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Specialty Vegetables: A Small-Scale Agricuture Alternative

United States Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research Service
Office for Small-Scale Agriculture

There is a growing demand for Latin and other 'ethnic' vegetables in most of the larger cities such as Chicago, Miami, and New York. To supply customers' needs for such specialty items, many major chains stores across the country are turning to specialist marketers, many of whose supplies are small-scale growers.

Specialty vegetables being introduced or reintroduced by immigrants from the Pacific Basin, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and even Europe include amaranth, arrowroot (Chinese potato), cipolines, daikon, donqua, elephant garlic, fava bean, fiddlehead green, gil choy, Japanese eggplant, jicama, manzano banana, moqua, napa, taro root, tomatillo, and yuca (also known as sweet cassava). Even the native watercress is enjoying newfound popularity. Many such vegetables are described in a book, Windows of Opportunity: The Market for Specialties and Organics, ($25), by Nancy Lee Bentley, marketing consultant at The Food Circle, P. O. Box 62, Cabery, IL 60919. (One fresh produce item likely to capture consumers' fancy is the miniature watermelon, to be discussed in more detail in a fact sheet on fruits.)

Things to Consider

Above all, a small-scale entrepreneur interested in growing specialty vegetables must be cautious, advises Frieda Capian. She is an ace California-based national-chain marketer of specialty produce for nearly 30 years. Her successes include Jerusalem artichokes (marketed under the name she coined, "sunchokes") and many other specialty vegetables. She gets as many as 50 phone calls a week from potential vegetable or fruit growers asking how to get started.

Frieda, as she is known in the trade, tells callers first to check with an expert, such as a Cooperative Extension Agent or Soil Conservation Service soil specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to learn what vegetables their soil can grow best. Next, from seed company, "find out what's new and available." Then she suggests they contact her to learn whether she can market what they plan to grow. (Her address: Frieda's Finest Produce Specialties, Inc., P.O. Box 58488, Los Angeles, CA 90058).

Chances are, if an item is really new, she will advise them to grow only a few rows, just to try it out. She cautions growers about making certain before contracting that they have packing and shipping arrangements worked out. "It's up to the grower to arrange transportation," she pointed out.

Vegetables have to be packed according to standards; and growers must have arrangements to precool the vegetables for shipment. Failure to have all the links in the chain from soil to market can doom an enterprise.

To help growers, shippers, carriers, and receivers learn the standards and to reduce postharvest losses and expand the markets for highly perishable, high-value vegetables (and fruits), the Export Services Branch of USDA's Office of Transportation (410 McGregor Building, Washington, DC 20250-4500) has a Tropical Products Transport Handbook available in 1988. It discusses maintaining quality of fruits, vegetables, plants, and flowers during transportation.

The booklet emphasizes proper planning, grading, packaging, and precooling practices as particularly important for crops shipped long distances from areas with tropical and subtropical climates. The information is presented in a brief manner with many illustrations. The handbook also discusses the choice of mode of transportation, checking the transportation equipment before loading, loading practices and recommended intransit and storage procedures. A summary of recommendations is given for 120 fruits and vegetables, most being tropical in origin. (Telephone 202-653-6317.)

One key need both before and just after harvesting is adequate labor to gather and pack crops quickly for market when they are ready. Most specialty crops can't be harvested by machine. A U-pick operation would solve the labor problem; but not all areas support pick-our-own operations. Each producer must evaluate his or her prospects for U-pick carefully.

Lawrence Rinkenberger, Indiana farmer who spoke at the 1986 "ADAPT 100" conference (sponsored by Meredith Corporation's Successful Farming magazine), said his pick-your-own acreage has been declining since 1981, despite his fast checkout lanes and a recreational atmosphere. Fewer customers are finding time for picking, and supermarket have become more competitive with higher quality and lower prices.

The text of Rinkenberger's talk (along with discussions of many other alternative farming ideas) is in the book,ADAPT/100, available for $12.95 from Successful Farming at P.O. Box 10652, Des Moines, IA 50336.

Miniatures in Demand

In deciding what to produce, entrepreneurs may pinpoint demand. In some markets and gourmet restaurants, demand is often high for miniature or "baby" sizes of conventional vegetables, such as squashes.

Some varieties of vegetables have been especially developed to grow small, or miniature size. Others are simply picked at an immature stage; it is important to know which ones. Many minivegetables are being grown in California, Florida, Texas, and Mexico year round. With good soils, they can be grown in many States in summer, or they can be grown in greenhouses. Growing and marketing minivegetables is tricky. Besides being produced from appropriate varieties, they must be harvested precisely when they are at a sweet rather than bitter stage. Not all immature vegetables qualify.

Some Market Outlets

Any vegetables can be labeled "gourmet" if marketed at peak condition, according to David Miskell, a speaker at the 1986 "ADAPT 100" conference.

For information, Miskell noted seed companies and market outlets such as Frieda Capian's; "Fresh and Healthy" of Lehigh Valley organic Growers, Inc. (125 West Seventh Street, Wind Gap, PA 18091); Green Leaf Produce (1980 Jerroid Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94124); and Flying foods International (43-43 Ninth Street, Long Island City, NY 11101). Both Sibella Kraus, Green Leaf planner, and Walter Martin, founder and Managing director of Flying Foods, say their companies are always interested in hearing from growers with plans for novel produce(such as colorful lettuces.

Miskell mentioned some of the gourmet lettuce being marketed, including Merveille de Quatre Saisons, Rouge d'Hiver, Red Sails, Red Romaine, Red Salad Bowl, Oak Leaf, and Boston type. Miskell may be contacted at Shelbourne, VT 05482, where he produces organic vegetables on 3 acres with four greenhouses.

The produce market(gourmet or otherwise(is extremely competitive. The specialists emphasize that when too many people begin growing a vegetable crop, it is no longer a specialty that commands a premium price. Above all, the experts emphasize that people should NOT plant first and try to sell later.

One way to beat the competition as well as take advantage of the U-pick solution to labor shortages, is described in Dr. Booker T. Whatley's book, How To Make $100,000 Farming Acres, ($17.95, softcover; $24.95, hardcover, from Rodale Institute, 222 Main St., Emmaus, PA 18049). He explains how clever growers can build a 'guaranteed' or contract market by organizing a clientele membership club. Members buy rights to pick vegetables and/or fruits at rates adjusted regularly to be below supermarket prices. This kind of club, of course, takes as much servicing as any organization.

Price Information

To help make decisions, operators can seek price data from many sources. One is USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Its Fruit and Vegetable Division has a Market News Branch (headed by W.H. Crocker , Room 2503-S, AMS, USDA, Washington, D.C. 20250). AMS reports daily on prices and shipment sizes at 20 of the Nation's biggest metropolitan centers. AMS will send inquiries data on subscription fees for reports from various cities.

While all major markets detail wholesale prices on the most common produce, not all report gourmet vegetables prices. However, AMS reports from New York and San Francisco often have lists of vegetables or herb designated "oriental" or "miscellaneous." Some sell by the pound, others by the dozen (bunches) or by the carton or lug.

Caplan says the farmers price can be estimated by deducting 30 percent from the price that AMS shows for any particular item.

For data on local prices and competition, the best source of data is the produce manager of the nearest large gourmet grocery store. If there is no gourmet store, the owner of a gourmet restaurant might discuss prices and supplies.

Production Ideas

Many sources of vegetables production information include county offices of the Cooperative Extension Service (CES), supported States, State universities, and USDA. Most counties have CES offices.

The Produce Marketing Association (PMA, 1500 Casho Mill Road, Newark, DE 19714-6036) can provide a list of articles on specialty vegetables to nonmembers of PMA for $20 (the search cost) plus $10 for a set of computer page printouts of up to 10 pages plus $1 per additional page.

A recent PMA bibliographic printout on "exotic produce" (which includes fruits as well as vegetables) covered about 18 pages. Two other pages were on Hispanic produce operations and Oriental produce and marketing.

Typical articles are two in Restaurant Business, "Oriental market poised for explosive chain growth" and "Oriental: Fast food of the next generation ," and one in Supermarket Business, "Oriental items can be bonanza for produce section." Items on the Hispanic list include: "Tips on capturing a piece of Hispanic grocery market," in Packer newspaper; "The emerging Hispanic market," in Produce and Floral Retailing magazine; and "Ethics perishables bring Denver Hispanics to TJs," in the Supermarket News newspaper.

USDA, Purdue University, and the CES (at West Lafayette, IN 47907) have a publication (HO-194) available at no charge: Guide to Production Information for Commercial Vegetable Grower. It is aimed mainly at readers in Indiana and the Midwest, and it lists publications of wider use, such as The Basics of Trickle Irrigation, from the University of Illinois.

Purdue also has published the 70-page Indiana Vegetable Production Guide for Commercial Growers. Numbered ID-56, it is available from the Publications Mailing Room, 301 South Second Street, Lafayette, IN 47905-1092, at $4. It summarizes recommended varieties of common vegetables, seeding rates, fertilizer rates, insect and disease control measures, and safe use of agricultural chemicals. The guide, updated every 2 years, has supplement alternate years.

The Purdue list names several vegetables books issued by private publishers and the 1977 USDA publication,Growing Your Own Vegetables, Ag. Info. Bulletin No. 409. No longer available from the government, this 244-page "how to" book may be found in some libraries. Because of its age, readers will want to update its pesticide information through their Extension agents.

Purdue's list also notes man periodicals on vegetables. While many emphasize the chemical control of pests, some are oriented toward organic methods(using biological instead of chemical approaches to control pests.

Another useful USDA publication, Growing Vegetables on the Home Garden, 49 pages, is available from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office (GPO), for $2.25. Ask for HG 202, Stock No. SN 001-000-004454-1. USDA 's 1977 Agricultural Yearbook was the 392-page Gardening for Food and Fun,available from GPO for $12. Its Stock No. is SN 001-000-036789-3.

USDA's National Agricultural Library (NAL, Room 111, Beltsville, MD 20705) also has a bibliography listing publications on vegetable gardening and another on marketing of horticultural crops.


by George B. Holcomb of the Office of Information, U.S. Department of Agriculture, for USDA's Small-Scale Agriculture (OSSA); Howard W. "Bud" Kerr, Jr., Program Director, Office of Samll Scale Agriculture.

Mention of commercial enterprises or brand names does not constitute endorsement or imply preference by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Published February 1988

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