What is a Niche?
Before looking at types of farming, lets define niche. A niche is a specialized segment of the market for a particular kind of product or service. This concept isn’t new. It’s present even in nature as the match of a species to a specific environmental condition. It describes how an organism or population responds to the distribution of resources and competitors and how it in turn alters those same factors. It would make sense that our communities would face a similar question and to stay competitive a farm or local food business would need to answer it.
How to Find a Niche Market?
In most cases, your niche will find you. For example, one farm in overly saturated area in eastern Maine, made their name by selling produce in the fall when most farms in the area shut down after Halloween. They used a fall CSA to get their name out there and change people’s perspectives on what was possible to buy or grow locally in the fall. Those customers also followed them to their new location and over a decade later they’re still successful in that niche.
Successful marketing for any types of farming starts with authenticity and a genuine connection to people you’re selling to. Most people agree that a niche starts with you and something you’re passionate about. Once you decide what you enjoy, look at your demographics and local population to find ways to reach the people you need.
The key to any marketing strategy is communicating. Visit the farmers markets in your area and see what’s already available. A common problem for farmers joining in a central location is they grow similar crops. You’ll want to set your self apart, so it’s best to focus on produce that’s not already represented at the market.
Then talk to your potential customers or target customers and what they’re interested in buying and how much they’re willing to pay.
Another approach is to grow or provide what you enjoy. You can start with a wide variety of items then over time pare down to what is most profitable for you. This will take quite a bit more trial and error and time.
A analysis of your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats is another place to start if there isn’t a niche calling your name yet. This will help you understand what you’re lacking, and eliminate hazards that would otherwise catch you unawares. Here’s a great article on how to conduct a SWOT Analysis.
How to Know if Your Niche is Profitable
Again, this will be one of those things that take a bit of time, trial and error. The perfect niche will vary based on your timeline and goals, start up costs and labor costs. While the local farmers market might be lacking a supply of fruit, and it would take several years to start an orchard that produces a steady supply. Also, some crops that we love growing might take a bit of extra labor to process, so it’s not always economical.
To start, a good way to find profitable niche is high end or gourmet grocers. Study not only the products, but the marketing such as labels, quality that appeals to a high end buyer.
Another thing to watch out is whether your potential niche is readily available. If so, you’ll want to find a way to stand out. For instance, if you really want to grow tomatoes, but there’s several farmers already providing that, then you would want to find unique varieties such as the Atomic Grape Tomato from Baker Creek, or maybe stick with heirloom varieties.
Types of Farming Ventures
Here’s the fun part, picking your niche. There’s so many different ideas out there and it’s fun to experiment to find the right one for you. I did a bit of research and found these cool types of farming ventures for inspiration!
Varieties – Heirloom or Rare
For produce that has a lot of unique varieties such as tomatoes, peppers, flowers are always a great place to start. There’s always a customer base for a fresh garden tomato or the hottest peppers in the area. You can have specials for the variety of the month or season to continually supply your customers and promote new unique flavors. There are some customers interested in only the purest or time-tested breeds so promoting this can help you stand out.
Fruit / Trees
Fruit trees take some labor upfront and won’t produce for several years in most cases, but if this a niche needed in your local food scene, then it could pay off down the line. If you weren’t able to acquire property with an established orchard, then you should start planting right away. The other great way to make trees work for you is to propagate and sell the cuttings as an additional revenue source.
Persimmon, Paw Paw Trees, Plums and Pecan trees are just a few Oklahoma native trees that would be great options for your farming venture.
People can go crazy over locally, pasture raised meat. It almost sells itself. Again, this is a niche that might not be possible right off the bat, but investing in one or two animals then slowly growing into would make it more doable. The livestock can also moonlight as a petting zoo, if you decide to go the Agritourism route.
I was surprised to learn that this would be an option on such a small scale. This might take some partnering, but you could start a micro dairy farm with about four cows and about $15,000 worth of equipment. The key to a successful micro dairy is scaling up slowly. If you try to expand too fast by buying too many extra cows or making your line of dairy products too diverse, you run the risk of collapsing your business.
Also, goat milk is quite popular and can be used in a wide variety of products such as soaps and lotions. It’s a great way to start in the business without having to have the whole creamery set up in the beginning.
Honey / Bee Products
As a farmer, other than soil, nothing is more important than pollinators. Having a niche in beekeeping would be doubly beneficial because you would access to pollinators onsite and get additional products from the hives. The buy in for beekeeping is about $500 for two hives. Once you have the basic materials, you can add hives for the just the cost of the boxes. A beekeeper can collect about $200 worth of honey per hive. You can also collect beeswax for candles, bee pollen, royal jelly and propolis. Don’t expect to get rich with beekeeping, but there are many benefits for your farm and it’s a great niche to gain a customer base.
You don’t have much time or space, microgreens could be a great way to start and scale up. Microgreens are young vegetables or baby plants that are around 10-14 days old and one to 3 inches tall. They are the small edible vegetables that restaurants use as garnishing for a dish or serve in a salad. They’re also high in nutrients, so customers will buy for health benefits. In some cases, they are sold for as high as $50 per pound to restaurants depending on the variety, they are considered a highly profitable investment.
Gourmet mushrooms such as oyster and shiitake are some of the most sought after variation of mushrooms in the market. They can be grown indoors in a controlled environment for a much larger harvest or outside as mushrooms are known to survive in the wild, under harsh conditions. It only takes an average of six weeks to grow and harvest mushrooms that are ready to be sold. Mushroom farmers harvest an average of 25 pounds of produce per square foot every year and sell them for at least $12 per pound.
As I mentioned earlier, providing produce before or after everyone else is a great way to set yourself apart and establish a customer base for the rest of the growing season.
U-Pick / Agritourism
This is always a fun one to look at. There’s all kinds of ideas from u-pick fruit orchards, corn mazes, pumpkin patches, on farm experiences, farm classes and so much more! If you’re near a big city, this could be awesome way to get people more in touch with where their food comes from and involved in their food production.
Value Added Products
This is another niche that is fun to experiment with as it has unlimited possibilities. Value added products includes everything from using herbs to make soaps and lotions, salad mixes with different lettuce varieties, jams and preserves, bread, canned goods, and frozen meals. This could require a bit of research to know what laws are in your area for kitchen and labeling requirements, but are a great way to use extra garden produce or set your products apart in the market place.
As you can see there are so many types of farming and the possibilities are endless! Sometimes our niche is obvious, but others we just have to experience, talk to customers or local farmers to see what the needs are. Whether you’re just starting out, sell in a small market or have lifetimes of experience and live in an overly saturated market, having a niche for your farm is an important step! If you’ve established your niche, please share your story in the comments below!
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