It’s a fact that, as a
species, we bore easily. Curious beings are we, always looking
for the innovative and new. This is especially true of our food.
Although we may not always follow fashion fads or jump right in to
learn a new technology, we’re far more adventurous with trying a new
ice cream or exotic fruit. There’s less commitment, usually less
money involved and little risk. Food doesn’t intimidate as much
as squeezing into a fuchsia body-sock or figuring out complicated
gadgets. New or unusual foods promise a unique sensory
experience; and if it proves to be delightful, we’re likely to share it
with friends and family. It doesn’t hurt if the food is also
good for us.
grocers, and food marketers are all very well aware of this. They
spend a lot of time and money feeding our craving for novelty.
Although some innovations fall as flat as a peppermint soufflé
(remember green ketchup, garlic ice cream, or olestra?), our produce
shelves are burgeoning with fruits and veggies that wouldn’t be
recognized just a few years ago. Portobello mushrooms weren’t
common until the ‘90’s, and neither were daikon radishes, fiddleheads,
tomatillos, Jamaican yams, or carrots in any other color but orange.
Producers can generally get a premium price for new offerings.
In our region, ground cherries—that common but largely forgotten
roadside plant our grandparents foraged for free—now go for $3.50 a
using these new crops generate even more purchasing incentive.
Folks may be a little hesitant to buy something if they don’t know how
to cook or eat it. They may not know what to do with Saskatoon
berries, but they sure as heck know what to do with Saskatoon Berry
Jam. Seaweed might be a little intimidating to some, but they
wouldn’t hesitate to scarf down a plate of sushi.
Produce aisles sometimes
offer recipe cards for shoppers beside the produce they want to sell.
Presenting a photo of a tempting dish entices buyers and eases any
hesitation to try it. Once a new food reaches a tipping point of
general acceptance the big manufacturers jump on the bandwagon.
They may not present it in a healthy or even truthful manner, but
their promotion solidifies the food as a cultural norm and is a
benefit to small producers who no longer have to educate their buyers.
But until there is an established demand, there is risk.
biggest challenge to growers taking a new path is matching up your
current resources to what you want to try, understanding your
potential market, and your tolerance for risk. If possible it’s
best to launch your new venture without digging too deeply into your
own savings. That said, you need to be careful about going into
debt as well. How to resolve this conundrum? Begin with
what you know or are producing already. This means you already
have some expertise and an established market that may be more likely
to accept new offerings. The greater the cash outlay needed for
your product, the truer this is.
For instance, let’s say
you’ve fallen in love with Water Buffaloes. Don’t laugh.
Water buffalo milk is rich, creamy, and is the very best for making
mozzarella cheese. According to the Archer family who run
Fairburn Farms on Vancouver Island, buffalo milk has fifty-eight
percent more calcium than cow’s milk, forty percent more protein,
forty-three percent less cholesterol, and is a rich source of iron,
phosphorus, vitamin A and protein. Seventeen percent of the
world’s milk comes from the water buffalo. It’s easier to digest
than cow’s milk and is good for many people who are lactose sensitive.
But establishing a water-buffalo herd is not for the novice. During the Mad Cow Disease
scare of the 1990’s, all ruminants purchased from Denmark were ordered
destroyed and their carcasses tested. Although this disease has
never been found in water buffalo, the Archers lost their entire herd
of nineteen Danish-born animals. They were in debt and without
income, but with a few Canadian-born calves and never-say-die
determination they rebuilt their herd and began producing milk and
Innovation on this scale
is not for the timid. It’s a better option if you already have
the land, or a dairy, and a marketing outlet (Fairburn sells all their
milk to local artisans, Natural Pastures Cheese Company). But the
opportunity for growth can make the risk worthwhile. If you
search for "water buffalo yogurt" online, you’ll find several North
American farms producing it. The product fits well with
America’s trend toward buying healthier, locally-produced, organic
meats and dairy.
But what about we
smaller homesteaders who want to try growing something new?
Luckily there are hundreds of options out there, and small local
and/or organic farmers are already well-equipped to meet the needs of
niche markets. The trick is to match up what you already have to
the opportunities that exist. The following is a four-step
process to find your perfect fit.
Open your minds and
imaginations and get set for an adventure. Gather up paper,
pencils, and some intelligent, optimistic people and write down some
ideas. Anything goes. No holds barred! Don’t invite
any nay-sayers to the table. This is the time for creativity to
flow, and nothing dampens that process as well as someone exercising
"caution". Make a rule: no negativity. So what if you live
in Arizona and you imagine growing scented purple rice. Put it
out there and worry about the practicality of irrigated rice paddies
in the desert later. Sometimes a great idea overwhelms the
obstacles, so don’t put the obstacles first. This is where the
creative types can go wild. Give them free reign.
Step Two: Qualify
After you have a couple
of hundred wonderful ideas, go get a coffee and take a break.
When you return to the table, it’s time to put those erasers to work.
First, remove anything that doesn’t absolutely excite you. Then
make another list, this time of resources. How much time can you
devote to developing something new? What are you currently
growing? How do you market your output now? Do you have
any excess funds for your new venture? What about acreage, soil
type, water resources, climate, local pests, etc.? Even if you
don’t have your land yet, don’t skip this step. You probably have
a good idea of where you plan to homestead and what you’d like to
grow. This is where the bean-counters in the group can go to town.
Be as detailed and realistic as possible about your assets.
Step Three: Kill Your
You now have two lists.
One with innovative ideas, another with realistic assets. Now is
the time to match them up. Now is the time to kill your
darlings. If you live in a hollow in Arizona with an underground
aquifer that seeps out to support rice, then keep your purple rice
idea. Otherwise put it on the back burner for now. If you
worry about diseases that transfer from ranched wildlife to their wild
cousins, then an elk farm may not be for you. If you don’t have
the funds to build a fish farm or the acreage to support water buffalo,
toss those ideas into the bin. Pare down your list relentlessly.
If it helps, don’t imagine these ideas are gone for good. File
them for later assessment. Now is the time to listen to the
cautious types, the practical ones who’ve been wriggling in their
seats until now.
Step Four: Pick
one and go for it
What you will end up
with after all of this is a list of qualified options. This list
is gold. If you’ve done this right you can fly with whatever is
left. Give yourself enough time to learn and create the best
quality before you head to market though. This is especially
true of edibles you plan to sell to specialty customers like chefs.
Consistency, reliability, and reputation are essential in niche
The following are a few
innovations that have succeeded. Let them inspire you!
There’s an old joke
about a little snail who painted a big "S" on his car. When
asked, he said it was because he wanted people to look at him as he
passed and say, "Hey, look at that big S-car go." Cute, but in
fact the name "escargot" is a French moniker for any kind of snail.
The Helix polmatia is the large, white-bodied snail most commonly
associated with French cuisine, but its cousin, Helix aspersa also
makes great escargot. This is the smaller, grey-bodied critter
that decimates gardens across North America. Raising these as
food is a kind of poetic justice.
Demand for escargot is far greater than local supply, with most chefs
purchasing tinned snails imported from France. Locally grown
escargot has good growth potential as it offers better value and often
better quality for restaurant buyers. You can start small with
low cash outlay. Mary Stewart is a successful snail rancher in
California who supplies top chefs all over the country.
According to NY Times writer, Jeff Gordinier, who calls her "The Snail
Wrangler", Mary’s snails are in high demand because she makes the
effort to cultivate the best and thoroughly clean them of grit before
market. Mary advises potential snail-farmers to take time to
learn the art of heliculture before approaching chefs who are very