UT Extension Center for Profitable Agriculture Project Focuses on Specialty Crop Production

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From Cut Flowers to Microgreens, Six Niche Crops Being Studied

COLUMBIA, Tenn. – A multi-year project led by the University of Tennessee Extension Center for Profitable Agriculture (CPA) is helping Tennesseans make informed decisions about producing and marketing specialty crops. The project, “Chronicling Tennessee’s Specialty Crop Landscape,” studies Tennessee producers who grow and market any of six specialty crops: cut flowers, persimmons, blueberries, elderberries, garlic or microgreens.

As opposed to row crops like corn and soybeans, USDA defines specialty crops as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruit, and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture. Specialty crops make up a growing segment of Tennessee’s agricultural production, as many producers are looking to diversify their operations and income streams. Also, the state’s climate and topography support a variety of production conditions.

With the spectrum of possible specialty crops in mind, Rob Holland, director of the CPA, and a team of Extension specialists with the UT Institute of Agriculture first had to limit the size of the study. They surveyed growers and UT Extension specialists across Tennessee to generate a list of approximately 50 specialty crops. Project collaborators then worked diligently to narrow the 50-crop list to six crops representative of specialty crop production in Tennessee.

Carrie Castille, UTIA senior vice chancellor and senior vice president, is pleased that the CPA is taking a closer look at specialty crop production. “Earlier this month UTIA researchers and Extension specialists contributed to an annual report to the Governor detailing the contribution that the agricultural and natural resources industry makes to the state’s economy: approximately $4.4 billion in cash receipts. Specialty crops make up a growing segment of that economy,” she said.

Armed with the list of six specialty crops, team members then visited and interviewed Tennessee growers and used the information gathered to design education and outreach for other producers in Tennessee. The project includes a series of crop profiles that highlight lessons learned from each grower.

The first profile, which will be used in various upcoming educational workshops, features Karen Hightower. She grows cut flowers at K&K Farms in Greene County. Hightower also sells flowers and vegetables at her farm and the local farmers market. “I don’t think I would sell all my flowers if I didn’t have vegetables,” she says in the profile. Her insight emphasizes the importance of marketing, a component of success for all six crops. “Some common marketing themes that emerged across crops are the use of social media and word-of-mouth promotions, growing and providing what consumers want, and making purchases convenient for buyers,” said Holland.

The project’s educational outreach ramps up in January 2023, with cut flower workshops in Lebanon, Jackson and Maryville that will feature CPA experts. The workshops also include panel discussions featuring local farmers. “Farmers learn from other farmers,” said Holland. “This project shares specialty crop experiences, successes and challenges that are local.” Future workshops and publications will feature lessons learned about blueberries, elderberries, garlic, microgreens and persimmons.

For more information about the project workshops and publications, contact Rob Holland at the Center for Profitable Agriculture in Columbia at 931-486-2777, or visit the website https://cpa.tennessee.edu.  In cooperation with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the project is funded in part by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant. “We appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with TDA and USDA on this project,” Holland said.

Through its land-grant mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions. utia.tennessee.edu.

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