Growing your own food is rewarding, but if you have been successfully gardening for several seasons, you may be wondering about selling produce or how to select the best crops to grow to make money.
Some crops may draw more attention at the local farmers market — a juicy crimson tomato or a spectacularly speckled, uniquely-shaped summer squash — but experts say that for farmers looking to make a profit, there is no silver bullet in terms of choosing what to grow.
“Tomatoes or salad greens are the first two things that come to mind if people really pressed me, but it’s certainly not a prescription to make a profit,” said Erica Frenay, online course manager at the Cornell Small Farms Program at Cornell University. “It depends on your local market, your skill set, your soil, your microclimate and your macroclimate.”
The best crops to grow to make money will depend on what consumers in your area are willing to buy, as well as the time, money and resources you have to invest.
“Some people have had good luck with tomatoes, but in some areas you can hardly give away tomatoes in August or September,” said Jason Lilley, sustainable agriculture professional at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
In Maine, for example, Lilley said it would be much harder to make money selling a late summer tomato in Portland than in areas of northern Maine where the market is less saturated with local growers.
Instead of asking what the best to grow to make money are, Frenay said that farmers looking to make a profit should reframe the question: in my situation, given everything, what is going to be the best crop for me to sell?
Step 1: Figure out what resources you have available
First, figure out what resources you are working with on your farm or homestead. For starters, the amount of land you have will limit what you can feasibly grow.
“One crop that’s really popular is sweet corn, but the amount of space that it takes in addition to the pest control, fertilizer and weeding makes it a very difficult crop to make money on,” Lilley added. “Even though everyone wants sweet corn, you really need to be on a larger scale. That’s one thing many farmers learn the hard way.”
Frenay also recommended conducting a soil test to develop an understanding of your soil’s acidity, fertility level and composition in order to determine what crops will go best on your land.
The infrastructure you have available — season extenders, for example — can also give you an advantage on the selling market.
“The only way to get a premium on tomatoes is to get them to the market before anyone else, which requires more infrastructure,” Frenay said.
“Some growers that have invested in high tunnels, which make it so you can grow earlier or later in the season, and they have had really good luck with leafy greens and salad mixes,” Lilley added. “That can be fairly profitable.”
Choosing your crops will also depend on how much of another, less tangible resource you have available: time.
“You could produce year round or really want to focus on a season,” Dill said. “Say I teach or I’m a nurse, and I want to be really busy during strawberry season and get it over with. Sometimes the season works really well for part-time farmers.”
Step 2: Conduct market research
The next step in finding a profitable crop for you is do some research to find out what people in your area are interested in buying.
“It’s about finding that consumer and whether they’re willing to pay breakeven or more for that product,” said Shannon Dill, extension educator and co-chair of the Beginning Farmer Success program at the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.
Dill said that if there is a farmers market where you are interested in selling, spend a few weekends walking around to see who your competitors are and what products are already available.
Consider partnering with a larger, more experienced farm to fill any gaps they may have in your inventory, Dill said. For example, if a farm at the market primarily produces meat, you could grow garlic, onions and mushrooms to go along with the meat, perhaps for their Community Supported Agriculture subscription boxes.
You can also visit other potential buyers, like restaurants, local co-ops and natural food stores, to see if there are any gaps they need filled.
“Go and ask them if there is anything they have a hard time finding and to have those conversations way before you plant anything,” Lilley said. “The wintertime is a great time to do that.”
Step 3: Stay abreast of trends
If you are producing in small quantities for local markets, Dill recommended picking a unique crop so you can corner the market.
“Specialty crops or niche crops, as a rule, can command more value, especially if you only have access to one or two acres,” Dill said.
Keeping abreast of food trends may also help you to fill emerging markets, especially if you are interested in selling your produce to restaurants. The Restaurant Association publishes an annual culinary trends forecast that predicts what will be hot that upcoming year.
Though it can be profitable, Dill said to use caution when committing to trendy crops.
“You can get almost too niche for your consumer,” Dill said. “The last thing you want is for people to not buy because they don’t know what to do with it. We saw some of that with baby vegetables and patty pan squash.”
Dill said you can help promote your specialty products by giving your customers samples, providing them with fact sheets on the shelf-life and proper storage for the crops or handing out recipes, but ultimately, you are gambling on your consumers’ taste.
Step 4: Determine your financial goals
Dill also said to consider your financial goals from growing.
“How much do you want to make? Is it $5,000 or is it $50,000? Are you quitting your job or supplementing your job?,” Dill said. “Work backward from there.”
Dill recommended creating an enterprise budget — an estimated income and expense related to the crop — before you start growing. She said that these budgets often do not take into account disease or pests or weather-related issues, but at least it will help you price your product.
“As people are looking at different types of crops a lot of extension services write up and have these budgets available,” Dill said. “They’re a great template. I know that the farm paperwork isn’t generally the most popular with any farmers, but being realistic with the numbers is really important.”
Step 5: Grow something you love
Regardless of what you grow, experts agree that you should enjoy growing it. Selling crops is not always immediately or immensely profitable, so it also has to be a labor of love.
“Generally speaking, we say that most people should not expect to make a huge profit the first three — sometimes, five — years of growing,” Lilley said. “There is a lot of time investment and investment of materials that goes into growing any sort of crop. It can be a very rewarding business, but you want to make sure that you’re keeping it in line with things that you really enjoy doing.”