Friday, December 26, 2008

Niche farming

Should we see if truffles might grow in Illinois? I'm pretty sure hazelnuts do and of course, oaks do depending on the type..... And then, if only we could figure out how to do morels....

NYT article on niche farming:

Ms. Holmes, 54, and her partner Ann Vowels, 51, bought 110 acres on a mountainside in Anderson Valley, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, 10 years ago with the idea of producing something besides grapes, the “monoculture of the area.”

They first took two years off to build a barn-style home, with a friend’s help. Then, in 2005, they decided to try growing truffles.

Traditionally, truffles — fungi that grow alongside tree roots — have been collected in the wild with the help of scent-detecting swine or dogs, and command prices as high as $2,700 a pound, although most sell for far less.

In doing her horticultural research, Ms. Vowels found a magazine article about Australians and New Zealanders who were growing the tubers by inoculating the roots of hazelnut and oak trees with their spores. This sort of commercial production is thriving in France, Spain and Croatia, but is just getting started in the United States.

Ms. Vowels was taken with the idea of growing a staple of haute cuisine, Ms. Holmes said, while she herself, a “money-driven” pragmatist, “was excited about the potential returns.”

It will probably be four to six years until the crop matures (if it doesn’t fail), Ms. Holmes said. But, she said, both she and Ms. Vowels can afford to be patient.

The founder of three start-ups as well as a consultant and executive coach, Ms. Holmes recently took the post of chief operating officer of Om Direct, a San Francisco-based Web portal for producers and buyers of organic food. Ms. Vowels is a corporate trainer and executive coach.

Though it has been three years since they planted 200 saplings inoculated with the spores of black truffles on a one-acre plot, they understand that it takes time. “All this is very new,” Ms. Holmes said. “But even if it takes us eight years, so what? It’s about doing something unique and producing something we love.”

Ms. Aubrey and Ms. Holmes are apparently onto something. In one measure of the growth in smaller farms (though it does not include “all natural” operations like Ms. Aubrey’s), the number of organic farms in the United States more than doubled from 1992 to 2005, to 8,500 from 3,600, and the land under their cultivation more than quadrupled, to 4.1 million acres from 935,000 acres, according to the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service.

“Organic farming has become one of the fast-growing segments of U.S. agriculture,” the service said in a recent report.

Another Research Service study indicated that despite the consolidation of American agriculture, tiny farms were holding their own. The number of farms with annual sales of more than $250,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars nearly doubled to 152,000 in 2002 from 85,000 in 1982, the survey showed.

While midsize and small farms, with revenue ranging from $10,000 to $250,000, declined, operations with sales of less than $10,000 jumped 14 percent over those years, to 2.5 million, from 2.2 million. The reports authors cautioned, though, that technical changes in its methodology exaggerated the increase.

Robert Hoppe, an Agriculture Department researcher, recommended the slow and steady approach being taken by Ms. Aubrey and Ms. Holmes. This could be a good time for entrepreneurs to start a farm, Mr. Hoppe said, “particularly if they have other sources of income.”

Ms. Aubrey says a convergence of several trends explains the allure of small farms. For starters, she says, the consolidation of the agricultural industry in the 1970s and ’80s displaced a lot of people, now in their 30s and 40s, who are being drawn back to the land.

More generally, she says, Americans share a longing for their pastoral past. “People have gotten so far from their agricultural roots, and now they are rediscovering them,” she said. “You can see the emotions on their faces when the talk about their herb gardens and their vegetable gardens and about putting up the hay.”

Moreover, as organic farming, farmers’ markets and cooperatives have gained in popularity, and food scares have been the stuff of headlines, many consumers are paying more attention to their food, “what’s in it, where it’s produced,” she said.

For entrepreneurs tempted by the rural life, Ms. Aubrey and Ms. Holmes offer these bits of advice:

¶Do market research. Go to farmers’ markets. See what products are common and which ones are missing. Talk to people. Ask if they would buy your product.

Ask yourself whether you will be able to adapt to the lifestyle, notably long hours of hard toil. If you doubt you will enjoy bending over crops under a hot sun, find another line of work.

¶Do not make the common mistake of growing too big too fast. You will risk discovering you do not have the cash flow to buy the equipment that you need to meet the orders.

¶Choose a “value added” niche product, like gourmet mushrooms, that is not sold widely in your area.

“Make sure they’re unique enough for people to buy them and eat them,” Ms. Aubrey said. “If it’s unusual and tastes good, people will buy it.”

No comments: