Given the changing patterns of the U.S. agriculture and population, U.S. Small farmers are to adapt to national trends in order to survive. U.S. small farmers could capitalize on favorable socio-economic trends such as the increasing diversity in the U.S. population, and the necessity for a balanced and healthy diet, to explore and develop innovative agricultural enterprises including high-value crops, and value-added enterprises. Ethnic and specialty vegetables are high-value crops that have demonstrated potential markets across the U.S.

Maryland Specialty Crops Initiative

In February 2002, Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) established a two-year specialty crops initiative. MDA initiative encompasses nine projects implemented by the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension (MCE) and commercial agricultural professionals in the areas of specialty crops production, marketing and education. These nine projects range from specialty vegetables and fruits production trials and marketing (i.e., leafy oriental vegetables, high-tunnel greenhouse for cut flowers, beach plumbs, table/wine grapes, high-tunnel organic salads, asparagus, strawberries) to special seminars on aquaculture and workshops on organic products.

The objectives of MDA specialty crops initiative are threefold: (1) test the potential for growing specialty crops under diverse Maryland environments; (2) evaluate specialty crops market potential in the state; (3) and provide valuable production and marketing guidelines to producers, retailers, wholesalers, and agricultural professionals. A preliminary production research on specialty crops across Maryland indicates that these crops respond positively to Maryland weather and soil conditions and could be locally grown to supply local markets. Maryland direct marketing and wholesaling outlets have expressed the desire to order these fruits and vegetables from local growers. Consumers respond favorably to the new taste as the produce is introduced to the public through Cooperative Extension nutrition programs.

Market Potential for Ethnic and Specialty Produce

Consumers’ Tastes and Preferences. Consumer tastes and preferences drive the nation’s food and fiber system. A key job of the food market is to ensure that food products are accurately targeted at market niches regardless of the niche’s size. An ethnic and specialty food distribution system needs to be established to help channel available and locally grown produce. Often culturally based food habits are one of the last traditions people change when they move to a new country. Given growing ethnic diversity and opportunity offered by untapped ethnic produce markets, excellent opportunities exist for Mid-Atlantic growers. Potential ethnic produce includes African, Asian, and Hispanic fruits, vegetables, and specialty herbs.

Specialty Crops and U.S. Agricultural Trends. Current changing U.S. agricultural trends support the establishment of ethnic and specialty markets. Losses of farmland to urban development put pressure on farmers who, therefore, must adjust by growing high-value crops on a small-scale operation.

Direct Marketing. Discovering ethnic and specialty produce markets is not as easy as ABC. The establishment of a well-known ethnic and specialty produce distribution system is much needed. Generally a high concentration of the minority population (in metropolitan areas) can most likely support ethnic markets. Statistics show that, from Baltimore-Washington to Newark-New York City, a diverse spectrum of population justifies the establishment of international retail grocery stores where a wide range of ethnic and specialty produce is normally sold. Beside international grocery stores, nontraditional direct-marketing strategies for ethnic produce include farmers’ markets, agri-tourism, pick-your-own, restaurants, and small farm cooperatives. Cooperative extension offices may be a source for an inventory of these market outlets for farmers and growers to facilitate networking.

Wholesale Markets. Wholesale markets for ethnic and specialty produce include produce auction and food chain stores. Traditionally ethnic produce is rarely sold at the produce auction markets. Nevertheless, due to an increased demand of these unusual and exotic products (by an increasing minority population), ethnic and specialty produce are making their way to the auction markets as well as well-known food chain stores. Some limiting factors for these markets include building confidence and trust with international food chain stores, securing a high-cost liability insurance, and providing a consistent volume of high-quality products.

Networking. Bridging the cultural gaps between producers of ethnic and specialty vegetables and market operators could be achieved through well-established networking ventures. The establishment of a databank for potential ethnic and specialty producers, buyers, researchers, and educators is the key to ensuring a good networking. Production and marketing of ethnic and specialty produce could be facilitated through these channels.

Barkema, Alan. 1993. “Reaching Consumers in the Twenty- First Century: The Short Way Around the Barn.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics
75(12): 1126-1131.

Hanson, James. 1999. “Trends in Maryland Agriculture.”  Maryland Cooperative Extension, University of Maryland, College Park. Economic Viewpoints 3(3): 1-5.

Kittler, Pamela and Kathryn Sucher. 1989. Food and Culture in America: A Nutrition Handbook. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.

SAN. 1999. Marketing Strategies for Farmers and Ranchers. Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), USDA-CSREES.

Tubene, Stephan. 2001. Agricultural and Demographic Change in the Mid-Atlantic Region: Implications for Ethnic and Specialty Produce. Fact Sheet 793. Maryland Cooperative Extension, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland.