Let’s Raise A Glass To Florida’s New Batch Of Alternative Crop Prospects [Opinion]

Whenever adversity strikes, an opportunity almost always reveals itself in some shape or form. You just need to know where to look. Given the current state of citrus in Florida, any lifeline to get the industry’s head above water would be much appreciated about right now. So, while the news has been less than sunny on the citrus side of things, thoughts turn to other viable options for those wishing to stay in the farming sector.

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Alternative/niche crops can be a grower’s savior in time of need, a jump-start for a new farm looking to make a mark, or a spark for an established operation seeking to expand its product portfolio. There are several different options out there. So, what to pick?

Three’s Company

For a long time, blueberries were considered an alternative crop in Florida. Times have changed as the “little blue dynamos” have gone mainstream. Roughly 5,000 acres (and counting) are in production around the state today.

Peaches are another crop technically on the alternative crop list. This endeavor is decades behind where blueberries are now. But, the track seems similar. Acres are going in and UF/IFAS researchers are busy developing varieties requiring less chill hours.

During the 2015 Florida Ag Expo, UF/IFAS professor Zhanao Deng led a presentation on three other alternative crop considerations: pomegranates, blackberries, and hops. While each offers potential, they also come with possible pitfalls.

Recently, Florida Grower® magazine conducted an informal poll of its Twitter followers asking: What alternative crop has the most potential for Florida growers? Only 14% of respondents chose pomegranates and 43% selected the more logical choice of blackberries. Somewhat surprising was the not-so-logical choice of hops tied for the lead.

Cheers To That

The craft beer industry is a burgeoning force in the Sunshine State. According to Simon Bollin, agribusiness development manager with the Hillsborough County Economic Development Department, the number of craft beer breweries in the state jumped from 66 in 2013 up to more than 180 in 2015.
The economic impact alone from craft beer production and sales in Florida is north of $2 billion.

Given the popularity of the buy, eat, and drink local movement, the appeal of locally sourced hops would be a savvy business move for those looking to tap in. The potential (on paper) is too great to pass up. The prospect is so attractive that scientists at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center are in the midst of a multiyear study to establish a hops production system for Florida growers. In the process, they will be evaluating 10 to 30 varieties of hops, hoping to determine the feasibility of production in Florida.

I know there are many of you are hoping for positive results of this study as well as others. I am, too. New challenges and opportunities are needed to make us stronger. With that, it is our duty to explore these possibilities. The alternative is not an option.