Missouri farmers fetch higher prices with niche crops

Courtesy of Scott Bauer, USDA/Wikimedia Commons
The pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to North America. | Courtesy of the USDA/Wikimedia Commons

Elderberries and pawpaws aren’t the first fruits most people probably think of when it comes to Missouri farming.

But over the last few years, niche crops have become a lucrative opportunity for farmers. Due to their status as niche crops, they tend to fetch a higher price. Farmers can get more money for these crops because there are fewer producers.

“It’s a unique crop, it’s a niche crop,” said Sheri Crabtree, a horticulture research and extension associate at Kentucky State University’s pawpaw program. “It’s something that’s unusual that you’re not going to see at Kroger or Wal-Mart.”

In October, the Missouri Department of Agriculture announced that different organizations in the state would receive grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of the more than $400,000 in grant money to be distributed across the state, more than half was earmarked for developing local specialty crops and increasing awareness of local food sources.

Terry Durham owns River Hills Harvest in Hartsburg, a farm that grows elderberries as a primary crop. Elderberries are typically dark purple or black berries that grow on small trees or shrubs. Eight years ago, Durham decided to stop growing vegetables and planted his first elderberry seeds for commercial production. Durham said that he chose the elderberry to capture a niche market.

“For a farmer, it’s a unique opportunity to be able to have a new crop that has not been commercially available before and that is in demand,” Durham said.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user seelensturm
Elderberries sell for about $3 per pound. | Courtesy of seelensturm/Flickr

Elderberries are usually sold for about $3 per pound, according to the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry.

Although Durham has only been in the elderberry business for a few years, he’s no stranger to growing the fruit.

“Historically, my family has made elderberry jelly for a long time,” Durham said. “It’s something that my grandma made and my mom made, and we would harvest the berries and make the jelly.”

Fruits like elderberries are heritage fruits, Durham said. In the past, people would eat these wild fruits, and their consumption today is something of a throwback to the past. In collaboration with researchers, local farmers have developed the best ways to grow these fruits commercially.

Pawpaws are similar to Elderberries in this regard. The largest edible fruit native to North America, the pawpaw is a plump fruit that weighs eight or nine ounces.

Like elderberries, Crabtree said, pawpaws are a higher value crop.

“It’s a niche market,” she said. “You can get a higher value, because there’s not a lot of people selling pawpaws.”

Growers can sell the fruit for about $2 to $4 per pound, and trees produce approximately 50 to 70 pounds each.

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