Why the Economy Loves These 6 Crops

For the uninitiated, farming seems like a pretty boring prospect. You till the fields, throw down some seeds and fertilizer, add water at regular intervals, and…wait. And wait. And wait some more. And then, if nothing goes wrong, you harvest your crop and (hopefully) sell it.

And then you do the whole thing over again. And again. And…you get the idea.

Don’t let looks fool you, though. Farming is a big business with plenty of pitfalls — and, if the chips fall right, plenty of potential payoff too. Here’s a look at six resurgent crops that are supporting the American farm economy and putting lots of money in growers’, distributors’, and resellers’ pockets.

Pistachios

The pistachio is basically the iPhone of the agricultural sector. Ten years ago, the market for pistachios barely existed. Today, they’re beloved the world over, particularly in fast-growing industrial economies like China. According to Diamond Growers, pistachios account for about 10% of the United States’ total crop exports by value, with the lion’s share of exported pistachios heading to Southeast Asia. Pistachio growers, the vast majority of which are based in California’s Central Valley, have reaped the rewards.

Almonds

Most everyone can tell the difference between an almond and a pistachio, but the two crops are superficially similar in a lot of ways: they’re both tree nuts, they’re both rapidly taking market share from other snack foods, they’re both beloved in China, and they’re both largely grown in California.

There’s one big difference, though: almonds account for more than three times pistachios’ share of the export market: 33%, according to Diamond Growers. Long-term food consumption trends — basically, consumers’ growing preference for healthy snacks — suggest that almonds’ upswing won’t end anytime soon.

Cotton

Cotton is among the oldest and most venerated of America’s crops. You almost certainly use at least one cotton fiber-based product per day, whether you know it or not. But the cotton plant is more than the sum of its fibers. It’s also a rich, little-known source of food, thanks to the protein-packed cottonseed.

Today, the cottonseed is prized for its clear, healthy oil, which can replace expensive olive oil and unhealthy canola oil in many recipes. In fact, star chefs have taken to using healthy cottonseed oil recipes as an affordable alternative to traditional industrial oils. A growing body of positive health research (and taste test results) point to a long, fruitful road ahead for cottonseed oil — and thus for cotton growers in the American South and Southwest.

Grapes

According to Diamond Growers, the wine grape is the country’s second-largest specialty export crop, after almonds. It accounts for about 12% of agricultural exports by value, and almost all of it is shipped in the form of, well, wine.

The same trends that drive pistachio and almond growth drive wine growth: increasingly affluent Asian consumers, growing sophistication in many drinking markets, and a renewed appreciation for terroir. But, unlike pistachios and almonds, America’s wine grape crop benefits farmers far from sunny California. Washington, Michigan, New York and even Virginia have noteworthy wine industries that look poised to surf the “buy local” movement in the years ahead.

Hops

Over the past two decades, America has rekindled its love affair with flavorful beer. Thousands of new craft breweries, the vast majority of which qualify as small businesses, have muscled in on territory previously dominated by a handful of beverage giants.

This growth is great for brewers, distributors and taprooms, but it’s putting serious strain on one particular agricultural niche: hops. More than half of America’s hops crop is grown in just seven central Washington State counties, where the dry, sunny climate creates near-perfect growing conditions. Industry experts worry that the region will soon run out of arable land (not to mention water, a precious commodity in the semi-arid Interior Northwest) for its signature product.

The good news: ambitious growers are experimenting with modified hops strains that can grow in a wider range of climates, from the humid Southeast to the frigid Upper Midwest. That’s great news for growers — and drinkers.

Marginal Grains

It’s not called the “Corn Belt” for nothing. Corn and soybeans have long dominated the Midwest’s farm economy for years, thanks largely to meticulous breeding that renders the plans nearly impervious to pests and blight. Despite their abundance, these crops tend to be more lucrative than anything else that can grow in the region’s harsh climate.

But as corn and bean prices fall and demand for artisanal food products pick up, marginal grains such as barley and rye are challenging their dominance — particularly on the northern and western fringes of the corn belt, where the climate is particularly rough. Barley and rye can withstand short growing seasons punctuated by hard freezes, long droughts, and poor soils — and, as America’s distilling industry follows the beer industry’s “crafty” path, they’ll be in higher demand in the coming years.

What’s your favorite?

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