White broccoli, dried okra pods, dried flowers, baby artichokes, white eggplant, ornamental gourds, purple potatoes, colored cauliflower, and butterhead lettuce.
Hardly what you'd expect to find on the typical shopping list, those are but a handful of the scores of specialty crops grown in California's San Joaquin Valley for niche markets by small-acreage growers.
“Remember, it's not a specialty crop if everybody's growing it,” says Manuel Jimenez, Tulare County farm advisor. Every specialty grower, he adds, should have his own test plots to find new crops that have resistance to pests, good yields, and potential for returns.
That's why niche growers are usually rather mum, in comparison to commodity growers, about their practices and strategies.
To capture off-season markets, they may go to the added expense of protecting crops from cold temperatures. Some find a marketing niche for heirloom varieties. Yet others may grow flowers or ornamentals for direct marketing during times when growers elsewhere must depend on greenhouses.
“Many people on the coast must have greenhouses to grow the flowers and ornamentals we can produce outside here in the summer,” Jimenez says. “We can grow practically anything.”
Once they determine they can grow the crop successfully, they need to consider potential markets by ethnicity and location, which favor different colors, shapes, and tastes.
A market for a specialty may even occur by accident. For example, at his test plots at Woodlake, he explained, broccoli plants turned white and developed a sweet flavor, without loss of quality, after an invasion of whiteflies. One restaurateur sought more of the white broccoli as a unique and popular menu item.
A rainbow of countless varieties of peppers, squashes, and sunflowers also offer marketing opportunities.
Jimenez and others outlined several possibilities for more common specialty crops during a recent meeting at the Kearney Agricultural Center, Parlier.
Francis Ferreira, field assistant with University of California Cooperative Extension, Tulare County, reported on trials with more than 80 tomato varieties in observation plots at Woodlake and at KAC. Among other traits, they recorded Brix (sugar) content for several cherry tomato varieties. Top ratings went to the round gold variety Sun Gold, with its 9.0 at KAC and 9.3 at Woodlake. The round red, Super Sweet, was rated at 9.0 at KAC and 7.7 at Woodlake.
Kathryn Wright, another Tulare County field assistant, reported on 38 varieties of blueberries, both high and low and northern and southern types, grown at the two sites and having harvest dates ranging from early May to early July.
That period approximates a marketing window when wholesale prices for 1999-2000 at the Los Angeles Terminal Market averaged from a high of just above $50 per flat in mid-May to a low of about $15 in mid-July.
The highest 2002 season pound-per-plant yields of bushes planted in 1997 were Cape Fear at 21.4 pounds and Misty at 20.6 pounds.
Wright said birds are the most significant pests of blueberries, and netting to protect the crop is essential. Additional data will be gathered in future trials on varieties, irrigation, temperatures, and soils.
Jesus Valencia, Fresno County farm advisor, said the newer varieties of seedless watermelons weighing three to four pounds are more popular than traditional 30-pounders because the smaller are easier to store in refrigerators. Also gaining in popularity are white and yellow flesh varieties.
Some 30 varieties of the smaller types are grown on the west side of Fresno County. Size is managed by spacing plants as close as 18 inches instead of the two- to three-foot interval traditionally used.
The seedless types must be grown with seeded varieties and need one to two colonies of bees per acre for pollination. The common practice is to direct-seed pollinators about 10 days before transplanting seedless varieties.
“Although the old way was to plant every third row as pollinators, it's been found that it is better to plant pollinators in the same row because bees tend to follow rows as they move from plant to plant,” he said.
Early-season spider mite control, Valencia added, is critical to prevent rind scarring, while rotation of fields every two to three years is important to manage fusarium.