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Raising Specialty Crops

Specialty crops are defined by law as fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture — the cultivation of flowers. On this page, find resources and information about various specialty crops, most from universities and extension services.

Learn about Specialty Crops

Growing specialty and value crops is a good way to diversify a farming operation or urban farm.

Check the List of Alternative Crops and Enterprises for Small Farm Diversification [usda.gov] to find Extension sources that help evaluate and start non-conventional farming enterprises using alternative crop and livestock species and related enterprises.

Browse the Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Catalog Collection [archive.org] from the late 1700s to present to find historic and heirloom varieties.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a specialty crop?

The Specialty Crops Competitiveness Act of 2004 (7 U.S.C. 1621 note) defines specialty crops [usda.gov] as fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, and horticulture and nursery crops (including floriculture).

USDA provides a listing [usda.gov] (pdf, 11 pages) of those plants commonly considered fruits and tree nuts, vegetables, culinary herbs and spices, medicinal plants, as well as nursery, floriculture, and horticulture crops. A separate list of ineligible commodities also is provided.

Where can I learn about heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties?

Find information on those special plants that you remember from your grandparents' garden: those valued, saved and passed down through generations.

  1. Heirloom Tomatoes [uky.edu]

    This crop profile provides a marketing overview, market outlook, and economic and production considerations for heirloom tomato production.
     

  2. Heirloom Beans [www.uky.edu]

    This crop profile provides a marketing overview, market outlook, and economic and production considerations for heirloom bean production.
     

  3. Heirloom Vegetables [uky.edu]

    A fact sheet that covers marketing and production considerations for heirloom crops.
     

  4. Heirloom Vegetables [clemson.edu]

    Gives hints on saving seed and lists some heirloom varieties of beans, corn, cucumbers, lettuce, melons, okra, peas, peppers, potatoes, squash and pumpkins, tomatoes and watermelon.
     

  5. Seed Savers Exchange [seedsavers.org]

    A nonprofit membership organization of individuals working locally and internationally to save heirloom garden seeds and offering a large selection of those seeds for sale. The catalog of seeds derives from a diverse selection of vegetables, herbs and flowers maintained by the group in its seed bank and preservation gardens.
     

  6. USDA. NALHenry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection [archive.org]

    Page through catalogs from the late 1700s to present to find historic and heirloom varieties.
     

  7. Varieties of Fruits Recommended for Planting (1904) [usda.gov]
    Farmers' Bulletin (United States. Department of Agriculture); no. 208 1904

    Farmers' Bulletin in the National Agricultural Library Organic Roots Collection [usda.gov]. Includes recommended varieties of fruits and nuts, from apples to filberts (hazelnuts) to strawberries. Provides suggested varieties by region. Discover more historic varieties searching the Digital Collections [usda.gov]
     

  8. Muskmelons (1926) [usda.gov]
    Farmers' Bulletin (United States. Department of Agriculture); no. 1468 1926

    1920s Farmers' Bulletin in the National Agricultural Library Organic Roots Collection [usda.gov]. Includes recommended varieties of muskmelon for commercial and home and garden production. Discover more historic varieties by searching the Digital Collections [usda.gov].
     

  9. Tomatoes (1905)[usda.gov]
    Farmers' Bulletin (United States. Department of Agriculture); no. 220 1905

    Farmers' Bulletin in the National Agricultural Library Organic Roots Collection [usda.gov]]. Includes recommended varieties for the northern and southern United States. Find more historic materials by searching the Digital Collections [usda.gov]
     

  10. The Heirloom Vegetable Garden [cornell.edu]

    An illustrated look at at 36 vegetable varieties commonly grown during the 1800s. Includes many excerpts and recipes from that century's garden books, as well.

How do I identify, cultivate, and market specialty mushrooms?

Whether on a dinner plate or on display in the woods, mushrooms provide delight. Find information about cultivating and marketing mushrooms.

  1. Learning Center: Mushrooms [www.sare.org]

    Guides for cultivating mushrooms, including oyster and shiitake, in various production systems.
     

  2. Mushrooms [agmrc.org]

    Compiled production, processing, marketing and business case study information for both "white," "brown," and specialty mushrooms.
     

  3. Mushrooms [psu.edu]

    Technical assistance, publications, videos and webinars for mushroom growers including information on pest and diseases, production and harvesting, spawn science, and species and varieties.
     

  4. Specialty Mushrooms [cornell.edu]

    Information on the agroforestry practice of mushroom cultivation, including: mushroom identification, economics, and policy-related issues. Resources include articles, blog posts, factsheets, guides, and videos.
     

  5. Forest Farming [usda.gov]

    Forest farming, the cultivation of high-value specialty crops — including mushrooms — under the protection of a forest canopy, provides income while tree crops are grown for wood products.
     

  6. American Mushroom Institute [americanmushroom.org/]

    Find growing and marketing practices information, the Institute's Mushroom News journal, an events calendar and many more resources.
     

  7. Mushroom Publications in the Organic Roots Digital Collection. [usda.gov]

    Search the Organic Roots Digital Collection to retrieve pre-1942 USDA documents related to the production and preparation of mushrooms.

    Titles of interest may include:

Are medicinal and culinary herbs considered specialty crops?

Discover new varieties, cultivation techniques, sources of market information and herb lore.

  1. Herbs and Flowers [attra.ncat.org].

    Production and marketing information for herbs, edible flowers, and specialty cut flowers. 
     

  2. Herbs [ncsu.edu]

    Project reports, resources, and organizations to support the production, processing, and sale of herbs, including culinary [ncsu.edu] and medicinal [ncsu.edu] herbs.
     

  3. Dr. Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases [usda.gov]

    Search plant, chemical, activity and ethnobotany databases. Includes an ethnobotanical dictionary and links to nutritional, cancer treatment and other plant related databases.
     

  4. Culinary Herbs [uky.edu]

    Profile describes marketing culinary herbs, market outlook, as well as production and economic considerations for starting an herb farm.
     

  5. Aromatic and Medicinal Plants Index [purdue.edu]

    Directory of crop profiles, overviews, references and links to related information.
     

  6. Fruit and Vegetable Market News: Herbs [usda.gov]

    Provides wholesale prices for a variety of culinary herbs on a regional basis by commodity.
     

  7. Herbs [archive.org]

    A search for "herbs" in the National Agricultural Library’s collection on the Internet Archive returns texts from the 1800s to the 1980s. Browse nursery and seed catalogs and USDA publications. Use the menu on the left to narrow results by year, topic, or creator.
     

  8. Special Collections Exhibit: Rare Books [usda.gov]

    The rare books collection at the National Agricultural Library includes a number of herbals. View digitized pages from titles including The British Flora Medica [usda.gov], A Curious Herbal [usda.gov], and Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician [usda.gov].
     

  9. Organic Gardening: A Guide to Resources. 1989-September 2003 [usda.gov]

    Archived bibliography intended for organic gardeners and small-scale organic farmers. Covers resources on gardening techniques, plant varieties, geographic locations and philosophies. Addresses landscaping, soil fertility, edible plants, ornamental plants, pest control and various aspects of an "organic lifestyle."

What is agroforestry?

Agroforestry is the intentional combination of agriculture and forestry to create productive and sustainable land use practices. 

Find information about all activities that combine agricultural and forestry practices including conservation practices such as alley cropping, windbreaks, riparian buffers, wildlife habitats or living snow fences and forest farming activities such as silvopasture and shaded crop production.

  1. Agroforestry [usda.gov]

    "Agroforestry is the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits." USDA factsheets about agroforestry systems and practices, FAQs [usda.gov], and USDA information contacts.
     

  2. National Agroforestry Center [usda.gov]

    Conducts research and delivers technical assistance on a wide range of agroforestry practices for natural resource professionals, landowners and communities. Agroforestry practices [usda.gov] cover topics such as silvopasture, windbreaks, and riparian forest buffers.
     

  3. Sustaining Agroforestry Systems for Farms and Ranches [usda.gov]

    Provides guidance on combining practices into agroforestry systems to solve potential agriculture problems.
     

  4. Sustainable Agroforestry Practices in the Southeastern United States: Training Handbook [tuskegee.edu]

    An in-depth handbook which covers all aspects of agroforestry, developed to train and educate farmers and other landowners in the southeastern United States on sustainable agroforestry practices to enhance their income and create sustainable land management practices and ecosystem services.
     

  5. Commodities and Products: Forestry [agmrc.org]

    Compiled marketing and business information for forestry crops including Christmas trees [agmrc.org] and nursery trees [agmrc.org].
     

  6. Agroforestry Overview [ncat.org]

    Presents principles, common practices, marketing considerations, several case studies and an extensive list of further resources covering all aspects of agroforestry.
     

  7. University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry [centerforagroforestry.org]

    An overview of agroforestry practices and activities in Missouri, news, publications, research and links about the production, marketing and benefits of agroforestry crops, an event listing and information about State and Federal policies.
     

  8. Key Tree Crop Information Sheets [savannainstitute.org]

    Free information sheets on perennial agroforestry crops selected for the Midwest, including info on production requirements, management, marketing, and economics. Produced with funding from the USDA Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education (SARE) program. 
     

  9. How, When and Why of Forest Farming [cornell.edu]

    A collection of on-line lessons and educational materials on the principles and practices of forest farming.
     

  10. Agroforestry.org [agroforestry.org]

    Distributes Traditional Tree Initiative materials [agroforestry.org], the Overstory electronic journal, technical documents including Agroforestry Guides for Pacific Islands [agroforestry.org], links to international organizations, a library of bibliographic citations and workshop descriptions and schedule.
     

  11. World Agroforestry Centre [worldagroforestry.org]

    A collection of international agroforestry information including the Agroforestree Database [worldagroforestry.org] and searchable library and publications collections.

Which agricultural crops are considered industrial, energy, or non-food crops?

Many agricultural crops are used to create non-food products, such as: oils, resins, fibers, clothing, energy, cosmetics, plastics and more. Find more information here about these crops:

  1. ARS. Research Projects [usda.gov]

    Browse current research projects  at the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Subjects include Upland cotton [usda.gov] and long fiber [usda.gov]), Cottonseed [usda.gov]Guayule [usda.gov]Hemp [usda.gov]Kenaf [usda.gov]Lesquerella [usda.gov]Oilseed and oil crops [usda.gov], and Rubber, gum, and resin plants [usda.gov].
     

  2. U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program [usda.gov]

    Information on the production of industrial hemp under the 2018 Farm Bill, access to rulemaking documents, answers to Frequently Asked Questions and links to USDA Hemp Programs.
     

  3. Industrial Hemp [nationalaglawcenter.org]

    An overview of industrial hemp legislation, identifies agricultural regulations and laws, including Industrial Hemp Laws: State-by-State [nationalaglawcenter.org], and links to reference resources and publications.
     

  4. Commodities and Products: Fiber [agmrc.org]

    Marketing and business information for fiber crops including cotton [agmrc.org] and industrial hemp [agmrc.org].
     

  5. Soybeans and Oil Crops [usda.gov]

    Background, trade, marketing and policy information for U.S. oil crops such as soybeans, cottonseed, canola, rapeseed, sunflower seed and peanuts.
     

  6. National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research [usda.gov]

    The NCAUR invents new industrial and food products from agricultural commodities, develops new technologies to improve environmental quality, and provides technical support to Federal regulatory and action agencies.
     

  7. Industrial Agricultural Products Center [unl.edu/]

    Provides technical assistance for identification, development and promotion of new industrial uses for agricultural raw materials.
     

  8. Minor Oil Crops [fao.org]

    An overview of edible, non-food and essential oil crops produced worldwide.
     

  9. Sustainable Cotton Project [sustainablecotton.org]

    Programs, information, and events promoting certified organic and sustainably grown cotton for farmers, manufacturers, and consumers to improve environmental and human health while simultaneously maintaining profitability.
     

  10. Organic Origins: Oil [usda.gov/]

    Pre-1942 USDA publications related to oil production. Titles of interest include: Cotton seed and its products [usda.gov] (1896), The rape plant: its history, culture, and uses [usda.gov](1893), and The soy bean: its culture and uses [usda.gov] (1918).
     

  11. Some of the Minor Oil Crops. Yearbook of Agriculture. 1950. [usda.gov]

    A report describing the potential to produce oils from oil-bearing agricultural wastes, seeds and grains, tree nut, and the flesh of fatty fruits.

How do I grow and market ornamental and nursery crops?

Ornamental and nursery crops include flowers, foliage, shrubs, or trees for farms or homes.  Find information here about growing and selling houseplants, cut flowers, and landscape materials that improve the aesthetic appearance of homes and businesses — both inside and out.

  1. Native Plant Network [npn.rngr.net]

    Information on growing and planting of North American (Canada, US, and Mexico) native plants for restoration, conservation, reforestation, landscaping and more. Includes free access to Native Plants Propagation Protocol Database and links to the Native Plants Journal.
     

  2. Flora of North America [floranorthamerica.org]

    Names, taxonomic relationships, distribution, and morphological characteristics of all plants native and naturalized found in North America north of Mexico.
     

  3. Nursery Crop Science [nurserycropscience.info]

    Information about cultural practices, nursery short courses, upcoming events, nursery crop science experts and access to many publications and links.
     

  4. Commercial Floriculture [ncsu.edu]

    Search by crop or floriculture topic for information from North Carolina State University and other links of interest.
     

  5. Greenhouse Crops and Floriculture Program [umass.edu]

    Educational programs, grower services, publications and fact sheets, pest management, resources for garden retailers, events and floriculture industry news and other useful links.
     

  6. Fruit and Vegetable Market News: Ornamentals [usda.gov]

    Provides wholesale prices for a variety of ornamental crops on a regional basis by commodity.
     

  7. Herbs and Flowers [ncat.org]

    Production and marketing information for herbs, edible flowers, and specialty cut flowers. 
     

  8. Specialty Crops: Floriculture [agmrc.org]

    Marketing and business information for various types of floriculture crops.
     

  9. Cut Flowers [ncsu.edu]

    Information on specialty cut flower production including publications, thesis and dissertations, research reports and data. Floriculture InfoSearch [ncsu.edu] contains information from the scientific literature, trade and association magazines and websites.

How do I grow and market ethnic crop varieties?

Ethnic crops offer new flavors and may be spicy, bitter or hot. Find information about those fruits and vegetables customarily introduced and valued by people with common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic or cultural origin or background.

  1. Small-Scale Specialty Vegetable Production in the Southeast [aces.edu]

    This article focuses on small farm production and marketing opportunities for nine high-value specialty crops that appeal to ethnic immigrants in Alabama.
     

  2. Ethnic Vegetables: Hispanic [uky.edu]

    Discusses vegetables used in Hispanic cooking and links to crop profiles and production resources.
     

  3. Ethnic Vegetables: Asian [uky.edu]

    Marketing and production information for vegetables used in Asian cuisines. Links to Asian Crop Profile [uky.edu] (PDF, 5 Pages) for more detailed production and financial considerations.
     

  4. World Crops [worldcrops.org]

    Crop profiles, by crop name and country, of vegetables, herbs and selected fruit crops popular with immigrant populations in the Northeastern United States. Focuses on sustainable production and marketing practices.

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