Folks who put all their eggs in one basket had better have a pretty sturdy basket — and some pretty valuable eggs.

Otherwise, they probably ought to diversify a bit, spread risks and expand profit opportunities.

“That's why we're here,” says Sam Pair, USDA research leader at the South Central Agricultural Research Lab in Lane, Okla. The facility also houses Oklahoma State University scientists belonging to the Wes Watkins Agricultural Research and Extension Center. To avoid confusion among the public and to foster joint cooperation, the facility is known as the “Lane Ag Center.” Primary emphasis is on high value fruit and vegetable crops that fit the area's climate and soils.

“After World War II agriculture in this area (the Southeast corner of Oklahoma) consisted primarily of beef cattle production. Former congressman Wes Watkins and others saw a need to diversify, and vegetable production offered potential for high value crops, so this facility was established in 1985.”

“We've tried to determine what would do well here,” Pair said during a field day this summer. “Peanuts have been phased out and traditional row crops have little appeal. But farmers took to watermelons and other cucurbit crops that can be quite profitable.” Consequently, a large part of the research effort at Lane Ag Center focuses on cucurbits, especially watermelon. Pair says most farmers and even beef producers can use existing equipment to get into watermelon production.

Several crops

“Farmers grow a number of other vegetable crops,” he said, “but watermelon is one of the more important crops in the immediate area. We also see some peppers, onions, small fruits, leafy greens, beans, and tomatoes.”

Currently, the station has no full-time tomato breeder, but does have production expertise. “But if farmers in the area show enough interest in a specific vegetable, we'll get more involved,” Pair said.

Work on watermelon and other crops includes production systems, disease, insect and nutritional studies.

Jim Shrefler, an area Extension horticulturist, says farmers in the 18 counties in the Southeast corner of the state have diversified into vegetables, small fruits, ornamentals and turfgrass.

“I've been here for eight years and the industry has changed significantly in that time,” he said. “More farmers are adding enterprises to beef and forage operations. We try to help them avoid problems early on. If they can avoid bad years at the outset they're more likely to stay with a new crop. “Vegetable production can be a valuable component of a farm operation.”

Shrefler says few farmers plant a lot of acreage in vegetables but mesh horticultural crops into the overall operation. “They can rotate watermelons into forage and do well. A forage rotation helps them avoid problems in melons. Old-timers used to look for pasture land for watermelons.”

Grower challenges

Shrefler says new growers face significant challenges as they take on a new enterprise.

“Identifying a market is a key,” he says. “That's a big challenge but producers in this area may have an advantage with population growth coming up from the Dallas area. Consumers like to know where their food is grown and they prefer local produce. Farmers have an opportunity to tap into this new market and supplement their incomes.”

Shrefler said growers should look for windows of opportunity. The July 4 watermelon market, for instance, is critical and requires early planting on black plastic to hit that deadline.

“We also could see a window of opportunity for onions. We could produce a little later than Vidalia, Ga. But we have to produce a quality product.”

Shrefler says growers must develop production and market savvy simultaneously. “Both are important. Producers can't spend four years learning how to grow the crop and then do market research. But markets may not be that hard to find. Small markets, such as local grocery stores, should provide good opportunities.”

“Marketing is the key,” says Merritt Taylor, Extension economist at the station. “Quality also is a factor. Today's consumer is educated and maybe spoiled (from an abundance of fresh produce). They buy with their eyes, which is not always an accurate gauge of quality.”

Insects, disease

But consumers will cull produce that has insect parts on leaves or scars on skins. “We do a lot of testing here to evaluate new chemistry for insect and disease control, he said.

Taylor also recommends that producers look hard at the economics of fruit and vegetable production. “Make certain potential returns more than justify the production costs,” he said.

Economic analyses may offer producers a moving target.

“Oklahoma vegetable growers are at a price disadvantage because of volume,” he said. “We can't affect the price, so a grower must look at historical markets to determine if he can make a profit. California, Florida and Texas pretty much control prices. Occasionally, if one of those areas has a disaster, we may have some influence.”

To overcome some of the price limitation “producers need to do all they can to get costs down,” he said.

“Look for niche markets, periods when prices are higher, such as when other areas are not producing a certain commodity. Adjust production schedules to hit that opportunity.”

Taylor said growers should understand the management requirements of fruit and vegetable crops. “With cattle, a farmer can look in on the cows about once a week and still do okay. With vegetables, a disease or insect outbreak may require action within a few hours to protect the crop. Producers should look at their crop twice a day. They have to pay attention.”

Taylor said novice vegetable producers have to understand that “growing these crops is harder than growing most row crops. If they are not willing to invest the time, they may need to consider something else. But if they are willing to put in the effort, they have a good opportunity to make money.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com