The four-year downward spiral in prices for many major agricultural commodities such as corn, soybeans, wheat, and other grains for human food, animal feed, and fuel is causing some farmers to consider alternative crops. Farmers want to make a profit from their efforts and to not have to rely on insurance or government supports to remain viable producers of agricultural goods.

What are alternative crops and farming practices that have been suggested besides raising more of the same crops, but cheaper? This article is not a full portfolio of alternative crops. It’s an introduction to alternative crops that might improve income for some farmers.

I visited with several farmers and representatives of various associations that promote alternative crops for their ideas. Not entirely tongue-in-cheek, one person I spoke with suggested that farmers should raise marijuana for medical or recreational use where permitted.

Perhaps this person didn’t realize that hemp is a crop that the Midwest Industrial Hemp Association suggests could be a financial boon for farmers who raise hemp as biomass for conversion into renewable energy. More than one biomass processor is interested in hemp because it grows prolifically, and sometimes in fields and roadway ditches where landowners like me don’t want it.

Industrial hemp differs from its cannabis relatives in its psychedelic effects and its uses. Hemp has been a source of fibers for twine, rope and other uses for centuries. There is demand for hemp fibers as a source of biomass, and potentially more profit per acre than most conventional crops, according to an Illinois producer and association officer. There are a number of websites and articles online about hemp as a crop.

Growing oats for oat milk and related products is another crop that is gaining favor. Like soybeans, almonds, and coconuts, oats have much potential as a dairy milk substitute.

Sorry dairy producers, but I’m not suggesting that people choose oat–or any substitute milk–over animal milk. I drink cows’ milk daily and I like butter and cheeses made from the milk of cows, goats, and sheep. I enjoy ice cream probably too much.
Agricultural producers have to consider what consumers desire. Production of oat milk is currently having difficulty meeting the demand for this item and its processed products.

According to its promoters, oat milk has a naturally creamy consistency, a bit of natural sweetness, fiber, low cholesterol, and offers many other nutritious benefits. An online search for “oat milk” will yield several useful websites.

Many farmers like oats for other reasons too. Oats are easy to grow and can be planted for pasture or hay with legumes and grasses. The straw from oats after harvest is highly desirable as bedding and sometimes as hay at auctions and through private contracts.

Usually farmers can obtain one or two hay crops or graze oat fields as pasture after legumes and grasses get a chance to grow. I experienced all of these benefits when I farmed and raised oats for personal use and for sale as feed and seed. They also are a quick-sprouting cover crop in most regions where grains and oilseeds are produced.

Will these crops be like Jerusalem artichokes were some 30 years ago? There was much hype about Jerusalem artichokes as a food source for diabetics and for other uses. Growers were solicited, but the effort fizzled in my region after a year. I don’t know if even the promoters made any profit. If anyone who reads this knows more, please tell me. However, to me, hemp and oats seem worthy of exploring for their profitability.

There is more certain profitability in organic crop production. The USDA National Organic Grain and Feedstuffs Report for September 12, 2018 indicates the following average FOB prices per bushel of organic grains:

• Feed grade yellow corn-$10.27
• Soybeans-$18.35
• Wheat-$9.33

Prices for food-grade commodities such as organic oats, barley, yellow and white corn, soybeans for tofu and other foods, all were higher than feed-grade items, according to other limited information that I could find and the persons with whom I consulted. It takes three years at a minimum, along with through records, careful on-farm inspections, and follow-up checks, to become certified as an organic producer of foods, whether crops, livestock, vegetables, fruits, nuts, wine, dairy, eggs/poultry, or other items.

Is the effort worth the benefits? Interested producers should check with their state Department of Agriculture and any other organizations within their states that certify and/or promote organic production before entering the organic arena, but it certainly seems like a positive venture.

Practical Farmers of Iowa is a good resource for Iowa farmers. Other states have their own resources, such as the Sustainable Farming Minnesota Association.

Organically produced food is bringing premium prices because consumer demand is increasing rapidly for certified organic food. I see an increasing number of farmers in my area and elsewhere who are trying organic farming, and for good reasons.