Exploring alternative field crops

These alternative crops involve both risks and opportunities.

The words “alternative crop” causes a variety of reactions. For more conservative people, this reaction might be “No way, not interested.” For those on the other end of the spectrum who get a kick out of taking high risks, the reaction might be “Cool, where do I get seed?” For those in the middle, who suspect that long-term benefits may outweigh the risks, there needs to be a well-thought, balanced plan demonstrating a good chance that a new, alternative crop will provide an economic or biological advantage. An alternative field crop could be defined as an agronomic crop not usually grown in a geographic reason, selected for use due to potential high sale value or specialized benefit to the farming system.

A short list of alternative crops suitable for Michigan includes buckwheat, spelt, triticale, dry beans, dry peas, rapeseed, canola, sunflower and flax. There are many other possibilities. A crop can be very common in one geographic area and considered an alternative in another. Canola is a good example. With over 18 million acres in production in Canada, canola is still considered an alternative crop in Michigan. Sunflowers are a similar example, with only a couple thousand acres of the roughly 800,000 U.S. acres located in Michigan.

Cover crops utilized for soil building, weed suppression and soil erosion prevention may also be considered alternative crops. A few examples of cover crops that can also be grown for additional crop attributes include buckwheat and fall rye (for grain), and forage mustard (for animal grazing). If crops like buckwheat and rye are grown for seed instead of worked into the soil prior to seed set, the grower can expect some volunteer plants the following year. Selecting which cover crops to grow can be challenging, but with the new, online Cover Crop Selector Tool, you can indicate which qualities you are seeking for your soil and if you are growing vegetables or field crops.

Alternative crop options can also include modifying production practices resulting in a higher value product. Examples include certified seed production and certified organic production. These seemingly unconnected ideas have similarities, both requiring third-party certification. These practices require increased management attention by the grower and often involve increased production costs, but offer price premiums and additional markers. Some Michigan farmers have converted acreage to certified organic production based primarily on economic considerations, as well as environmental concerns. Price premiums for certified organic produce vary depending on the product. Organic grain prices are approximately 30 to 50 percent higher than conventional grains, varying with market type and volume. Certified organic grain and feedstock production is certainly not for everyone, but it provides a thought-provoking alternative.

MSU has an informative website on organic production at the Organic Farming Exchange, which includes a link to “Field Crop Production” (under “Ag Production” on the left-hand side), focusing on agronomic crops. You can also contact Vicki Morrone for assistance with organic certification and organic farming practices. Organizations like Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, Inc., (OFARM), provide organic commodity producers assistance with marketing.

Alternative crops with multiple use options are less risky. For example, some legumes and cereals can be utilized as forage instead of harvested as grain. If crop quality or market factors don’t look good, another use for the crop will reduce risk.

The bottom line for growing any new crop enterprise is economics. Will income generated by sale of the crop be more than the cost of production? How much more? How does that compare with other crops? What non-monetary benefits will the new crop provide, and how much is that worth to you and your customers? Will new equipment be needed? Is there enough labor available? What additional knowledge and skills are needed? It is up to the individual farmer to explore these opportunities. There is often much less research-based information available on alternative or specialty crops, so locating and visiting with experienced growers are excellent ways to learn.

An overview of alternative agronomic crop selection, production and marketing, titled Alternative Agronomic Crops, along with references to many additional resources, is available from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.

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