A matter of taste: Following the flavor to find niche opportunities

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As we emerge from the pandemic, specialty crops are having their day in the spotlight. Here are some thoughts on where that segment of horticulture is headed.

March 16, 2022

Greenhouse specialty crops, like ginger, are trending up, and that momentum is not expected to slow down anytime soon.
© jack77 | adobestock

In a marketspace that can often feel like it’s getting more crowded, how can you make your offerings stand out from the crowd? While popular and profitable crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and lettuces still reign supreme for most greenhouse produce growers, it’s often specialty niche crops that help you grab consumer attention or capture new market share.

Modern food culture is always demanding new foods, new flavors and fresher ingredients. Specialty niche crops can be especially profitable for small growers who need to maximize growing space. But which crops should you grow?

Digging into current or forecasted food and flavor trends is always a fruitful exercise when evaluating your future production offerings. A major theme I see throughout current publications on food and lifestyle trends right now is a boomerang away from the traditional comfort food culture pervasive during the pandemic, back to plant-based, often vegetarian, fresh healthy choices.

That means veggies and herbs, and lots of them. Specifically, organically grown foods that boost immunity, which shouldn’t be any surprise, given what we’ve all experienced over the last couple of years.

Travel through taste

Now, that’s not to say that consumers aren’t still looking for comfort foods — they definitely are. But many of us are working to substitute good flavor for filling to get our comfort fix. Unable to travel, consumers have sought out more exotic experiences through experimentation with global flavors. Exotic spices are seeing a big boost in preference amongst consumers in 2022. While hot and spicy flavors have dominated the market over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself recently taking a deeper dive into Mediterranean herbs and spices, which lean heavily on combinations of cumin, coriander, cinnamon and ginger in combination with tomato and other fruits. Think Moroccan flavors, specifically.

Immunity boosting flavors

Combine our desire to refocus on health and wellness, specifically immunity, with flavor and you of course end up at citrus. Citrus flavors, both standard and exotic, appear to be taking center stage in 2022. Demand for ginger is also expected to rise, as is also the case for elderflower. While citrus and elderflower aren’t exactly ideal greenhouse crops, you can absolutely make a great go of it with ginger under glass.

I’ve also noticed an uptick in offerings of specialty herbal teas specifically formulated for boosting immunity. So along with ginger, there are other specialty herbs associated with health and wellness that could fit nicely in your production calendar as a niche specialty crop.

Growing mushrooms requires investments in the appropriate produciton equipment, but the niche crop has great earning potential.
© nidvoray | adobestock

Less waste, more time

Consumers are also looking for easy meal prep with reduced waste. As the marketplace has driven up prices of food, everyone wants to get the absolute most out of their fresh produce.

Additionally, with the intense pandemic pressures everyone has been under, minimizing time and energy spent on cooking healthy food is a top priority. We want to refocus on our health, but we’ve had a lot on our plates … literally and figuratively. To rebalance and refocus on my own health, I even re-upped a pre-prepped ingredients meal service a few weeks ago. While I enjoy cooking (and growing food), I want the meal planning done for me right now, I want it healthy and fresh, and I don’t want to waste a single green bean in the process. Small retail-ready bundles and packaging for both grocery and meal delivery services are necessary.

Restaurants, which were forced to adapt to the pandemic in some of the most extreme ways, are also drastically changing their offerings to stretch their food and financial resources. These changes have manifested in severely smaller menus that feature more unusual and creative approaches to both meat and produce combinations. As a result, you may hear the term “food fusion” thrown around in a new way. Anything to stretch a dollar and capture customer attention is on the table.

Groom the shrooms

Back in 2018, I mentioned in one of my columns that it seemed like mushrooms were on the cusp of having a new heyday. I’d say that over the last year, this trend has really begun to evolve in more meaningful ways. If I had to pick just one specialty niche crop that’s likely to grow in popularity and profits, it’s fungi.

A few years ago, we saw mushrooms being incorporated into things like broths, tonics and meat alternatives. These days, I see high-margin specialty mushrooms used whole as “vegetarian” alternatives to things like scallops. We’re also starting to see more sprouted spawn bags showing up in small grocery stores. New food mushroom trends include shredded mushrooms ready to be thrown into prepared foods, mushroom chips and jerky, as well as tea and many other products.

Now, growing mushrooms successfully puts you on a quite different production path from your leafy greens. Fungi require different atmospheric and temperature management than your standard greenhouse crops, so growing mushrooms will require you to invest in appropriate production facilities and will come with a significant learning curve. However, it is a niche space with serious opportunities to grow.

While demand for core produce crops keeps growing, there also looks to be open market share you can readily capture with specialty produce and herbs. If you’re looking to diversify your offerings and aren’t sure where to start, I suggest you follow the flavors!

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural and business consulting, as well as product development and branding for green industry companies. She is also a horticulture instructor, industry writer and book author. lesliehalleck.com