Niche crops are definitely not easy money

With a relatively small acreage farm, I’ve long been a believer in trying to grow higher value crops that require more effort and management. The theory is a bigger return per acre rather than more acres. Sometimes this works and sometimes it’s frustrating.

Kabuli chickpeas are a good example. After years of breeding for disease resistance and after a host of new fungicide registrations, ascochyta blight remains a huge problem.

In a year like this one with decent rainfall and also lots of days with small showers and high humidity, the disease was rampant. It’s disheartening to see so many lesions and so many aborted pods. Sask Pulse Growers is examining whether some disease complex beyond ascochyta is involved.

When the crop is 50 cents a pound, the economics favours numerous fungicide applications in an attempt to maintain yield. Now the price is around 26 cents. Most of our chickpea acres had four fungicide applications and it’s difficult to know if they were paying propositions.

Picking up another expensive fungicide at the farm input supplier this summer I mentioned to another grower that it’s tough to know when to stop. His reply was that the time to stop was before you put the seed in the drill.

Maybe the yield will be better than expected or maybe prices will improve, but chickpea profitability can certainly be hit and miss.

We also grow maple peas, which service a much smaller market niche. At one time, maple peas were grown to feed racing pigeons in Europe, a very small market indeed. Now most of the maple pea crop is sold to China where it’s consumed as a sprouted seed.

Maple pea prices have sometimes hit lofty levels. However, the crop can easily be overproduced leading to a lack of sales opportunities and disappointing prices.

CDC Acer is the old variety that most buyers still prefer. Acer is still grown, but it’s highly prone to lodging and the yields are significantly lower than with a regular yellow pea.

CDC Mosaic provided a big improvement in lodging, but the yield is about the same as Acer.

A new variety called CDC Blazer stands up well and yields comparable to yellow peas. We’ve grown it for the past couple years and been really happy with production. The knock against Blazer is that the seed is slightly larger than Acer and Mosaic. Buyers prefer the older varieties, making it tougher to find bids when you have Blazer in the bin.

All three varieties came from the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre, but different rules apply to seed sales for CDC Blazer. You can save your own seed, but you aren’t allowed to sell it to other growers.

Maple peas, like other field peas have good weed control options and they aren’t disease prone like chickpeas so you don’t have to shell out a bunch of money for fungicide. But it’s also a much smaller market than chickpeas, mainly reliant on China, which is rather scary.

As I write this, our maple pea harvest is largely completed. Yields were very good, but prices have dropped and markets are limited. The chickpeas are still maturing and yield is a big question mark. Although prices are depressed, chickpeas are still worth twice as much per pound as maple peas.

Niche crops are niche for a reason. If it was easy with assured returns everybody would be doing it.

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