By Kristi Willis
Eureka! You’ve unearthed something at the farm stand that you haven’t seen before—maybe it’s sweet potato greens, kohlrabi, opo squash or an exotic melon. You’re excited and bewildered as you start peppering the farmer with questions.
What is this?
What does it taste like?
How do you cook it?
While that market treasure is thrilling for you, it actually helps farmers keep a leg up on the competition by diversifying their crop portfolio and attracting new customers. Farming is a science dictated by climate, soil and elevation, but it’s also a business that requires significant planning and a keen eye for unmet demand in the market.
The crop-selection process begins when the seed catalogs arrive. Farmers pore over the pages packed with alluring descriptions of exotic varieties. “Seed catalogs are written like a vacation magazine,” says Erin Flynn of Green Gate Farms. “I read them and just want to try everything.”
To narrow their choices, many farmers start with personal taste. Farmers eat what they produce, and adding diversity to their own plates is an important factor in their planting decisions. As David Burk, co-manager of Montesino Farm, puts it, “we eat food three times a day; we should be excited about it.”
Disease and drought resistance are also key in the selection. Flynn grows Hill Country red okra not only for its unusual burgundy color, but because it can survive Austin’s arid summers. And Jim Richardson of Richardson Farms weighs the marketing factors when choosing crops, evaluating each variety or breed on several criteria: Is there a need? Is it something customers use regularly? Does it fit a niche in the marketplace? Would we be one of a few farms offering it? Will it fit in our crop rotation? If the answer to enough of these questions is yes, then he’ll move forward—it’s no accident that shoppers can find sorghum syrup, a variety of grains and flours and even popcorn only at the Richardson Farms market booth.
Once they’ve narrowed their options, farmers turn to their customers to gauge demand. Richardson visits with regular customers about prospective crops. “If I bring something up and customers seem lukewarm, I drop it,” he says. Burk asks his CSA program customers to complete a survey about new items they’re considering.
Diversification can also be as simple as using the same plant in different ways to stretch the yield. Burk grew confection squash this season, but the plants only yielded one or two fruit each. The vines, however, were full of blossoms that could be sold at market as well. And Flynn sells garlic three ways: green garlic from the new shoots, scapes in flower arrangements and dried bulbs.
Jo and John Dwyer of Angel Valley Organic Farm grow several different Asian mustard greens that they sell as a bulk mix. One year the crop got away from them, and the leaves grew too large to put into the mix. So they innovated by bunching the leaves in bundles with one or two leaves of each variety, and the bouquets of greens were a big hit.
The secret to experimenting is to start small. Flynn grew roselle, an edible hibiscus variety given to her by a Burmese volunteer. She had high hopes for the plants, as the farm could use the flowers in bouquets, the pods in tea and the edible leaves in salads. Unfortunately, customers were hesitant to buy the greens, and Flynn had almost given up on the plants until she discovered a nearby Indian temple whose worshippers eat roselle as a regular part of their diet.
Sometimes farm-stand visitors just need that little extra push to get excited about experimenting with something new. The Dwyers decided to grow tomatillos after receiving several requests from customers. When they brought the tomatillos to their stand the next summer, though, there were no takers. They realized then they had to teach people how to cook them in order to sell them, so Jo began handing out recipes that included tomatillos at their farm stands. In fact, many farmers now take on the role of cooking coach to encourage customers to step out of their comfort zones by providing recipes, writing blogs, hosting potlucks and teaching cooking classes to entice people to try new things.
Burk had a hard time selling cone-shaped cabbage, even though it has the same flavor and is cooked similarly to more common cabbage varieties. Still, shoppers were dubious until he offered a visual clue. “I had to cut one open at every market so customers could see what it looked like on the inside,” he says. “Every time we go to the market, we sell more if we help people. I ask them to come back and tell me what they thought about it or how they cooked it.”
There will be plenty of new, exotic things to taste this year—whether it’s edible loofah from Green Gate Farms or partridge, rabbit or gluten-free millet from Richardson Farms, these farmers have some big ideas percolating. As Flynn aptly notes, “experimenting is the fun part of farming.”