybeans.)  Per Barry, "Ideally, we could utilize existing equipment on a potential new crop and reduce the risk of it turning south in five years."  Barry also said that it has to "pencil out", which is the most important point.  Whatever the next wonder crop is, the profit per acre will have to exceed current corn and soybean profits.  We all need to remember to focus on the profit per acre rather than gross revenue.  You’re better off grossing $300 an acre on "crop x" and netting $120 than grossing $450 an acre on beans and netting $75, assuming overhead costs constant.  

American farmers, mid-western universities, the USDA, and the big seed companies are on the trail of the "next big crop".  I believe they will find it with some research, trial and error, and determination.  Happy hunting.


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