Possible Crops for Manitoba
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Blair Good
Posted on: March 28, 2003

We live in Manitoba about 30 miles North West of Winnipeg just outside of a town called Argyle. Our farm has not had any chemicals applied for eight years now and we are considering having it certified organic. Some of the crops we have considered are, Echinacea (angustifolia), Seabuckthorn and even Saskatoons. I recently had someone suggest Evening Primrose and Maplenuts. Are you able to provide any information on what crop, if any, may be viable for this area. I can’t even find any information about Maplenuts.

I have no idea what "maplenuts" are.

The question of what crops to plant is always difficult to answer. Market conditions can swing rapidly, often long before the first harvest is obtained. This volatility is greater for small, niche crops such as herbs and alternative crops for the simple reason that there are fewer buyers and fewer sellers and all it takes is a few large buyers or sellers to cause the price to go up or down dramatically.

In recent years Echinacea angustifolia was in oversupply and prices declined from peaks in the mid 1990s. However, over the past two years prices have stabilized at about $30 (U.S.) per kilogram or certified organic dried roots. There are indications that supplies will tighten a little over the next couple of years because so little new acreage was planted in the past few years.

Seabuckthorn has been touted as an up and coming crop. It is very hardy and produces good yields of berries that can be used in a variety of ways in the food and nutraceutical markets. However, it is not well known amoug the public in North America, so your selling options may be limited to a few institutional buyers or brokers. With other better known herbs you frequently have the option of selling direct to the public, often in a value-added form such as packaged teas. This flexibility can be important if bulk sales hit a low when your crop is coming off the fields.

Evening primrose is a perfect example of a crop that was severely affected oversupply conditions in the late 1990s. Chinese farmers produced what amounted to more than 1-2 years supply of seed causing prices to crash and many North American growers to retreat from the business. But supplies in the last three years have tightened and it appears that evening primrose is once again a viable crop for North American farmers. Whether Chinese growers will overwhelm the market seems less likely now because they too suffered losses during the crash years.

The inherent potential market volatility of small alternative crops such as herbs is why experts such as Richard Alan Miller are recommemding that growers diversify into at least three, preferably five, crops. Downward price volatility in one crop can be offset by upward volatility in another crop.

It is important to realize that it takes time to establish credibility as a grower for the bulk herbs market. If you are new to the herb industry, you may find that it takes a year or two before buyers will take an interest in your product. This is because buyers generally need to assure themselves that what you are growing is exactly what they expect. Generally buyers will want to see actual samples of your crop before they will buy. It is rare that buyers will enter into contracts with new growers based on little more than the buyer’s promises that he or she can deliver a crop. For these reasons it is not only important to spread your risk over several crops but also to start small and gradually build up as demand for your product grows. But you need to grow enough at the start to have samples and at least some crop to ship in order to establish your credibility.

Besides the crops you mention, there are probably several dozen other commercially viable herb crops that can be grown in your area. The best investment you can make is to read as much as you can about the commercial herb farming industry. A good reading list to start with includes Rick Miller’s e-book, "Getting Started", and his classic, "The Potential of Herbs as a Cash Crop". These and other books for commercial herb growers are all available from Richters.

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