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Business Outlook 2006

Niche products fill gaps in farm scene

While traditional farm products diminish in importance, farmers switch to new products to remain in agriculture.

Published February 19, 2006

The face of agriculture in Hernando County continues to change. Farms are downsizing. Production of pricier commodities is being pursued.

Increasing land values mean that those who aim to farm for profit must grow or produce a crop or animal that has a higher value in order to pay for that land, said Stacy Strickland, regional small farm specialist with the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service.

"It's the same issue we've had forever," Strickland said recently.

Thus, the trend is toward niche products.

"A niche market is something that someone else is not doing," Strickland explained. Examples are blueberries, meat goats and miniature pet goats, sugar cane, native trees, shrubs and grasses.

Blueberries, a niche crop here only a few years ago, have almost blossomed into the mainstream. "Blueberries are growing in acreage and doing extremely well," Strickland said. "That is our biggest success story."

An extension seminar last year on blueberry production drew 100 growers and potential growers from Hernando and Citrus counties, he noted.

Strickland offered a seminar last year on production of meat goats. It attracted some 20 participants and gave rise to a goat club that meets regularly at the extension office on Oliver Street next to the county fairgrounds.

Most goats raised locally are sold live, most going to South Florida, the agent said, because of larger populations there of Hispanics and Muslims, who grew up eating goat meat.

"Demand for goat meat still exceeds production," Strickland reported. He's yet to see it in a supermarket in Hernando.

In addition to goats, Strickland fields questions and fills requests for information on "everything under the sun." That includes "livestock of every description, shape and size, fruits and nuts, things you would never think someone would grow."

"Right now we're working on sugar cane, nothing extremely large, but grow it in the back yard to make syrup and things like that," he said.

Strickland is also exploring timber as a co-crop, the planting of trees among forages where livestock graze.

And he's looking at the possibility of pine straw production. "It's something I think we could improve upon here, with consumer education. It's a renewable resource," Strickland pointed out.

Natural resources have been the pursuit of Rick McDonnell, owner of Hickory Hill Native Nursery on Hickory Hill Road in Spring Lake. He's filled a niche market for 16 years, propagating a variety of scrub oaks and restoration plantings.

"There's a tendency toward more low-maintenance plants: trees, shrubs, some grasses, some native palms," McDonnell said.

His customers include golf courses, developers, those who install roadside plantings and conservation-minded homeowners.

Dirt-based opportunities seem endless.

The extension service expects to recommend some new niche enterprises this year, though Strickland said he couldn't talk about them yet. "They're still in infancy stages, but some things have the potential to get big," he said.

Whatever they are, the agent expects residents with a plot of ground to give them a look. In his year and a half on the job here, Strickland said, he's been impressed with the open-mindedness of the farmers and wannabe farmers he's encountered in Hernando and their willingness to change.

Niche enterprises aside, traditional products still provide for most of the agricultural income in the county. The top crop is forage, followed by sales of livestock, then greenhouse products, floriculture products and sod.

Forage feeds the livestock industry, and hay has been in good supply, said Dana Hurst of the 40-member Hernando County Cattlemen's Association. But if precipitation continues to be below normal, hay production and its cost will become a concern.

As for beef prices, Hurst said, "I have hopes that they're going to stay up or go up a little bit. Numbers are holding steady."

At the Sumter County Farmers Market, where most Hernando cattlemen consign their stock to the weekly auction, office manager Terry Bellamy reported that prices rose through 2005. Feeder calves averaged $2.02 a pound, while finished steers averaged 59 cents a pound.

The price for citrus is even juicier.

"In our area, we're going to have a banner year," said Philip Bruce, with 200 trees on 20 acres and a roadside stand along Powell Road south of Brooksville.

In 2004, Bruce sold citrus wholesale for 70 cents a pound. The current crop is contracted at $1.12.

"It takes 56 cents a pound solid to come out even," Bruce said, "so we're all enthused about making a profit this year."

On top of price, Bruce, a third-generation owner of the grove established in 1916, said the harvest this year is expected to exceed the past two years' produce by 10 percent. And the past two years were "fairly good."

Conversely, eggs are not doing so well.

"The egg business hasn't been real good for a while, marginally profitable," said Homer Hunnicutt, a shareholder in the Floridawide Hillandale Farm poultry corporation. He said in mid January: "In the last several weeks it's gone from marginally profitable to unprofitable.

"It's a supply-demand situation after Christmas and New Year's. That's kind of normal for the business," said the producer, who has worked in the poultry industry for 45 years. Grade A large white eggs were retailing for 70 cents a dozen in mid January.

Hillandale maintains flocks of about 6.5-million birds. Hunnicutt raises about 400,000 pullets yearly at his facility on Powell Road south of Brooksville. When the fowl reach egg-laying age, they go on to hen houses elsewhere in the firm's extensive holdings.

Most of the hens are bred to lay white-shelled eggs. There's not a more nutritious egg than the white-shelled, Hunnicutt said.

As for specialty or designer eggs - brown-shelled, organic or all-natural, range-raised - he said, "There's a certain percentage of people that just get excited about those products, so we offer them what they want." He likened it to "some people like chocolate and some like vanilla."

Grade A large brown eggs were selling at about $1.39 a dozen at local supermarkets early this year; all-natural Grade A large eggs, $2.29.

Hunnicutt forecasts an improved 2006 for producers.

"I think the industry has been involved in some overproduction for the last year and a half, and I think that's beginning to come to an end," he said. "We're looking for an improving market this next year."

While Hillandale markets on a national system, extension agent Strickland concerns himself with putting Hernando's small producers of various ag products in a market.

"We can always produce a product . . . produce the greatest product in the world," Strickland said, "but if you can't get it to market, it's no good. That is something we are addressing."

[Last modified February 19, 2006, 01:08:19]

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