New York state has long been a national leader in fruit and vegetable production. And with per capita consumption of most fresh fruits and vegetables on the rise, New York's produce growers can expect to see continued strength in market prices for years to come.
Statewide, sales of locally grown, high-quality fruit and vegetables have been on the rise. Produce sales at roadside stands, u-pick operations and farmers markets account for an increasing percentage of the fresh fruit and vegetable market and represent a growing segment of our agricultural and rural economies. Indications are that these types of small businesses are becoming increasingly important to the success and viability of our family farms, too.
As growing numbers of area buyers purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables - knowing that nothing beats the taste of fresh, juicy strawberries, flavorful raspberries and blueberries, crisp, mouth watering apples, delicious sweet corn, and vine-ripened tomatoes, just to name a few - small growers across the region have been generating substantial income with limited resources on small parcels of land. They are eliminating the middleman and, in doing so, are realizing a considerably larger share of every consumer dollar being spent. And summer customers will often return out of season as well, to purchase homemade, value added, hand crafted and seasonal goods.
It should come as no surprise therefore, that interest in market gardening and small-scale crop production is greater than ever. Extension offices across the region receive frequent inquiries from individuals with little or no gardening experience, wanting to get into fruit or vegetable production as a business. We also hear from home gardeners looking to transition to commercial production and dairy farmers looking to diversify.
Many people choose small-scale farming because they enjoy working alone, being their own boss. They appreciate solitude and the value of being on the land. But before taking the plunge, beginners need to honestly consider their growing ability, be able to assess site conditions, understand the management requirements of different fruit and vegetable crops, learn what local consumers want to buy, and take into account the level of interest and support that exists within their community. They need to think in terms of starting smaller, rather than larger, and consider that they will most likely have to invest back into their operation.
That's the easy part. Finding or creating market opportunities is almost always far and away more difficult than producing fruits and vegetables. Many beginning farmers love the growing, but find marketing to be way outside of their comfort zone. Nonetheless, anyone who wants to have a profitable small- scale farm will need to get out there and market. And, regardless of which marketing option or options a grower eventually chooses, he or she will need to be able to deal with people directly, and is, more than likely, going to face significant competition.
While it's true that choosing foodstuffs that are in demand will make marketing easier, as will selling products that you enjoy yourself, many small scale farmers find it profitable to take advantage of available niche markets. Others improve their success by finding and developing new ones. They look for high demand products being brought into the area that they can produce themselves and heirloom varieties that are often requested, but not readily available. And they often supply products that are missing, but that ethnic populations are in need of, or farm for a population interested in buying produce that is organically grown or grown without any pesticides, if that market exists.
There are several other things to bear in mind. For example, if you are planning to sell retail from a market, you will have to find available time to do so - during the growing season. If you plan to market produce to stores, supermarkets, institutions and / or restaurants, you need to be able to estimate yield before signing an agreement that you are unable to fulfill. Keep in mind, too, that commercial buyers often turn to small-scale producers to fill their demand for niche products that are difficult to purchase through conventional wholesale channels. Either way, quality, appearance and harvest time will all weigh into your ultimate success or failure.
Consider too, that fruits and vegetables are perishable. The loss of even one crop to poor culture, insects, disease or weather can be devastating. What's more, growing fruit and vegetables is extremely labor intensive. Long hours are required and dependable help must be available if and when it is needed.
Once you've chosen which crops you will be growing and how you are going to market them, you will need to implement a business plan. A well-prepared business plan is an essential tool if you are going to succeed. It will help eliminate a multitude of potential problems, and will almost definitely be necessary for securing venture capital. Your business plan should be a realistic assessment of your resources and ability, of your strengths and weaknesses, a roadmap, if you will, that allows you to see where you are and where you want to be.
The more experience you have, the greater your chances for success (and for obtaining financing) will be. One of the best ways to gain practical experience is by working for a business that is similar to the one that you would like to start up. Many well-established, reputable growers need seasonal employees. Spending (at least) a couple of years working for one will provide valuable insight and an opportunity to increase your knowledge by seeing, first hand, how that grower manages the problems that arise, some that you may have not even considered. That knowledge and experience will help enable you to far more effectively produce and market similar crops on your own.
Assistance for evaluating risk from both technical and management aspects is available from Cornell Cooperative Extension, as well as Departments of Agriculture, local and regional organizations that focus on economic development issues, and small business development centers. Consultation and fact sheets addressing basic production for most crops are also available through Cornell Cooperative Extension.