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Local foods, niche marketing

By Staff | Dec 9, 2011

John Ball, a South Dakota State University Extension forester, addressed the crowd on Dec. 2 in Sioux Center, about the advantages and disadvantages of growing specialty crops.


Farm News staff writer

SIOUX?CITY – “With much of agriculture experiencing increased competition for land and water resources, plus increased international competition for Iowa commodities, specialty crops offer growers alternatives to consider.”

That statement opened a presentation on Dec. 2 by John Ball, SDSU professor of forestry, at the Tri-State Fruit and Vegetable Growers Symposium in Sioux Center.

Ball said 15 percent of U.S. food is imported, including one-third of the fresh fruit and nuts.

“We hope this program will help our growers through education ... but also educate our consumers on where their food is coming from.” —Laura Kuennen ISU regional food coordinator

The U.S. seafood market has been almost eliminated, Ball said.

Most Americans are not aware that the everyday foods they eat are imported.

However, with new- found awareness of the locally grown food movement, Iowa farmers can find a niche in this market.

“This class of unique and varied crops quite often produces high returns per acre,”?Ball said, “but also requires a relatively high degree of management.”

He said more than half of specialty crop producers fail in the first five years, due to lack of crop knowledge and poor marketing. So producers should take the time to decide if selling specialty food crops is something that they are prepared to handle.

Ball offered his advice for those considering a venture into the specialty crop business.

  • Have a plan not a dream. Go into it realizing the time investment.
  • “Big stores are not your competition. You cannot grow cheaper then entities like Wal-Mart can sell. Try selling something you can’t buy at Wal-Mart.
  • “You need to like people even more than your plants.”
  • It’s not as fun as it looks.
  • Loving it, doesn’t replace knowing it.

“Instead of jumping into something too big,”?Ball said, “start small and plan carefully.”

Ethnic vegetables

Chris Zdorovtsov, SDSU community development field specialist, related her experience working with the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio.

In the gardens, Zdorovtsov said she and other staff grew 200 to 300 different ethnic foods, grown for chefs in the high end restaurant business.

Because our tri-state area is not as diverse as many areas of the country, Zdorovtsov said, one must study the immigrant demographics of the market area before growing an ethnic crop.

“To grow these foods,”she said, “you need to know what your ethnic consumer wants; not just in variety of the plant, but at what stage of its growing period do they want it harvested.”

Varieties of various ethnic fruits, vegetables and herbs were provided at the symposium, plus their uses.

Zdorovtsov suggested Seed Savers exchange, (seedsavers.org) and Katazawa Seed (www.kitazawaseed.com) as sources for seed for a grower’s ethnic crops.

Organic insect control

When it comes to organic crops, timing is everything, Keith Jarvi, an Extension educator from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

“Most of the research being done in this country,”?Jarvi said, “is being done on our big three crops, because there is more money there to do it.”

Jarvi listed several management principles that can be used to make the organic war on bugs successful.

  • Scouting crops regularly.
  • Correctly identifying the insect or its larva.
  • Know the economic thresholds before treating.
  • Biological awareness – knowing when and where the damaging stages will appear
  • Timing of application
  • Choosing the proper control method: physical removal or pesticide use.
  • Keep records from year to year.

The success of organic insect control relies on good management,” Jarvi said. Producers should know their most common problems individually and have a plan in place to control them.

Surprises do and will occur, and when they do experimentation is always an option as well as networking with other organic farmers, learning what has worked for them.

When relying on organic pesticides, Jarvi told growers that just because it’s organic does not mean it is safe.

“The labels on these products are a legal document,” he said. “Follow directions and use accordingly.”

Jarvi also suggested growers contact an organic certification agency to determine how to become certified and the products which meet certification standards.

Resources Jarvi suggested were a Cornell University website on organic vegetable farming:


He also suggested finding the book, “The Organic Gardeners handbook of Natural Disease Control” and another titled, “Common Sense Pest Control.”

The Tri-State Fruit and Vegetable Growers Symposium was a combined effort of the IU, UofN and SDSU Extension services.

The event was part of an effort in northwest Iowa to help local growers in the region through education and networking, said coordination Laura Kuennen.

Kuennen is the ISU Extension regional food coordinator for 6 northwest Iowa counties – Plymouth, Monona, Cherokee, Sioux and Ida.

“We hope, that this program,” said Kuennen “will not only help our growers through education and marketing, but also educate the consumer on where their food is coming from and why it is important to support our local economy.”

This past fall, Kuennen helped to coordinate a Farm to Fork tour, bringing the public to area farms by bus. Those attending the tour were able to visit the farms, see where and how the food was being grown and were then able to enjoy a meal prepared and served by the farmers themselves.

“This year’s tour was very successful and we hope to add a similar tour next year on bicycle!” she explained.

Kuennen added that the public can find out more about the Flavors of Northwest Iowa, the farms involved and future tours by checking out their website at


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