Hemp crop insurance?

One of the biggest challenges for producers in emerging crop markets is the current lack of the same type of safety net that many row crop farmers have access to. I am referring, of course, to crop insurance.

Take industrial hemp. While some are producing the crop under cover in a greenhouse or a controlled environment structure (think warehouse), the vast majority of commercial scale hemp production is taking place outside in the field, or at the very least young plants are starting in hoop houses before transfer to a field or block.

Once those expensive little investments (hemp genetics can range between $2 to $4 per seed, although cloning is a way to alleviate some of these costs) are out of the hoop house and in the field, anything is possible.

Traversing the Oklahoma countryside as part of a hemp and legal cannabis mini circuit for our Horticulture Group here at Meister Media Worldwide, we heard the horror stories of a 500-year flood that rolled through southeast Oklahoma back in June, nearly decimating a grower’s entire 2019 hemp crop.

In total, 35,000 acres in the area were affected by the flood, with 2,000 completely wiped out. Not to mention livestock and other property losses in the area.

Corn and soybean growers in the area were obviously protected. The local hemp guys?

Not so much.

The grower, a longtime sod farmer who spent 2019 converting around 400 acres over to hemp, had no option to file for crop insurance. He was forced to salvage what he could, re-potting close to a half million plants, and hope for better results next year.

Ah, but such is farming, right?

There’s good news on the horizon, however.

USDA’s Risk Management Agency announced in late August that insurance would be made available to any hemp farmers participating in a state-sponsored research pilot program.

The Whole-Farm Revenue Protection Program will administer the 2020 crop year coverage, the same program used by many specialty crop and organic certified growers.

Add-in the fact that USDA is still drafting the overall federal hemp regulations, which we should have a look at sometime in late 2019, and it goes to reason that a lot more specialty crop producers will be looking at adding this emerging crop in the near future.

Matthew J. Grassi is the Technology Editor for Greenhouse Grower and American Vegetable Grower

Where you can sell leftover crops

The U.S. wastes an estimated 40 percent of its food, according to a study (Gunders et al., 2017). And that figure doesn’t include on-farm food losses. Estimates like this have led to movement to reverse the trend. People across the supply chain are finding ways to measure food waste, understand what causes the waste, and devising waste-prevention strategies.

To date, a majority of food-waste studies focus on post-consumer waste. To a lesser extent, they study waste in food distribution and retail settings.

Very little attention has been given to understanding food loss at the farm level.

What About On-Farm Waste?

It’s important to measure how much food never leaves the field — and its value. We’ve written an article on why that’s important and how to measure what’s left behind after harvest, so we will move on to the obvious next step. If you have edible or marketable leftover crops, where do you find buyers? And will those buyers pay you enough to make scheduling another harvest worth it?

Let’s explore the costs and potential revenue that you could generate from selling unharvested produce. We’ll estimate the value of food loss on a per acre basis.

To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first to offer estimates of monetized values of food loss based on post-harvest field data.

Refresher on Sorting Crop into Market Groups

Before you can understand what prices you can expect for after market crops, you’ll need to understand the quality of what’s left in the field. We covered this area thoroughly in our earlier article.

But, it’s probably worth revisiting the section about the categories we sorted the test plot crops into. After you harvest a test plot, sort the crop into three categories. Growers use a range of terms to refer to crops left in the field, such as surplus, ugly, culls, or seconds. For measurement purposes, it is helpful to categorize volume using categories that align with available markets. For example, we found these categories useful:

Marketable: First- and second-tier product that could be sold on the wholesale market

Edible: Out-of-spec product that could be sold for processing

Inedible: Cannot be sold

You base your decision to continue the harvest — to return to a field to harvest what otherwise will be “lost” — on the marginal cost and benefit of harvesting and packing your crop given its marketing opportunities. Let’s take a look at how you can learn if the prices will make another full harvest worthwhile.

We assume inedible produce to have zero value, and so we don’t include it as a source of revenue in our study.

Who Buys Lower Grade Produce?

Conventional sales channels into retail and food service markets typically require that products meet high aesthetic and quality standards. But a small but growing number of alternative markets exist for lower-grade products, such as “ugly produce” programs at grocery retailers and subscription box home delivery programs.

Food banks are another potential market for lower-quality produce. They will pay you a low price for your crop, but they may also offer tax deductions for charitable donations. In some cases, they will compensate growers for the pick and pack out costs of product. While these alternative channels do mitigate on farm food loss, it is not clear whether these prices are sufficient to offset harvest and packing costs.

Monetizing On-Farm Produce Loss

A farmer can justify returning to the field to harvest additional product when there is a financial incentive to do so. Using estimates of the mean amount of product left unharvested (reported in Johnson et al., 2018b), we generate estimates of the profit or loss that a farmer would incur by harvesting and selling this product.

We consider four scenarios, which reflect differences in sales price and packing requirements of different types of buyers.

Scenario 1. “Ugly produce” markets, such as produce-box programs or retail. These typically pay farmers 50 percent of the value of USDA No. 1 grade products.

Scenario 2. Food banks. We found crop sales to average about 7 cents per pound. These sales prices reflect those received by farms in the study region.

Scenario 3. Conventional and ugly produce market combo. You’re able to sell marketable produce (USDA No. 1 grade products) at 100 percent of the value. Meanwhile, you sell the edible portion of the harvest to ugly produce channels at 50 percent of the value.

Scenario 4. Conventional and food bank market combo.  You’re able to sell marketable produce (USDA No. 1 grade products) at 100 percent of the value. Meanwhile, you sell the edible portion of the harvest to a food bank at 7 cents/lb.

Important Details You’ll Need to Consider

There are a few things we should mention at this point. Although we calculate revenue based on only marketable and edible produce, our estimated harvest costs include on all crops, including inedible.

This approach accounts for the loss of harvest labor efficiency later in the season due to (potentially) large volumes of inedible product. We include packing labor only for grading and packing that occurs in the packing house and is assumed to vary by the total marketable plus edible volume. That’s because growers can ascertain these labor needs by the harvested volume and adjust accordingly.

Marketable product is packed in cartons and edible “ugly produce” product is packed in wooden bins. Field pack into wooden bins for sales to the food bank market does not include an additional packing labor cost, as food bank staff or volunteers typically sort this product when packing it into smaller volumes for distribution. The cost of wooden bins is included in the food bank estimates (Scenarios 2 and 4), but it is worth noting that food banks increasingly supply plastic bins for growers to use.

Why This Study Can Differ in Other Regions

A few caveats of this analysis are worth highlighting.

First, it is important to note that these field losses do not include product that is sorted out in the packing house (culls). As such, this analysis reflects the potential profitability of returning to the field for an additional harvest rather than the incentive to sell or donate product that has already been harvested. Secondly, these estimates reflect the marketing opportunities and costs available in the study region (North Carolina) and may not apply in other locations.

For example, North Carolina has a large sweet potato processing sector, and local processing is available for some bell pepper growers. This approach further assumes that the labor needed for the additional harvest is available and can be hired at the same wage rates as during the regular harvest period.

Thirdly, this analysis implicitly assumed that there is a buyer for the recovered volume of produce and that the increased market supply would not impact market price. These volume and value estimates thus offer insight into the extent of loss for the examined crops in North Carolina but would require reconsideration of several assumptions to be relevant in other settings.

Editor’s note: This article summarizes a portion of Dunning and Johnson’s work on after-harvest crops. You can read the full study on the North Carolina State University site.  

Rebecca Dunning, Ph.D., research assistant professor, Department of Horticultural Sciences, North Carolina State University

New and exisitng blueberry varieties

The University of Florida (UF) blueberry breeding program releases cultivars that can provide Florida producers an edge in the market. The program’s webpage has details of yield, timing, concentration, and fruit quality for most cultivars for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Here we will review the performance of known and recent releases, as well as introduce a new cultivar (‘Colossus’) that will be released this year.

The Big Boy

The cultivar ‘Colossus’ is the newest (2019) release from UF. In advanced selection trials, it has been later blooming with a short bloom to ripening period. It appears to perform better with low doses of hydrogen cyanamide and has performed well in North-Central and Central Florida trial sites. Fruit is very large to jumbo, very firm, and stores very well. Color is complete, with a small scar and good natural wax bloom.

During the 2019 season in Central Florida, ‘Colossus’ had 50 percent bloom by the end of January and 50 percent ripe fruit by the last week in March. The best fruit is obtained by allowing it to hang on the bush until the preferred sweet and acid balance is achieved. This cultivar is being recommended for Central and North-Central Florida under the deciduous system.

Optimus for Mechanical

Cultivars ‘Magnus,’ ‘Wayne’ and ‘Optimus’ were 2017 UF releases. While more time is needed to complete a good assessment of these cultivars, we have observed a quick trend with ‘Optimus.’ It was released to specifically target machine harvesting. Its adoption has been rapid because it produces high yields with good timing for the Florida market window, with natural early leafing and firm, medium-sized, high-quality berries. It has shown good production across Florida under both deciduous and evergreen production systems and has performed well using machine harvesting.

Going Evergreen

In 2015, the UF blueberry breeding program released three cultivars targeting the evergreen production system used in Central and South-Central Florida. These cultivars are ‘Arcadia,’ ‘Avanti’, and ‘Endura.’ Here’s what we have been observing in terms of their performance the past few years.

Under the evergreen system, plants do not go dormant and retain their leaves through the fall and winter to support the next season’s early fruit harvest. ‘Arcadia’ is a very vigorous plant with very high yields, very low chilling requirements, and foliage that is tolerant of many leaf diseases. Tolerance of leaf disease is an important factor as the plant is producing fruit with the prior year’s leaves instead of the current year leaves like in the deciduous system.

This cultivar, if planted at the right time and maintained well, can have good fruit production in the first year after planting. In 2019 in South-Central Florida, it reached 50% bloom the last week in January, with 50 percent blue fruit the second week of April. However, the yield is not as concentrated as other cultivars. ‘Arcadia’ also has shown susceptibility to bacterial wilt (Ralstonia solanacearum), but the level of severity varies significantly from farm to farm.

‘Avanti’ can be grown in Central and some parts of North-Central Florida in a deciduous system, but with lower performance, so it is only recommended for the evergreen system. It has very low chilling requirements, above average yield potential, and early fruit maturity.

During the 2019 season in South-Central Florida, it achieved 50 percent bloom the last week of January, and had a 50 percent blue fruit crop by the second week in April. ‘Avanti’ has shown some susceptibility to spider mites and algal stem blotch, which will require good control programs. The fruit is very sweet and pleasant to eat.

‘Endura’ is a mid- to late-maturing variety in the evergreen production system. It can perform well under both evergreen and deciduous production systems. However, its harvest period can be later than other cultivars and very long under the evergreen system. In South-Central Florida in 2019, it reached 50 percent bloom the second week of February, and 50 percent blue fruit the last week of April.

Deciduous Duty

The cultivars ‘Keecrisp’ and ‘Patrecia’ were released by UF in 2016 for the deciduous system in North-Central Florida. ‘Keecrisp’ requires more chilling hours than we have experienced in the last few years, and thus is no longer recommended. ‘Patrecia’ is late blooming and early ripening and fits well in the Florida market window; however, it must be treated with hydrogen cyanamide in order to achieve good results. The fruit is large and firm, but the scar and tearing of the fruit could be a problem if not handled carefully. The plant canopy is sparse and lets lots of light into the interior of the bush.

Older Selections

Other cultivars still used and recommended for replanting in Central and South-Central Florida are ‘Chickadee’ and ‘Kestrel.’ Although their yield is not as high as newer cultivars, some producers are still making profits with them. ‘Emerald’ has been a pillar for the Florida blueberry industry. It is still a preferred cultivar by many producers in the central part of the state with high yields, although it can be mid-to-late season. ‘Farthing’ is a high-yielding cultivar that works best with hydrogen cyanamide and is still recommended for North-Central Florida.

While several producers still have cultivars such as ‘Jewel’ and ‘Springhigh,’ we no longer recommend them for planting or re-planting because fruit firmness and quality are not up to today’s market standards. Similar, while some producers have been very successful with the cultivar ‘Meadowlark,’ we no longer recommend it since its performance has been very erratic over the last few years due to different reasons.

Patricio Munoz is a blueberry plant breeder for UF/IFAS

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