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[Source: INEDA, 05.2016 | Keywords: Specialty Crops, Hops, Aronia Berries, Cover Crops]

Specialty crops – defined as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, horticultural and nursery crops – have become an increasingly popular alternative for farmers looking to diversify and supplement their income, especially in light of recent commodity prices.

“The interest in specialty crops is stronger than ever today, especially compared to 3 or 4 years ago when corn prices were so high,” said Patrick O’Malley, commercial horticulture field specialist with Iowa State University Extension & Outreach, who has observed both hobby and traditional farmers experimenting with specialty crops.

According to the USDA, nearly 245,000 farms across the United States grow specialty crops. In Iowa, this number is almost 2,300 farms, while nearly 1,800 Nebraska farms grow specialty crops.

Specialty crops require a variety of niche products, creating opportunities for dealers to not only expand their product mix, but their income and customer base as well. From hops and Aronia berries, to chestnuts and persimmon, dealers should be on the lookout for specialty crops in their area to see what opportunities they may bring.

  • Hops – Hops is a vine-growing perennial whose cone-like flowers give beer its bitter flavor. With the rapidly growing craft beer market, hops have become an increasingly popular specialty crop across both Iowa and Nebraska.
  • Aronia Berries – Aronia berries are processed and used in products sold in health food sections. Also known as the Black Chokeberry, the bush can reach 8 to 12 feet high and can produce 20 to 30 pounds of berries at maturity.
  • Pawpaw – Pawpaw is a sweet dessert fruit shaped like a mango that is commonly known as the Missouri banana. The fruit grows on trees south of Highway 30 in Iowa.
  • Highbred Chestnuts – Highbred chestnuts have become a growing industry where demand outstrips supply. It takes approximately 5 to 6 years for a tree to produce nuts.
  • Persimmon – Persimmon is an edible tree fruit. Dried persimmon fruit can be added to baked goods and occasionally is fermented with hops, cornmeal or wheat bran into a beer.
  • Dry, Edible Field Peas – Dry edible field peas are a high-protein legume being planted in western Nebraska dryland and irrigated cropping systems as an alternative crop.
Hopping into Hops

Hops – a vine-growing perennial whose cone-like flowers give beer its bitter flavor – have long been an established crop in the United States, making up 38% of the global market. Unfortunately, the current hops supply cannot keep up with the growing demand from craft brewers.

The craft beer market has become a $22.3 billion industry in the United States, with craft beer sales accounting for one pint out of eight. Micro/craft brewers have grown 100% since 1980.

In 2015, nearly 54,500 barrels of craft beer were produced by 58 craft breweries in Iowa ($636 M impact), while 33 Nebraska breweries produced 39,500 barrels ($424 M impact). The demand for locally sourced hops by these craft brewers has opened up the market to small local farms in Nebraska and Iowa.

Hops are currently grown in 21 states, with the majority planted in the Pacific Northwest. Forty types of hops are commercially produced globally and sell from $7/lb. on up to $20/lb.

The perennial plant grows approximately 18 feet each year and requires a lot of water and nitrogen. Startup costs are high, with a typical 1-acre plot costing $15,000 to 20,000, with a return on investment of up to four years. Building an extensive trellis system and purchasing costly plants make up a large portion of these initial costs.

Hops are traditionally planted in April and May and harvested in mid-August through late September. It takes three years for hops to reach full maturity from a yield and flavor perspective.

Interest regarding hops production in Iowa and Nebraska is evident with USDA grants recently awarded in both states. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln received a grant to help increase knowledge about growing hops in Nebraska, while a small Iowa hops farm was awarded a grant to determine the viability of hop plants growing in a small plot (less than 10 acres).

Iowa State University
Diana Cochran, Fruit Specialist, ISU Extension & Outreach

Hops research is currently being conducted on a 1-acre plot at Iowa State University. The small hop yard contains Cascade and Chinook hops varieties.

“With this first acre we are looking at irrigation and fertility management specific to our climates,” said Diana Cochran, fruit specialist with ISU Extension & Outreach. “There’s still a learning curve involved in the Midwest since most hops are currently grown in the Pacific Northwest.”

This year, Cochran will be planting two additional rows of hops of different cultivars to see which varieties do well in Iowa. “I am trying to get ahead as much as I can to see what varieties work/don’t work here,” said Cochran. “I want to take the risk from growers and help them succeed in this industry.”

In addition, she is working to develop a plan for seasonal crop management. “It’s important to train the vine to attach to the twine at the correct time so it will grow until summer solstice,” said Cochran, who explained this involves timing the removal of basal spikes (if needed) so the second growth can be trained to the trellis. “We are working to determine our timeline so I can tell growers when they should train the vine, how much nitrogen should be added to the soil and so forth. There are many things we are trying to figure out to ensure that hops is a feasible crop to grow in the Midwest.”

According to Cochran, harvesting hops can be quite challenging. “These large trellises can carry quite a bit of weight,” said Cochran. “At full yield the plants can weigh up to 30 pounds.” She explained that the type/size of harvester used by farmers is usually determined by the size of the farming operation. “Farmers with a larger (50+ acre) operation will traditionally purchase a large Wolf Harvester manufactured in Germany. On the other hand, smaller operations like mine can use a smaller harvester, such as the Hop Harvester manufactured in the United States.”

In addition to this specialized equipment, Cochran rented several items from her local equipment dealership to help with the operation, including: a 360-degree grapple attached to a telehandler, post hole digger, auger, skid steer, wagons/carts, sprayers, a bucket to attach to the tractor, and so forth.

She looks forward to expanding the hop yard at Iowa State and continuing with her research. “While we’ve demonstrated that hops can grow successfully in the Midwest, we need to continue working together and sharing ideas with one another since there is so much involved,” concluded Cochran.

Nebraska Hop Yards, LLC
Annette Wiles, Co-Owner, Plattsmouth, Nebraska

Annette Wiles and her husband, Bruce, were looking for a specialty crop to plant in Nebraska when their friends who own a brewery in Nebraska suggested they try growing hops.

“My husband is a 3rd generation row crop farmer who wanted to plant a specialty crop that could be grown in Nebraska,” explained Wiles. “When we heard about the need for more hops to be outsourced locally, we thought we’d give it a try.” When they later stumbled upon a wild hops plant growing in their property, it confirmed their decision.

Wiles feels one of the biggest challenges they faced starting out was the lack of knowledge about growing hops in the area. They gained most of their information by traveling to other hop yards and reaching out to growers in the Pacific Northwest, Michigan and Ohio.

Initially, they planted 22 varieties of hops in a 2.5 acre test plot to determine what would grow well. “We found that some varieties did really well, while others, not so much,” she explained. Currently, the farmstead has a 15 acre hop yard, with plans to add another 40 each of the next three years until total acres reach 150. “When we start adding more commercial acres, our focus will shift to no more than eight varieties.”

Midwest Hop Producers provided samples to several brewers in the state of Nebraska. “It all happened so fast,” reflected Annette. “Once they (the brewers) heard we were starting to grow hops they wanted to know what we had available.” Breweries in surrounding states have supported their endeavors as well.

Locating equipment to harvest/process hops on a smaller scale was a challenge as well. “There really weren’t many equipment options for someone planting less than five acres of hops when we started,” explained Wiles. “When we discovered a mobile harvester
prototype in Vermont as an open source document we decided to build it and improve its efficiency.”

They recently received approval to work on developing a small dryer. “One of our goals is to make equipment readily available for smaller hop yards so more farmers will consider growing hops,” she explained.

With Nebraska Hop Yards projected growth, Midwest Hop Producers is upgrading to larger equipment from Wolf Harvester in Germany for a commercial harvesting and processing facility. “We had to invest in larger equipment in order to expand,” said Wiles.

In addition to hops, Wiles is considering growing other specialty crops, such as ginger, that brewers might use during their brewing process. The farm is also looking at breeding hops for new plant varieties, as well as alternative uses for hops, such as hop cheese.

“While growing hops has taken a lot more work than we ever dreamed it would, it has been worth it,” concluded Wiles with a smile.

For additional information on Nebraska Hop Yards LLC, visit midwesthopproducers.com.

Buck Creek Hops
Mark Pattison, Co-Founder, Solon, Iowa

Buck Creek Hops was established by a handful of family members and friends when they discovered that hops could grow in the fertile soil of east central Iowa. “After growing a successful test plot in 2013 we started planning for a large farm in 2014,” said Mark Pattison, co-founder.

“At that time, we were actually manufacturing two beers using a contract brewer,” he added. “So when I learned there was a high demand for local hops I thought, ‘Let’s grow our own hops!’”

Pattison teamed up with his brother, Lee Pattison; brother-in-law, Dan Paca; and friends Chad Henry and Spencer Weeks to form Buck Creek Hops, LLC. Combined, these five individuals have 180 years of commercial row-cropping experience. “We felt growing hops was a viable option for us, since we already had farmland and five guys with farming backgrounds,” said Pattison.

The 100-acre farm, located in Johnson County, Iowa, began commercial production in 2015 with 25,000 hops plants. Today, Buck Creek Hops maintains 55,000 hops plants on nearly 52 acres. The farm grows 11 varieties of hops; primarily cascade, chinook and centennial hops.

“When we first started out, the five of us found a ton of information online and worked with other growers throughout the Midwest,” explained Pattison. “It was a very labor intensive process that required a great deal more work than we originally planned, as well as a lot of capital upfront.”

In the end, the investment paid off for the group. Pattison will be harvesting the first mature, full capacity crop of some hops varieties later this year and the group recently built a 120-foot building onsite to house a commercial harvesting and processing facility.

Throughout this process, Pattison has found the greatest challenge to be labor. “We’ve had trouble finding the number of people we need to work on the farm,” explained Pattison. “The first year was absolutely grueling work because we were building trellises.” Buck Creek Farms currently has 10 to 15 individuals on staff.

The farm utilizes a variety of equipment, including top and bottom cutters that can be adapted to a tractor to cut the vine at both ends; wagons to haul the vines after they are cut down; sprayers that can reach 18 feet in the air; and more.

Down the road, Pattison and his four partners hope to grow hops on a much larger scale than most in this part of the country with plans to expand the operation to cover much, if not all of the 100-acre farm. Buck Creek Hops is currently focusing on Midwest breweries and home brewers, offering both fresh hops and processed pellet hops.

For additional information on Buck Creek Hops, visit buckcreek.com or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.


Aronia Berries – America’s Super Fruit

Aronia berries, also known as choke berries, are a native U.S. super fruit that can grow right here in the Midwest. These dark purple berries contain many beneficial health properties and nutrients that make them a powerful super food. For example:

• Aronia berries have some of the highest concentration of antioxidants and are leaders when compared to many other fruits. They have three times the concentration as blueberries.

• The high antioxidant level may support heart health with the berry’s natural blend of polyphenol antioxidants, which have been shown to help fight diseases caused by oxidative stress.

• Aronia berries are rich in anthocyanins, having three times as many as tart cherries. Anthocyanins are the deep purple color found in these berries that protect the heart, and may act as an anti-inflammatory to help ease arthritis pain.

“The thing that has made Aronia so popular today is that people are interested in antioxidants,” said Addie Kinghorn, secretary, Midwest Aronia Association.

“More people are trying Aronia products because they’ve read about the health benefits of the berry and how it helps eradicate free radicals from the body. They are one of the healthiest foods around.”  – Addie Kinghorn

Increased product availability has helped raise awareness as well. For example, several Hy-Vee grocery stores now carry Aronia berry products in their health food section so consumers can purchase them whenever they wish. Whether fresh, frozen or a concentrate, Aronia berries can be used in a variety of foods, including smoothies, sweet breads, juice, wines and more.

“I would love to see Aronia berry ice cream or dried Aronia in a trail mix someday,” exclaimed Kinghorn, who added that the Midwest Aronia Association has published a cookbook full of recipes featuring Aronia berries.

In 2014, a cooperative was formed by several Aronia growers across the Midwest to help promote their product. Today, the North America Cooperative, based out of Omaha, serves as a marketing arm for Aronia berry farmers.

Aronia Berry Services of Northeast Iowa
Dean Mangrich, owner/operator, Fairbank, Iowa

After hearing about the Aronia berry and its potential as a cash crop on the ‘Big Show’ talk radio show, Dean Mangrich researched the berry to see if it could be a viable addition to his farm. Mangrich and Donna Costello attended the Midwest Aronia Berry Association’s conference later that year and left the conference armed with knowledge and a passion to grow the berry.

“We had 10 acres available in our pasture and decided to plant a trial run,” said Mangrich. “We started out planting 2,500 plants over two days by hand. It was a hot, tiring process. That fall, we had someone custom plant the remaining plants.” Later, they purchased a planter out of Canada with a carousel to help them put the plants into the ground in a more timely fashion.

Today, their operation has grown into Aronia Berry Services of Northeast Iowa, a multi-faceted business helping growers and consumers across the Midwest. The farm currently has about 13,000 plants with plans to put another 18,000 in the ground this spring. “We never imagined in our wildest dreams that something that started out to be a hobby would turn into a business like this,” said Mangrich, who also raises 7,500 head of hogs and works a full-time job during the day.

In addition to operating The “WHAT?” Berry Farm?…Aronia Berry!, Aronia Berry Services of Northeast Iowa also sells Aronia berry plants; custom plants and harvests Aronia berries for other farmers throughout the Midwest; and is a dealer for Weremczuk Aronia berry equipment out of Poland.

It takes three years before you start to get berries. “We had a relatively small harvest the first year (1 pound of berries), approximately 5 lbs. the second year, and the yields increased over the next few years up to 15 to 20 lbs. per acre,” said Mangrich. “While it wasn’t cheap to get started, costs were very minimal after that. Once you get started, the ROI is slow because the yields are so low, but as the yields increase over the years, the ROI will increase as the demand for the berry increases and the market gets established.”

He added, “We purchased a tree planter and took it to a blacksmith to cut apart and make it suitable to plant Aronia berries. Now we are able to help people from day one interested in getting their plants in the ground and growing with our different style planter to meet their needs. To the best of my knowledge, we are the only business that goes out and custom plants Aronia berries.” To date, Aronia Berry Services of Northeast Iowa has planted more than 650,000 plants for others throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota.

“We have learned a lot along the way and have made many enhancements on how to improve the planting process,” explained Mangrich. He and Donna traveled to Poland, the Aronia berry capital of the world, to observe the Aronia harvest and look at equipment in 2013.

When growers asked Mangrich about growing Aronia berries organically in Nebraska, he got to work to determine what would be the best approach. “It’s a challenge since weeds and grass compete with Aronia berries and can stop them from growing,” said Mangrich, who decided to put down a weed barrier. Other equipment used in his operation includes: wagons, utility vehicles, sprayers and more.

“We ended up purchasing a planter out of Italy that can put down a drip line and weed barrier, water the plants, and plant the plants. It worked extremely well.” – Dean Mangrich

“It is much more than the business that we enjoy. It’s the relationships that we have been able to build with other Aronia berry growers and people throughout the Aronia Berry industry,” concluded Mangrich and Costello. “You have to think outside the box and have an entrepreneurial spirit to do this.”

For additional information on Aronia berries visit aroniaberryservicesofneiowa.com or midwestaronia.org.


Conserving with Cover Crops

More and more Iowa and Nebraska farmers are planting cover crops due to the growing number of benefits associated with them.

“Most farmers get into cover crops to reduce soil erosion from wind or water,” said Sarah Carlson, agronomist, Practical Farmers of Iowa. Additional benefits include improvements in water quality, soil health, livestock feed, weed control and so forth. “Many don’t fully appreciate these other benefits until they’ve grown cover crops for a while.”

“Learning how to grow corn and soybeans along with the cereal rye can be a process,” explained Steve Berger, who farms on a 2,000 acre corn, soybean and swine operation in Wellman, Iowa. “However, when it’s done right, it can increase yields in corn and soybeans.” The Berger family has no-tilled for 37 years and has used cover crops continuously the last 15 years.

Every year, Berger plants cereal rye cover crops on 100% of the farm to reduce soil erosion and build soil organic matter. “Cover crops provide a lot more microbial activity,” said Berger. “When you grow rye, it provides a food source for all of the biological activity below our feet, which help build soil, raise organic manner and increase more air space in the soil, leading to better rooting for the crops, which improves crop yields.” Berger’s crop yields typically run 10 to 15% higher than the county average.

Timing is the main challenge for Berger since there is a very short window to plant cereal rye between corn and soybeans. “It can get tricky planting a second crop on all of my acres,” said Berger.

“Cereal rye is one of a few cover crops that grow well in all conditions,” added Carlson. “It grows quick, despite cold temps in the winter. Plus, you can drive on it. When other fields might not be fit to plant, cover crops are.”

Berger has a passion for conservation farming and likes to lead by example. “I’m really against mandates and feel the best solution is to try and get it done ourselves,” he said. “I want farmers to have the ability to farm their own land and make their own choices, so it’s very important that we don’t release nitrates or erode soil into the water, which cover crops can stop. I firmly believe that if farmers grow cover crops voluntarily with great success, the government won’t mandate it. Now is the time to act.”

He added, “I know there are those out there who want to move this along quickly, however, farming doesn’t move at the same speed. It takes a whole year to raise a crop and large amounts of capital to buy equipment and produce at a loss with slim margins. So there’s some risk in adapting cover crops and it’s a real concern among farmers trying to get them established.”

The typical investment for seed and the application of cereal rye ranges from $25/acre up to $35/acre, while other species range from $30/acre to $55/an acre. “The pay back for more expensive seeds doesn’t always happen,” said Carlson.

“There is a lot of financial support to help reduce the risk of planting cover crops,” added Carlson, who explained that farmers can apply to receive a monetary cost share through both the State and Federal governments, typically $25/acre up to 160 acres.

Last year, Carlson paired up with several cover crop champions, including Berger, to speak about the benefits of cover crops. Throughout the year, they reached nearly 13,000 farmers at 70 events. “These face-to-face interactions are so important,” explained Carlson. “The cover crop expert farmers share their approach to cover crops and different ways to manage them. They are honest during these presentations, but their excitement for finding solutions to be successful growing cover crops is apparent.”

Carlson also maintains a list of farmers who are willing to take calls and offer practical advice to other farmers interested in getting started. “They have solid recommendations on what works and what doesn’t,” said Carlson.

We have to make sure whatever we do in our operation is going to sustain agriculture for many years to come,” concluded Berger. “There were a lot of farmers on my farm ahead of me and I sure hope there will be some that follow me. But it’s up to us to try to leave the farm better than it was when we got it. Cover crops are the place to start.” – Steve Berger