Growers wanting a change from traditional break crops could see attractive returns from a range of niche crops. But deciding what is best for your business means looking beyond the headline-grabbing prices. Paul Spackman reports.
From wild bird seed to health oils and cosmetics, there is no doubt there’s an expanding market for niche crops in the UK.
This is partly driven by the trend towards more local/UK-produced, and natural products, but technological advances are also developing many new bio-based products for use in various markets, from pharmaceuticals to car manufacturing.
Promises of high prices and lucrative margins compared with other break crops may be tempting, but there are many factors to consider before putting a crop in the ground.
Know who you’re dealing with
The nature of speciality crop markets and their end uses means they are normally grown on contract to an end user or intermediary that may not necessarily be as familiar to most farmers as established grain merchants or plant breeders.
See also: Borage area set to rise in 2014
Before signing up to any contract, it is therefore advisable to do some background research on the company, as well as examining contract and payment terms, says Andersons consultant Graham Redman. Look at things such as the company’s reputation and track record, who they supply, how secure that market is, and who else they’re working with.
Searching online, checking with Companies House and asking other growers or advisers are relatively quick and easy ways of doing such due diligence and may give the reassurance needed that the company will be around to fulfil its contractual obligations, he says.
“Speculative growing of niche crops isn’t something anyone would advise. Don’t grow unless you’ve got a contract in place and make sure you’re clear about all of its terms.
“Most contracts will include seed supply and possibly some technical support. Be clear on what happens if crops don’t meet the specification required and how prices are calculated. For example, is the price fixed before drilling, or is it linked to the wheat price, or any other product/commodity?”
Some contracts may be based on “produce of the hectarage” to avoid default situations, but be clear on exactly how this will work in practice.
Know the market
Unlike commodity crops, speciality crops are much more targeted at a certain market, which requires a different mindset, says Nigel Padbury from Technology Crops. “From the outset, growing a niche crop is all about delivering the very specific quality and traceability requirements of that end user.
“You’re deciding who you’re growing for before the crop is even in the ground, so you need to be clear on all the terms before you start.”
He says the majority of buyers will work with growers to ensure crops are not rejected, although there may be penalties imposed where specification is missed. “It’s in nobody’s interest to leave a grower high and dry with a speciality crop they can’t sell anywhere else, so we will always try to work out a way of getting that crop into a market.”
Will it perform as promised?
There may be an array of niche crops that can potentially be grown in the UK, but many are less resilient than traditional cereals, oilseeds and pulses to our growing conditions and often need specific site characteristics (for example, soil type, pH, nutrition, day length, climate etc).
What suits one farm may not suit another, so if you are considering growing a niche crop, it is best to be clear on exactly what conditions the crop needs to deliver the yields promised, says Mr Redman. It may even be worth trialling a small area first to see how it performs before committing any significant area.
Agronomy will probably be different to traditional crops, so it is worth checking what technical support and/or grower groups is provided through the season as part of any contract and check whether your agronomist is familiar with the crop. Pesticide options may be more limited than traditional crops, and often met by off-label approvals or extensions to use.
Also check whether growing the crop will restrict other parts of the rotation, he says. For example, crops destined for health foods or pharmaceuticals may have tighter pesticide residue limits, potentially limiting the use of some actives elsewhere in the rotation or in preceding crops.
Will it require new kit?
Most niche crops are being developed to use standard farm machinery, as it is a key part of encouraging growers to come forward, says Mr Padbury. However, in some cases there may be a need for extra equipment for their growing, harvesting, handling or storage. Borage, for example, needs to be swathed before harvest and a pick-up header is also needed.
Also consider the extra care needed when combining and drying many crops to protect oil quality and whether this can be achieved with your system. If not, ask if the buyer can provide appropriate facilities. Linseed, for example, is a flat seed with high resistance to airflow, which limits the depth of on-floor or bin drying heaps to about 1m.
Segregated storage will almost certainly be required, although in most cases the tonnages involved are relatively small, Mr Padbury adds.
How will it fit into the business?
There are many other potential benefits and pitfalls from having a speciality crop in the rotation (see Pros and Cons).
A lot of crops are spring sown (April to end of May), which spreads workloads and potentially gives a wide window for controlling problem/herbicide-resistant weeds (especially blackgrass) through repeated stale seedbeds.
Crops such as borage and Ahiflower (a member of the borage family) also seem to help suppress slug activity as slugs do not like feeding on the plants, notes Mr Padbury.
He acknowledges that borage volunteers can be a problem, but says a better understanding of how to control them and careful site selection can alleviate the issue. “Controlling borage volunteers is a bit like controlling volunteer rape. Growers need to leave stubbles for a few weeks after harvest and let regrowth come through before spraying it off. Don’t rush in and plough stubbles as soon as you can.”
Many niche crops may be harvested later in the season (for example, millet harvested from mid-September), which can relieve pressure around the main cereal harvest, but could mean harvest runs into more catchy weather, potentially compromising quality, says Mr Redman.