More home cooks are diving into pickling.
Photo: istock

When it comes to produce, popular and common isn’t always a guaranteed path to profits. In today’s foodie culture, specialty crops, or alternative crops, can be a smart way to differentiate your business and capture niche market share. Specialty crops can be especially fruitful for small operations that really must get the absolute most out of every square inch of production space. Marketing specialty crops might seem to require a unique approach; ultimately good marketing always comes down to customer experience.

Finding a niche for specialty crops requires getting to know your local market to find supply gaps and rising demand. Specialty food crop trends often get started with restaurants and chefs looking to experiment, so it’s always a good idea to touch base with both. If you have good networking connections with local restaurants already, they may even ask you for supply of certain crops before they are even on your radar. Farmers markets are also good places to do reconnaissance on what chefs and consumers are seeking out. Always keep an eye on Instagram and YouTube for what’s sparking with home cooks.

In my digging around, there are some specific food trends I think we should all pay attention to for 2018. The good news for us is that plants make up the basis for most all predicted food trends for the near future.

“Gut-Friendly” food is at the top of many trend lists right now; fermentation and pickling aren’t new trends, but home cooks are diving into less familiar territories with kimchi recipes and miso, as well as pickling all sorts of veggies. Specialty alliums, root vegetables, and a bevy of herbs and spices can be marketed to accompany such food trends.

You’re going to start seeing floral flavors in a lot of unexpected foods. Check out Whole Foods’ lavender granola, raspberry geranium fruit bars, and elderflower-flavored beverages. Such floral infusions could also inspire a bounce in whole edible flower sales, too.

I also feel like mushrooms of all sorts, both culinary and medicinal, are going to have a biggish moment in 2018. Mushrooms are being incorporated into tonics, broths, many prepared foods, and even body care products. Many of the mushrooms used and sold in prepared products are imported from China. Consumers who are looking to incorporate more mushrooms into their diet don’t look upon this fact favorably: They want locally grown product.

Alcohol-free cocktails are another food trend you should keep your eye on. I recently discovered Seedlip, a wonderful line of non-alcoholic “spirits”, made from veggies, citrus, and assorted herbs and spices, meant for cocktail mixing (sold in the United Kingdom, debuting just recently in the United States).

Once you’ve narrowed down a niche crop opportunity for your target market, you really should hammer out the marketing strategy before you put plants into production. Getting to the heart of how to market your specialty crops takes getting to the heart of how your customer will use and experience the product. It doesn’t really matter how interesting, beautiful, or rare your specialty crop is in your eyes: Consumers don’t really care so much about how we feel about our produce. Making consumers aware of your new and unusual crops is of course necessary. But teaching them how to use and experience the produce — and how they’ll benefit from eating or drinking it — is the key to consumer acceptance and success.

Food how-tos have taken over the internet and social channels such as Instagram and YouTube. Tasty recipe videos have totally transformed how people view cooking with fresh ingredients. These videos, most of which are created by amateurs, focus on bite-sized recipes with simple ingredients and simple instructions. No matter how fancy or fine the produce you may have to offer, you should think about how it can fit into today’s compact cooking lifestyle: contained, fun and easy.

I’ve written previously about how produce growers can leverage relationships with local chefs and other brand influencers to create relevant consumer branding and marketing. If you currently work with a local chef (or other food/wellness personality) on your own marketing efforts, have them do some kitchen testing for you on new specialty crops, so you can work out the “how-tos” before you go to market. Having a clear understanding of easy and functional ways to use your new crop in the kitchen provides you a much clearer path to profits. You can also use this information to create all the creative branding that surrounds and supports your produce.

Fun and easy. That is really the key marketing push on produce these days. When it comes to developing your branding and supporting marketing activities, make sure you first have an intimate understanding of the emotion and experience the people who buy your food will have.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, business and marketing strategy, product development and branding, and content creation for green industry companies.