I like being clever and unique. I like being able to do things that other people don’t normally do. I don’t do it for the show. I simply find enjoyment in doing things a little bit differently, and I’m sure at least 1 of the 5 readers out there feels the same way. Here’s the thing. Starting a farm is NOT the time to experiment with being unique. Yes, you want to have a unique farm with a unique crop and a unique story. But when it comes to selecting a crop to grow, you need to be normal. You need something that a large population can relate to. This is not the time to start a durian farm in South Central LA and call it a niche market. Yes, there may be some cities where niche produce will work. However, going for that requires a lot of market research and a customer base. If you are starting out farming and want to be easily relatable, you need to grow crops that most people will eat.
When I started, I understood this principle…sort of. I grew the lettuces and tomatoes and carrots and beets and radishes and all the other good crops for urban farming. My issue was choosing a variety and sticking with it for any given type of crop. There are so many options for what to grow and picking just one can be hard. But do it. I thought I would be smart and grow two or three varieties of each type. For some things, this works. Golden, Bull’s Blood, and Chioggia beets would be a great trio to grow together.
My customer base was restaurants, and restaurants want consistency. Showing up with one type of carrot one week and a different type of carrot another week was really stressful for them. I see that now, but at the time I thought I was bringing something unique to the table. What I now realize is that you should have your select crop variety that is CONSISTENT for as long as you can. Then talk with chefs about variations that they may want and then choose some alternate varieties. For example, I have my species of carrot that I really like: St. Valery. Long, crisp, sweet, delicious. Everyone loves them all the time. Once I got them growing well, then I started going to restaurants and talking to them more about other carrot types that they might be interested in. One type that came up was something small and more delicate. I was able to go find another variety, Parisienne, and grow that. Done. I am still working out how frequently to grow these side varieties, but they add an extra little spice to the weekly fresh sheet.
One tragic mistake I made this year was with tomatoes. Like everybody, I wanted to grow every tomato that EVER EXISTED. I ended up growing dozens and dozens of varieties. I’m actually too ashamed to even say how many. (And I do know exactly how many there were.) This sounded great at first. “You’ll have a great selection,” I told myself. “You can customize flavors for chefs,” I said as I pulled a wool hood over my head. Here’s the deal. Chefs don’t want that. Well, they want that, but it is so impractical. You can’t grow like that for a large customer base. Pick a couple sizes and types: paste, cherry, small slicing, medium slicing. If you want to be comfortable, stop here and pick one variety of each and grow a ton of each of them. If you are feeling daring, then pick a couple varieties within each category to add color and a little flavor variation. Then STOP.
Be smart about the crop variety you are selecting and don’t go overboard. Get one thing right and make sure you can sell it before going hog wild. If you don’t, soon you will have too little of too many things and be trying to figure out what to do with 200 pounds of produce no one wants.
It is important to continue experimenting on the farm even after you stabilize a crop. Do these experiments on a small scale. For my climate, I like to experiment in the Spring with the intention of planting in the Fall for crops that prove themselves. Some crops that require the hotter weather of summer, like okra, really can’t be tested and then scaled up in time to give adequate production time to make it worthwhile.
Crop Selection Dos
- Start out with one variety for a given crop before exploring other varieties
- Talk with chefs about the crop varieties they use now. Can you do better?
- Pick crop varieties with an interesting story. Everyday consumers and chefs like an interesting story.
- Keep your test crops small and prove them out first
Until next time,
The Failing Farmer