Type ‘world’s most valuable crops’ in your Internet browser and you end up with items like elephant dung coffee from Thailand ($1,100 per kilogram) and Densuke black watermelons from Japan (up to $6,100 each). In other words, stuff that no farmer in North America is realistically going to plant, harvest, and find a market for. But there are a few surprisingly valuable niche crops that thrive here—and can actually provide a livelihood for a small-scale farmer.
The North American Center for Saffron Research and Development, a new program at the University of Vermont, hopes to make New England the new hotspot for this ancient Mediterranean herb. Selling for $5,000 to $10,000 per pound, saffron is the most expensive culinary herb in the world, mainly because it is composed of the tiny, thread-like stigmas of the crocus flower. Roughly 50,000 flowers are needed to produce a pound of the dried herb, though this requires just a quarter acre of land, hinting at just how lucrative this crop can be.
Saffron (pictured above) crocuses grow best in dry regions with mild winters, such as coastal California. To help expand their viability, the University of Vermont recommends planting them in high tunnels, a simple protective structure made of plastic sheeting over a frame of PVC pipes, which allows saffron to be grown in much of the country. Crocuses are bulbs and cannot easily be reproduced from seed, so growers plant corms, the fleshy tuberous roots. A list of corm sources for crocus varieties that are suitable for commercial spice production is available here.
Wild ginseng root, a medicinal herb which is found in forests throughout much of the northern and eastern United States, is harvested on a commercial scale and sold for astonishing prices, largely to Asian buyers. It is also planted in open fields, though ginseng cultivated this way commands a fraction of the price, as it is not considered as medicinally potent. Wild ginseng is becoming increasingly rare, however, to the point that many states have severely restricted its harvest. “Wild-simulated” ginseng, which is planted as an understory on tree plantations and in naturally-occurring forests, has emerged as a popular, and profitable, alternative to true wild ginseng: it sells for $300 to $700 per pound.
Most native hardwood trees are suitable as a canopy for growing ginseng. The forest needs to be mature enough to cast full shade; moist, well-drained soil is ideal. It is typically planted in the fall from seed, which costs up to $200 per pound. Rake back the leaves and plant them directly in the native soil—no fertilizer necessary. The crop is so valuable that a growing guide from Purdue University recommends protecting your investment by “installing security cameras, keeping guard dogs, and embedding microchips” in the roots. The ginseng market varies from year to year, but when the price is high it’s possible to net up to $50,000 per acre. There is one drawback: it takes from five to 10 years for the roots to reach a marketable size.
This common garden plant has various commercial uses, including essential oil and value-added products like soaps and lotions. Profitableplantsdigest.com reports that one eight-acre lavender farm in the Northwest grosses more than $1 million per year from it’s various lavender products. But the simplest way to sell lavender, which requires minimal investment in time and equipment to produce, is as dried flower bouquets. A one-acre planting can produce about 12,000 bouquets per year, which are worth $10 each or more on the retail market.
Lavender grows in a wide variety of climates, but requires well-drained soil. Irrigation and fertilizer are generally not needed. The disease-resistant, fast-growing plants are easily propagated in a greenhouse by cuttings and will grow big enough to produce a sizable spray of flowers in their second year; lavender will continue to flower for 10 years or more after planting. Simply tie bunches of the flower stems together with twine and hang in a barn, shed, or other well-ventilated structure to dry for at least one week before bringing them to market.
This “superfood” is grown primarily in China, but the plant is equally well-adapted in North America. Dried organic goji berries regularly sell for $20 or more per pound, with the fresh fruit fetching a significantly higher price at farmer’s markets. With yields up to 7,000 pounds per acre in fresh berries, this is potentially a lucrative cash crop for American farmers.
Goji berries, a close relative of tomatoes, grow on head-high shrubs. They are disease-resistant and adapted to a wide range of soil and climatic conditions. In fact, the plants are so robust that they’re considered an invasive species in some regions of the country. For optimal fruit production, grow one of the named cultivars, like ‘Crimson Star’ and ‘Phoenix Tears’ (named varieties are not typically invasive). Light harvests can begin in the second year after planting, though it takes four to five years of growth before full production is reached. Planting goji shrubs “bare root” (when they are dormant) in late winter gets them off to fast start.
The most lucrative crops are not always edible. Bamboo, which is used for everything from flooring to fishing poles (and occasionally in Asian cuisine), is one shining example. Each of the many uses of bamboo comes with its own set of constraints; some applications require special processing, while others are only feasible in particular regions. However, it’s quite straightforward to grow bamboo for sale as nursery plants. Simply plant a grove, let it spread, and then pot up small clumps to sell to local nurseries or direct to consumers. A large clump of bamboo in 25-gallon tub can sell for $200 to $300 dollars. Thousands of tubs can be harvested annually from a single acre of mature bamboo.
The first step is to identify which species of bamboo grow best, and are most in demand by consumers, in your area. This is easily accomplished by asking for advice at local nurseries. Bamboo is not grown by seed, but by transplanting small clumps of roots from an existing patch. Since many landowners consider it a pest, consider advertising locally to find people who will let you come remove their bamboo for free—a win for both parties. Since bamboo can spread aggressively, avoid planting it close to other crops or adjacent to natural areas (since it doesn’t spread by seed, you don’t have to worry about it escaping into the wild). Bamboo thrives on heavy irrigation and nitrogen fertilizer—any animal manure will do. Still, you’ll have to be patient. Depending on the variety, it may take anywhere from three to ten years to establish a patch large enough to start digging out clumps for sale.