Evaluating alternative farming enterprises

March 19, 2021

by Craig Chase, FFED program manager

Craig Chase.
Craig Chase

At FFED, we get a lot of questions from both beginning and established farmers about alternative agricultural enterprises. These can range from hops to other horticultural crops to dairy goats to organic crops in general. 

The reason for farmers’ interest varies. Profitability from conventional corn and soybeans has been poor for most years over the past decade. So some farmers are looking at alternatives that may be more profitable. Many beginning farmers find it difficult to start a conventional corn and soybean farm. They have to make huge investments in land and equipment to make a livelihood. Other reasons exist as well.

Regardless of the reason, FFED has a lot of resources that can help evaluate alternative enterprises. FFED’s Small Farms program includes resources including:

Tomato plants growing in high tunnel.
Tomatoes in high tunnel.

Included in these resources are publications and spreadsheet tools that help evaluate the profitability of different alternative enterprises.

Organic transition considerations

One of the more interesting economic research topics I have been involved in is organic crop production and transitioning. I have been surprised at the consistency of the profitability difference between the conventionally grown corn-soybean rotation and the organically grown corn-soybean-oats/alfalfa-alfalfa rotation over the past 20 years. Early in the research, organic cropping systems consistently held about a $200 per acre profitability advantage. More recently, that economic advantage has doubled. 

People listening to presentation at outdoor organic field day.
Kathleen Delate speaks to farmers at organic field day.

Granted, organic transitioning is not for everyone. Organic certification is a regulated process. Timing of field operations and the variety of crops needed in a rotation makes production more complex. However, for those farmers wanting to transition from conventional to organic, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has a lot of resources available to gain more information. 

Dr. Kathleen Delate is the organic agronomist/horticulturalist who has evaluated production practices and cropping systems on ISU’s Neely-Kinyon research farm since 1998. Her research consists of comparing the two cropping systems listed earlier, plus a lot of other agronomic and horticultural topics. Visit the ISU Organic Agriculture website for more information.

For more about the organic certification process, visit the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) Organic Program website. IDALS is a registered organic certifier so they would be able to answer questions about the organic transitioning process. 

Publication cover.

From the economic and profitability standpoint, we offer several publications that outline both the overall profitability and the economics of the transition. Find those publications here, along with many others.

Regardless of what alternative crops and livestock enterprises you’re considering, FFED has resources to help you evaluate whether it makes sense for your farm.

Questions? Contact us and we’ll be happy to help you out.

More resources