Specialty Crops Offer Opportunities in Kansas
By Jean Stramel
The specialty crop market – fruits and vegetables – is one of the biggest opportunities for growth in Kansas agriculture. With consumers demanding more locally grown food, a logical step is for Kansas farmers to increase the production of fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops. Kansas currently imports over 90% of the produce consumed in the state.
At the KRC fall conference, representatives from the Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA) and K-State Extension (KSU) presented an overview of the state’s understanding of the challenges and opportunities for specialty crop production and marketing and the resources available They highlighted KDA initiatives and grants available, as well as results of a recent grower survey which will help guide efforts to increase these resources and grow this segment of agriculture.
Lexi Wright, KDA program coordinator for “From the Land of Kansas”, the state trademark program, also manages the Central Registration of Farmers’ Markets at the KDA. She shared information from the August 2017 KDA Ag Growth Summit, where specialty crops were one of 19 sectors in Kansas agriculture discussed. According to Wright, “growers say it is difficult to get information on crops to grow in their specific part of the state”. She added that lack of an industry association was also identified as a barrier. Unlike row crop and livestock farmers, there are few growers available to pass on generational experience and knowledge in growing specialty crops. KDA continues to identify opportunities for growth, and provide additional resources to meet specialty crop grower needs.
KDA worked with K-State Extension to survey specialty crop growers, publishing the results in the Economic Impact Survey of Specialty Crops to Kansas specialty crop growers in the fall of 2017. In addition to demographic and production data, challenges and opportunities were identified through the responses given by over 250 Kansas growers. Weather and climate extremes often make growing difficult, and compared to commodity crops, there is little marketing and education done through state or university channels. “The survey helped us identify areas for growth in the industry, and gave us a glimpse of where growers would like to see resources become available”, Wright continued.
Wright also listed funding mechanisms that exist at the state level for farmers. The USDA through KDA funds the organic cost share program, which reimburses growers up to 75% of their certification costs, up to $750, in 4 categories: crops, wild crafted crops, livestock and product handling. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service provides funding assistance for Seasonal High Tunnels for season extension through EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program). Applications are taken at the USDA county field offices year-round, with ranking and funding cut-off dates announced periodically.
The KDA has been holding workshops across the state on the new Food Marketing Safety Act produce safety rule, providing information about marketing, scale certification and various regional topics such as beekeeping. KDA has also scheduled regional farmer’s market workshops for February 2018.
USDA’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program is administered by KDA for the purpose of helping enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops, explained Kellen Liebsch, KDA administrator of the SCBG. Grant awards include research and outreach on production methods, marketing, storage and many other aspects of specialty crop production. For instance, Highland Community College early on received funding to develop a viticulture and enology program, and now includes a newly licensed wine incubator program.
The Kansas Rural Center has received several Specialty Crop Block grants for educational programs including its recent ”Growing Over Cover” publication. and its upcoming regional workshops. Other examples include the development of incubator kitchens, school and community gardens, and scientific and technological endeavors in product handling and storage. Rock Springs 4-H Camp received funding to bring more locally grown specialty crops into their camp meals. Growers in northwest Kansas have received SCBG funds to expand vegetable production in western Kansas where many food deserts exist. Several grower groups have partnered with the Western Prairie Resource, Conservation & Development Council (RC&D) on expanding opportunities for growers in this region to sell into markets on the front range of Colorado, including restaurants and stores.
The State recent survey specialty crop growers Kansas, Economic Impact Survey of Specialty Crops, provided important information on the status of and the needs of this growing sector of agriculture. Dr. Cary Rivard, director of the Olathe Horticulture Research and Extension Center near Kansas City, explained that only about 30 counties in Kansas (out of 105) have horticulture agents. “Many counties have fruit and vegetable growers but they are spread out, so we don’t really know they are out there and how they are adding to the economy,” he said.
He stressed the importance of the data generated in this survey. Specialty Crop Block Grant funds are distributed to states based on Agricultural Census data, so if these growers are not captured by the ag census, Kansas does not get the funds it needs for this type of research and promotion.
Rivard explained “The University has a lot of industry partnerships with big agricultural interests to get research funding, but in specialty crops there is not a lot of help. Seed companies are willing to donate seeds for variety trials, but won’t finance the research because they say Kansas doesn’t have the markets for these crops.” These survey results can provide the real numbers needed to reveal that specialty crop growers exist and that funding research to this industry can benefit Kansas agriculture in general.
The survey shows that there are specialty crop growers in over half the counties in Kansas. 54% of these growers have actually purchased land for growing specialty crops. Almost 80% are under 6 acres, with 11% over 20 acres. This indicates a huge potential for growth in the “middle bubble” of 10-20 acres, which often are considered too big for farmer’s market but too small for wholesalers.
Tomatoes are grown on 59% of these farms, with peppers, beans, greens, herbs, spices and berries next in quantity. Nursery crops showed a low level at 7%, but Rivard believes this is low and some growers were not captured in this data.
The majority of sales are through farmers markets (36%). Eighty percent of the growers are bringing in less than $50,000 in gross sales, and 42% want to expand their operations.
There is tremendous potential for growth, especially for wholesale commercial farms. More research is needed on storage and distribution, varieties and growing methods specific to Kansas climates, and growing conditions, which vary widely across Kansas. It is obvious there is potential for growth, especially in wholesale farms, since according to Rivard, “when production gets up in the 10-20 acre range, that is when you start to make money”.
Seventy-eight percent of the operations were started after 2001. “This means that 80 % of the people running the industry have only been doing this for 15 years. This shows there is tremendous room for growth, and the need for research and expansion of markets is needed,” Rivard said.
Jean Stramel is a freelance writer from Lucas, Ks. and she prepared this story for KRC.