Texas farmers may find a potentially profitable new opportunity by capitalizing on consumers' demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables.
“I see good market opportunities for Texas farmers,” says Joseph Masabni, new Texas A&M commercial vegetable specialist at College Station. “Consumers are interested in locally grown, better tasting fruits and vegetables. Opportunities exist for small farms, especially for farms near population centers.”
Masabni says recent food scares make locally-grown an even more attractive option for health-conscious consumers.
He says Texas produce production may not be as robust as it could be, but hopes to help farmers take advantage of marketing opportunities. “Texas has a big enough population to support a healthy vegetable industry.”
Masabni will focus much of his effort on East Texas, east of I-35 and north of I-37. “East Texas has no significant commercial vegetable operations. I want to work with small farms, established producers as well as new ones.”
Traditional row crop farmers also may be interested in adding a few acres of produce to other enterprises to spread risks, he says.
“We'll look at production techniques, variety selection, marketing and other issues. We'll compare organic and traditional production and look at crops that should work well in an area and also crops growers should not plant.”
He says demonstration trials with County Extension agents will give growers and interested landowners visible evidence of how specific production techniques and specific crops perform.
“Most of our marketing efforts will focus on on-farm sales or farmers' markets. We hope to improve marketing success by training farmers to offer safe taste sampling. Cutting a melon or tomato and allowing a customer to sample it can improve sales.”
He also hopes to extend growing seasons later in the fall and earlier in the spring. Masabni comes to Texas from Kentucky, where he helped tobacco farmers find alternate crops following the quota buyout. Most of the farmers who participated in a vegetable production pilot program stayed with produce production.
“I worked with early, cool season crops in Kentucky. It's not as cold in Texas, but we may be able to extend our growing season.”
He used a high tunnel system — an unheated temperature control structure consisting of two layers of plastic. “A fan blows air between the two layers to provide insulation for young plants,” he says. He wants to try that technique to expand the growing season in East Texas. “We want to hit the market as early as possible.”
He says diversification will help established produce growers. “A lot of fruit producers may want to add vegetables to their operations, for instance. Or an apple orchard may add strawberries.”
He says cultivar trials will help growers select the best options for their areas. Sweet corn should be in the mix for many. “Sweet corn acreage is decreasing in Texas, but a small farm needs some sweet corn. It's popular at farmers' markets. Consumers want it.”
He says herbs, strawberries, tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons and sweet, colored peppers also do well in farmers' markets.
“Colorful products attract consumers. They have eye appeal. And a small farm can offer a lot of products — potatoes, onions, corn and others.”
He says vegetable producers may not need a lot of acreage to be sustainable. “Size depends on location. Near a big city, with a good market, organic or traditional products should do well. Herb production may provide a good income with only one or two acres. Growers may want to find a niche, herbs or heirloom tomatoes, for example.”
He says an average produce operation would be from two to five acres. “That much land may be necessary for rotation and to rest the land and avoid disease problems. That size farm can be sustainable.”
He says some farmers may consider organic production, but should be aware that organic farming requires more “effort and planning to be successful.”
Whether organic or conventional, locally grown produce is in demand and offers farmers an opportunity to develop a profitable business. Masabni says farmers need not focus on large metropolitan areas like Dallas or San Antonio. “Any population center offers opportunity.”