From edible flowers to gourmet crops to cannabis and hemp, growers all over North America are shifting to meet new market demands. While some are working hand-in-hand with chefs to supply culinary demands, others are capitalizing on the local food movement and still others are focusing in on gourmet crops.
Find out how growers are embracing new crops and handling new challenges in the following stories:
Ken VandeVrede eyes hemp and medical cannabis as the next growth markets for his business.
Twelve years ago, Ken VandeVrede was looking for a product to help his business — Gro-Rite — branch out of ornamental production and drive more year-round sales. His solution: hydroponic basil and leafy greens production.
“That was the natural evolution to a next crop for us,” he says.
Today, VandeVrede sees hemp and medical cannabis as the next evolution. Licenses are not yet available for hemp production in New Jersey, and he was denied a license to grow medical cannabis last year. But VandeVredehe has a plan in place on how to best grow it and a company — Hillview Med — as an avenue through which to sell the product. The plan is to begin growing at the business’ main growing facility in New Jersey as soon as possible. VandeVrede serves as CEO of Hillview med and previously served as the COO of Terra Tech, a cannabis operation, from 2013 to 2018.
“I think New Jersey will be a very good market for both because the licenses they are giving out for medical cannabis and hemp is a new growth market,” VandeVrede says. In order to court investment and increase the long-term viability of the business, he says, adding new crops was needed.
VandeVrede, though, still thinks both the ornamental and produce markets are still healthy despite several businesses across the country either scaling back production to make room for hemp or switching to hemp altogether. In his mind, producers who completely leave either market will leave a profitable hole for existing growers to step into and fill.
“It’s not like we are going away from our ornamentals. It’s not like we are going away from our produce,” VandeVrede says. “It’s just that we see big opportunities in the cannabis and hemp markets here in New Jersey and across the East Coast and IP in extraction for these products. We feel the industry is set up to allow us to diversify as an agriculture company into other products. There are going to be significant opportunities in both spaces.” –Chris Manning
A grower’s province in produce
Growing premium crops and selling them for high prices is working well for British Columbia grower Nora von Gerichten, who plans to drop commercial production of her more conventional crops in 2020.
After working as an English and history high school teacher while importing and selling orchids on the side, Nora von Gerichten has found her niche in produce.
As current manager of the greenhouse and potted plants at Wildwood Ecological Labs in Powell River, British Columbia, she now grows and sells baby ginger and wasabi.
This year, she expects about half of her revenue to come from ginger, grown in the greenhouse, and wasabi, grown outside in the ground in a temperate rainforest climate. She anticipates the other half to come from other crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. For 2020, she plans to only sell baby ginger and wasabi, while producing other crops just for her own family.
“Simply, wasabi and ginger are easy crops compared to tomatoes,” she says. “Tomatoes — you’ve got to really watch those guys. And wasabi and ginger watch themselves, pretty much.”
At the same time, selling wasabi and ginger requires getting potential customers on board with something new, which can be a challenge. Wasabi sells at $200 a kilogram (2.2 pounds), she says, adding that not a lot of people want to shell out that amount of money for any crop other than cannabis.
“Nobody knows what wasabi is,” she says. “They know wasabi peas, but that’s horseradish; it’s not wasabi. This is real wasabi. It only keeps its heat for about 20 minutes after being grated. This is a gourmet vegetable. But here in British Columbia — there are very few places in the world that can grow wasabi — here is one.”
Her baby ginger doesn’t go for cheap, either. It runs $12 per pound, four times what most people pay in the grocery store. She makes the ginger that she doesn’t sell into candy and offers it online. Wildwood enhances production by growing ginger rhizomes under LEDs.
“The reason it’s more expensive is [because] it’s baby ginger, and the baby ginger doesn’t have all that woody fiber running through it, so it lends itself really well to candied ginger and other stuff like that,” von Gerichten says.
At Wildwood Ecological Labs, challenges arise like they do at any other greenhouse. Along with the pests and diseases that come with growing in a controlled environment, von Gerichten, who grows everything organically, says weather also presents issues, like the unusual amount of rainfall they’ve received for the past winter, spring and summer.
But the operation has carved out a successful niche for itself. It can grow ginger without the pesticides that are so prevalent in Chinese ginger farming. (Many growers in China don’t eat their own ginger.)
Von Gerichten will be the first to point out that her operation is an outlier. Being one of the few CEA baby ginger growers, her two part-time employees know her “quirks,” like that she wants the ginger clean and not broken up into pieces that are too small.
“I can go along with everybody, or I can be slightly different,” she says. “And I decided slightly different is better.” —Patrick Williams
There’s gold in them thar hills
Tega Hills Farm strives to expand its customer base while continuing to grow profitable crops.
Mark and Mindy Robinson of Tega Hills Farm in Fort Mill, South Carolina, have made a name for themselves by growing and selling microgreens, squash blossoms and edible flowers in an area where demand for these crops exceeded supply. They also grow the lettuce, peppers and other vegetables that are staples of many greenhouse operations.
The operation uses a flat filler, water tunnel, evaporative cooling, on-table heat, energy curtains and compact fluorescent lights. (Although they may transfer to LEDs). These technologies allow the operation to grow microgreens year-round, which account for about half of its income. In the process, Mark and Mindy can keep in constant contact with chefs.
“With conventional farming, it’s tough to be able to keep into contact with those chefs year-round,” Mark says. “And for us, the microgreens enabled us to do that, which gives us more opportunity to sell to them a wider variety of crops.”
Mark and Mindy operate a roadside stand on their property. They also sell to farmers markets, restaurants and country clubs.
They aim to open more opportunities working with wholesalers and distributors by acquiring its Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification.
“It’s interesting because for the big wholesalers, they still want to be able to have a local grower that they can portray to their chef that they’re getting product from — it adds to their advertising story,” he says. “Regionally, that ends up being good for them.”
Mark and Mindy have also noted changes to their neighborhood that could allow them to expand their customer base.
“Two and a half years ago, we had a 40-acre farm across the road from us,” Mark says. “That now has 75 single-family homes and 125 townhouses on it, and they’re just about to complete that.”
Behind that new construction are another 1,000 family units within a bicycle’s ride of Tega Hills Farm and Mark is considering finding a way to deliver product to those homes.
This ties in with Mark and Mindy’s mission as board members of the nonprofit Catawba Farm and Food Coalition to provide a sustainable supply of produce to five South Carolina counties and the Catawba Indian Nation. Much of the land in the state is used for forestry products rather than ag, and most of the vegetables are imported.
“We’re trying to set up food hubs in the state of South Carolina to be able to bring more product from the coastal areas up here closer to the Piedmont,” he says. —Patrick Williams
In her home market of Phoenix, grower Heather Szymura sees local chefs beginning to look for new options for their restaurants.
Based in Phoenix, Twisted Infusions caters to a niche market of chefs looking for locally grown, high-quality produce for their restaurants. According to owner and grower Heather Szymura, the two major trends among her clientele in the last year are edible flowers and baby leaf greens, with the latter often replacing microgreens.
“It’s been a lot of fun because I’ve been growing 10 different varieties of edible flowers and it’s really been more color-based orders,” Szymura says. “Sometimes it is flavor-based, sometimes they just want a garnish. We were ready for this, and I pushed it on people to consider it as an option.” She says bachelor’s button and marigolds are two of the more popular flowers she’s produced.
As for the rising popularity of baby leaf products, Szymura thinks chefs are looking for an alternative to microgreens because microgreens have either become overused or used improperly.
“It’s hit or miss. I think micros are not as popular as they were five years ago,” she says. “People have started looking for alternatives to find that look, plus the bonus of flavor, and I think the baby leaf captures that on some level.” Szymura describes baby leaf products as a middle ground between microgreens and fully grown lettuces.
Looking ahead to the rest of 2019 and 2020, Szymura’s major endeavor is expanding Twisted Infusions. Recently, she signed a lease to begin growing in a warehouse in Phoenix; the business is currently operated entirely in a container farm. In the warehouse, Szymura says she is installing an NFT hydroponic system and LED lighting as she expands her crop availability to products such as tomatoes and cucumbers.
The container farm, though, won’t be going away — it fits in the warehouse and will still be used to grow the edible flowers and baby leaf greens chefs want. Szymura hopes her customer base expands too, as some of her competitors in the Phoenix area have moved out of vegetable production and into hemp since hemp production was legalized in December 2018.
“It’s about the ability to grow more,” she says. “I love my container farm — I’m not getting rid of my container farm. But for me, with the land opportunity and the electricity costs, it’s more conducive to run in directly in the warehouse for the volume I want to grow.” —Chris Manning