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Many beginning or new commercial vegetable growers are faced with the dilemma of what to grow or how to start a produce farming venture. There are several pitfalls to avoid and some sound advice for new growers.

First, start small. It is much easier to learn on a half-acre than it is to try to plant five acres right off the bat. Starting small means that your mistakes will also be small and the potential for growth is more open ended. Starting small also gives you a chance to test your local marketing opportunities and see what type of demand is already there. Chances are, what you thought would sell like hotcakes is what everyone else planted that year also.

Try new things. If you live close to a large urban area, there might be some demand for Asian, Central American or Caribbean produce. You might want to try some bok choy for instance which is an Asian vegetable that can be grown along with the traditional cool season vegetable such as collards, greens or cabbage.

Another trick to being a successful commercial vegetable producer is to try and have things when nobody else has them. For instance, okra is a warm season crop that is always in demand at farmers markets. The problem is that everybody else grows okra and it all comes in at the same time. Why not start your seed in a greenhouse in February, transplant it onto black plastic mulch with irrigation in March and use row covers to protect it from any late freezes. If you select a hybrid okra with a very early maturity date, you can have okra 3-4 weeks before anyone else has it and you can name your price for it. Once everyone else's okra starts coming in, you can cut yours down and plant a late crop of cantaloupes or squash.

Make sure your potential farm has enough room to rotate crops. Many growers make the mistake that when they find something that they are good at, they tend to devote the entire farm to one or two things. This is dangerous as weed, insect and disease problems tend to be compounded is such a scheme. A very common disease of turnip greens can be controlled simply by moving to a new spot every two years or so.

Once you start production and selling, you will be asked if you grow other things. In other words, if someone is buying tomatoes from you, they may want to also buy your lettuce but not your sweetcorn. In this business, some doors open to new growers and some doors close. You want to make certain that you go through the open doors and not try to keep going through the doors that close.

"Well, I like growing tomatoes," you might say. That isn't a problem as long as you can sell them. It does get to be a problem if you can't sell them. As one sage once said, "You can't make any money growing produce. You only make money when you sell it!"

Use the latest research based information you can get your hands on. This is where the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station comes in. The research is done on the experiment stations and is passed on to you via the Extension service through timely information bulletins, publications, regional production meetings, field days, farm visits and office consultations. There is no substitute for knowledge and the more you have the better edge you have on your competition.

Competition is a good thing by the way. The more people who are selling the same things you are selling, the more that makes you need to be a better farmer and business person. Farmers markets are good examples of this and it makes you want to do something just a little bit different from the next fellow.

Also, you can't do business out of an empty wagon. Make sure that your displays are always full and neat. The more you have on the shelf, the more you can sell.

Doug Chapman
Regional Ext. Agent–Commercial Hort.


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