Increasing fruit and vegetable production

Study sheds light on how produce growers can help double the value of Missouri agriculture

With lower initial investments and higher returns, fruit and vegetable production could play a big role in doubling the state’s agricultural economy by 2030, according to a study by University of Missouri researchers.

“Compared to row crops, you don’t have to have as many acres of fruit and vegetables to generate a significant return,” said John Kruse, associate research professor in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “A farmer we interviewed for a recent study produced 2 acres of specialty crops. The way he had his operation constructed, he was generating between $200,000 and $300,000 a year on just those 2 acres.”

From a cost of production perspective, Kruse said, Missouri’s fruit and vegetable production is “pretty competitive” when stacked up against states such as California, Washington or Florida. This is partly due to the availability of resources such as water and lower land prices.

The study, The Economic Viability of Expanding Fresh and Processed Fruit and Vegetable Production in Missouri, is by Kruse and Peter Zimmel, director of operations and program leader with the MU Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute.

When completing the study, Kruse and Zimmel noted fruit and vegetable producers were eager to expand. But it was a question of how.

“It was shocking to see the overwhelming response from the growers we interviewed,” Kruse said. “We interviewed over 50 growers across the state, and they said, ‘Yes, we’d like to expand. But our problem is we don’t know how to go to the next market level.’”

To achieve higher volumes, Kruse says, producers need to expand the base of selling to distributors, institutional markets or grocery stores in urban areas.

This solution can be adapted to Missouri producers of all sizes, backgrounds and cultural differences, he says.

During their research, Kruse and Zimmel discovered a new opportunity for growth with Mennonite and Amish producers, who often notice two barriers to expansion: the need to transport products a long distance and to refrigerate their products.

“When visiting some of the Amish and Mennonite communities in Missouri, we noticed clusters of producers throughout the state that together could support a significant amount of production,” Kruse said. “By bringing their products to a central processing facility that cuts, washes, packages and then ships the volumes to the institutional markets like schools, hospitals, prisons, etc., you’re giving them access to a much larger volume potential of sales for their products.”

In addition, nearly all interviewees said fruit and vegetable production could be a great niche for beginning farmers. Most beginning farmers juggle full-time jobs off the farm to sustain their finances, Kruse explained. The bonus of an operation focused on specialty crops, fruits or vegetables is that local farmers markets are typically held on Saturdays, outside normal work hours.

“As you learn how you’re going to grow more and market more, you can phase out that off-farm job and make fruit and vegetable production your full-time job,” Kruse said.

Kruse and Zimmel’s data helps MU Extension specialists better understand the issues Missourians are facing. This, in turn, translates into specialists offering timely one-on-one assistance and courses, Kruse said.

“If you go out to Florida and look at Sunkist or Florida’s Natural, they’ve got people who are just compliance officers,” Kruse said. “Not every farmer can afford to do that, so that’s where MU Extension can come in to explain potential regulatory barriers and how one might overcome them. Additionally, horticultural extension specialists offer courses on how to grow the products, food safety precautions, pests and diseases and more. All of those topics support the basic production infrastructure to take that producer to the next level.”

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