Crop Suggestions for Southern Wisconsin
Answered by: Richard Alan Miller
Question from: Connie Lenox
Posted on: February 21, 2002

We purchased a 13.5 acre farmette with all the outbuildings about 5 years ago and roughly 8-10 of those acres are rolling pasture that has never been worked. Last year we decided that land is sitting idle and we want to make it a working farm again. Being a gardener and natural health fanatic for over 25 years made the choice of herb farming seem like the logical thing to do.

Last year I thought that I would just like to be a lavender farmer and concentrate all my energy there, but here in southern Wisconsin the climate is quite questionable as to whether this will work. We lost over 230 of the 645 cuttings we planted. After much thought this winter we have decided to diversify and grow more herbs other than lavender.

I want to raise herbs that not everyone around here is growing but yet ones that are hardy to southern Wisconsin and yet which have some resale value to them. I know ginseng and Echinacea are popular and profitable but not appealing for me to grow since I would like to try something others aren’t growing.

I have obtained information on growing commercial hemp but cannot seem to find out whether I will be arrested in the state of Wisconsin for this or not. I’m asking for some suggestions to help us get this farm working again as all the outbuildings sit empty and we need to get this old place lively again.

I do plan to read some of the books I’ve seen suggested on other questions I’ve looked up but can you give me suggestions of what some "hot crops" to grow here in southern Wisconsin might be and do you know who I would contact to find out if it is legal to grow commercial hemp in Wisconsin.

Thank you for your time, I have found your website very informative and useful.

The only way I have seen Lavender survive the marketplace is as a Bed-and-Breakfast operation. France has been producing this crop for centuries, and has very competitive systems down pat. I can list a bunch of recommended herbs to grow, but I should state that these are not the right questions to be asking.

Lack of new products and low consumer confidence in product quality has impacted the growth of our industry. Our future success now will be driven by the creation of innovative, effective products with proven clinical support and patent protection. This is not a raw material industry as much as it is best suited for cottage industries.

Those wanting to live in rural communities in the past were left with becoming raw material suppliers. That would be OK except for the fact that the markets for these various and diverse crops are limited. This means only 300 ton St. John’s Wort herb will be sold in North America this next year to raw material buyers. All other inventories (700 ton) will have to seek alternative marketing opportunities.

Many of the larger companies in Europe, like Indena and Martin Bauer, try to farm their own ingredient needs (whenever possible). Why? It is because the raw material ingredient is the key to successful sales in various cottage industries. Obviously, if something delivered chemistry (i.e. "worked"), then that customer is probably going back for a re-buy. The marketing and sales of the cottage industry is driven by the (consistent) quality of raw materials used.

Niche marketing is created by availability. I’ve found that when I produce something "new," like Golden Eagle Herbal Chew, there is already a built-in market demand for something like this. This means a "new idea," not a new product (raw material). The "niche" is the idea, not the product itself. The market is not about the raw material itself, but the quality of raw material used to make "something."

Too many farmers, seeking to save their farms, tried to change over to these crops. In doing so, most missed the whole idea of this form of marketing. Those who made something (like frozen pesto), made their way through the financial demands of this industry. Those who sought to grow raw materials found a more difficult road to hoe.

The St. John’s Wort herb bonanza of 1996 and 1997 was a misleading indicator of "what to grow." Many farmers, seeking alternative crop options, began to grow hybrid versions, hoping to corner the market. But the market was not the raw material (per se); it was in the tablet, capsule, tincture, or other form it was finally sold to the public. And, it was in the quality of that product that then set their position in the marketplace.

From this metaphor, it can be deduced that the following concept is probably Rule #1: "Always begin a market program around a specific "idea" (like Indian Herbal Coffee)." This is your "cottage industry" idea. Then, to guarantee the continued purchase and growth of that cottage industry, grow your own fields needed to supply its needs.

This is called "vertical integration," where you might also have a small processing plant to put your various raw materials into a form for their final use. This might mean further cleaning of contaminates, or processing it into better forms for use in your final product. The operant word is "when you want it done right, do it yourself."

Your "in house" ability can also be used for outside customers, also seeking your processing. I’ve found that processing is as important as the raw material itself. A good processor can clean up problems, and often make things work (when they might not have otherwise). It allows the farmer some latitudes with overall farm costs and procedures. (See my book on Processing at www.herbfarminfo.com)

Niches also imply diversification of ingredients, and a balance of options (when markets wane or rise). Peppermint is primarily grown for the oil, but some have found that when world oil prices drop, they can often process their product as leaf (for the tea industry) for a better return. However, the grower that makes the real money in this industry is the one who also sells his peppermint as part of a blend of herbal teas (like Country Spice Tea) from his farm.

So, while I monitor specific crop growths and falls, my primary writings (and message) are now on the development of specific cottage industries. These markets, for the most part, are wide open. You need to read my book The Potential of Herbs As A Cash Crop (available from Richters), for a foundation on this trade and these crops.

As a lead-in toward crop selections, why not try growing many of the Spices as Dried Flowers? I am available as an outside consultant to help construct Farm Plans for those who like my insights. I’ve also written a number of books on this subject, to include "Getting Started" (also found at www.herbfarminfo.com). I have now completed almost 20 new titles for upload this next year.

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