GOSHEN, Ind. — When I was young, I went to EPCOT at Disney with my family, and I clearly remember the display called The Land. As typical with the Disney experience, it was well designed to spark your imagination with ways to produce food that seemed very modern and futuristic.
Fifty years later, as an Extension Educator, I look at things a bit differently. Some might say my view point is too critical, but if you cannot make a profit, you aren’t going to produce food very long, and you can fall into a huge financial hole. Last I heard, profit is a good thing.
A prime example: hydroponic crops. I have witnessed quite a few hydroponic operations open, run for a few years, and then close after a substantial investment. Often the parts are sold to someone else for pennies on the dollar after the business closes. The operator will try to market the produce (usually tomatoes or lettuce), as something a little special, but in the end, a sticker that touts the food as hydroponically grown doesn’t convince the thrifty consumer that it is worth an extra 50 cents a pound. It’s the energy costs like water pumps, lights and heat that usually drain the wallet.
Do not read me wrong. Innovation is absolutely imperative. We always need to be looking for better and cheaper ways to grow our food. However, we have to look at these ideas through the lens of making it work financially. The easy part is to grow the plants or livestock.
People really get excited about some of these ideas. A few years ago, hundreds of people attended workshops on growing hops. They had a dream of raising hops for the craft beer market. A considerable number went on to install the plants, with substantial infrastructure investment to grow hops. But today, few people are still involved in the venture. The idea was really over hyped.
For some crops, the issue becomes flooding of the market. I once toured a farm that supplied the Chicago market with some specialty Chinese vegetables. The gentleman said that he and one other grower had done well in the market, until a third grower stepped in. The resulting oversupply significantly dropped the market prices, until after a few years, the newcomer dropped out of the market. Everyone but the consumers were hurting. With specialty products, it may take just one extra producer to throw the market into chaos.
It is a repeating cycle. Think of all the crops and livestock “big, new ideas” that have come and gone over the years in the last 50 years: rex rabbits, mink, artichoke, crambe, ostrich and emus are just a few of the examples. It’s a pretty long list.
It is important to look at all new ideas in food production with a critical eye well before adoption. Pay particular attention to the costs, whether there is an existing market, or if the market would need to be developed. If you have to educate people to eat something, it is often a hard sell.
Also consider the potential for risk. There is a lot of interest right now in raising crops in vertical indoor settings, using LED lights and circulating water and heating the air around the plants. With energy costs rising, one has to be concerned these businesses will find it hard to compete with traditional soil-raised crops grown without the added cost of circulation pumps, heat bills and electric lights. Energy costs are also a big risk for indoor aquaculture ventures that require heat and water pumps.
In most cases, the issue is not if you can grow the product. The real issue is if you can grow it and market it profitably. It’s best to start out on a small scale before jumping in whole hog, too.
— Jeff Burbrink, Extension Educator, Purdue Extension Elkhart County