Farmers at the Crossroads

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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Farmers’ worlds have changed. Gone are the days when you looked out over farmers’ fields and saw only corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and hay. Changing weather patterns, economic issues and different lifestyles have all changed the role of a farmer. The crops are more varied now, specialty crops like tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, kale, potatoes and others have encroached on the traditional farm crops.

Part of the reason for this is that machinery has gotten bigger and more sophisticated. What once took a week to do can now be accomplished in a day or two. I remember my Dad’s two-row corn picker and now sometimes the norm is 16-row corn heads. Sometimes you wonder how they can even turn the big machinery around in a small field.

Another reason that farmers are diversifying is that they want to keep the farm in the family and that means adding new income sources. Gone are the days that Mom and Dad just turned the family farm over to the kids. They now need more acres and more sources of revenue to support more than one household.

It also used to be just a fact that kids would follow in their folks’ farming footsteps. Many are leaving farms today to seek careers in other fields. New technology and challenges and more opportunities are needed to entice them to stay on the home place.

So, many farmers are at a crossroads these days. They need to diversify or die. The truth is sad but true. The good news is that there are some exciting and creative ventures out there to give new life to old acres and to bring added income to the family farm. Sometimes these new ideas can coincide with mainstream farming with only a few tweaks.

Here in southern Michigan on a drive through the country, you can see almost as many specialty crops as you can corn and soybeans. This year there are cabbages in the field west of me. In this particular area, water is hard to find so irrigating crops is challenging. Cabbage does not require as much water as other crops so it is a good fit. It takes a number of years for farmers to recoup the benefits of installing an expensive irrigation system so planting crops that will turn a profit off the land without installing irrigation is enticing.

A prime example of farmers being creative in using their acres to add to their “regular” farm income was spotlighted in a recent article in SUCCESSFUL FARMING magazine and reported by Raylene Nickel. Andrew Dixon graduated from high school in 2006 and wanted to find a way to make room for him financially on the family farm near Tullahoma, TN. At the time, the main income was from growing soybeans, corn and wheat and raising cattle.

Their search led them to the University of Tennessee’s Center for Profitable Agriculture (CPA). The brainstorming led to the family selling decorative cornstalk bundles. When Andrew was a senior in high school, they were selling 5000 bundles a year, making profit from a by-product of the corn that was already planted on their farm. Who would have thought!

Today, their farm’s agritourism business, named Granddaddy’s Farm, incorporates a 4 1/2 acre corn maze, 18 acres of pumpkins, 1,600 mums, winter squash and gourds and square straw bales along with the original cornstalk bundles. Although their season is short, from mid-September thru November 1, it supplements the farm’s revenue stream enough to employ Dixon, his brother Philip, his dad, grandfather and a full time employee. A little ingenuity can go a long way!

There are many other opportunities for farmers to supplement their farm income without re-vamping the entire farm. Here are a few:

Woody Ornamentals

Woodies are trees and shrubs whose branches are harvested and sold to florists for arrangements. They need not be planted each year and can be harvested over and over again for decades so there is no additional capital spent on them. Different varieties are ready for harvest at different seasons so, if forethought is put into the varieties planted, this venture can provide additional farm income all during the year.

Trees and Shrubs

A large number of container plants can be grown in a small area. One thousand square feet can support 1500 2-gallon potted trees or shrubs. Seedlings are usually available for around a dollar each and you only need fifty cents more for pots and soil. After two years’ worth of growth, they sell for about $15 each. That is a 750% markup. This year, and most years, that would definitely beat the price of corn and beans and it only takes a small space.

Willow Trees

Shoots from willow trees are in great demand for use in arrangements, wreaths, baskets and willow furniture. The trees are trouble-free and easy to maintain. The University of Kentucky reported that growers could harvest four to five tons of willow shoots per acre. At $7 per pound, that’s $56,000 per acre and that’s not too shabby!


Gourmet mushrooms can be referred to as “little brown nuggets of gold” because they provide a very handsome return for little investment. It only takes six weeks from planting to harvest so multiple crops can be grown throughout the year. Many restaurants will buy directly from the producer and oyster mushrooms are some of the more popular and profitable. A 100 square foot growing area can produce 2400 pounds per year and, at $12 per pound, that adds up to $28,800 for an area that is no larger than a small bedroom.


It is hard to lose a crop of garlic because it tolerates a wide range of soil and weather conditions. Some growers even call it “the mortgage lifter” because one acre can yield 15,000 pounds. At the low end of $6 per pound, that is still quite an added gross income of $90,000 per acre.


Herbs have come into the spotlight lately. Not only are they stars in the kitchen, but they are also making waves in the medicine world (something our forefathers knew before modern medicine) and in the essential oils market. They are relatively disease resistant and don’t require a lot of attention.

Specialty crops and other alternate farming out of the norm are ways to supplement income using little acreage. You don’t have to give up all of your acres to try something new. It is worth looking into although it is not for everyone. If you have to invest in expensive diversified machinery, then it probably isn’t worth it unless you are in the venture for the long haul. For others, it may be a way to ease the financial deficit in bad years.

It all boils down to your personal comfort zone. As one farmer put it, “Farmers have their up and down years. Do what you know and stay in the realm.” It is hard to step into a new venture after years of doing the same thing but it is also good to know that there are other options out there.

Images courtesy of Lois Hoffman

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