Agriculture 101: Specialty Crops

Iowa is well known for corn, soybean, and livestock production. Iowa is consistently the top producing state of corn, eggs, and pork, and the first or second ranked state in soybeans.  (Our neighbor to the east, Illinois, also produces a lot of soybeans.)  Iowa is also usually in the top 10 for the amount of turkeys, cattle, oats, alfalfa hay, milk goats, sheep and lambs raised here.

Although most of Iowa’s farm land is used for row crops and livestock, what is grown here is much more diverse than meets the eye. Specialty crops are big in Iowa, too!

Specialty crops are defined in law as “fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.”  So, a specialty crop is defined by what it is, not by how commonly it is grown in an area.  Crops considered specialty crops in Iowa are the same as those considered specialty crops in California or Florida.

California’s moderate climate, long growing season, and fertile soil enables farmers to grow over 200 crops, many of them year round.  Iowa’s short growing season and extreme high and low temperatures makes limits the number and amount of fruits, vegetables, nuts and horticultural crops grown here.

Even though our weather provides a challenge, Iowa’s specialty crop industry is strong and growing.   Here’s just a brief look at a few specialty crops grown here.

  • IMG_1189Christmas Trees.  Most fresh Christmas trees are sold within two weeks after Thanksgiving, but growing them takes 6-12 years and requires year-round work to maintain.  A typical Christmas Tree Farm in Iowa is 3 to 8 acres in size. Most farms sell trees by the “choose and harvest” method, where a customer comes to the farm to cut their own tree. According to the Iowa Christmas Tree Growers Association, there are approximately 100 choose and harvest tree farms in the state.  Real Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states. The top selling Christmas trees in Iowa are Scotch Pine and White Pine.
  • high tunnel greenhouseVegetables.  There are many small farms in Iowa that thrive by selling in-season vegetables at their farm-front, road-side stands, and farmer’s markets. Others sell directly to restaurants or wholesale to grocery stores.  Some Iowa farmers extend the vegetable growing season by planting in high tunnel greenhouses. Almost any vegetable can be grown in Iowa, but the vegetable crop sold in greatest volume here is sweet corn. However, less than 1% of the corn grown in Iowa is sweet corn. Most of the corn grown in Iowa is field corn, used for livestock feed, processed food, and ethanol.
  • Apples.  Iowa was once a top apple producing state, but the Armistice Day Blizzard in November 1940 killed or severely injured many trees and reduced the state’s apple production by 85%.  Because of the risk of another severe freeze, many farmers chose not to replant and converted these acres to growing corn or hay.  Although Iowa is still not a top apple producing state now, there are many orchards across the state. Most are you-pick farms, but sell to grocery stores or directly to processors, like Iowa Choice Harvest that cleans, slices, flash-freezes, and bags apples for sale in grocery stores.
  • 20190805_142858Grapes.  Iowa’s grape and wine industry has grown immensely in the last 10 years. There are more than 300 vineyards in the state, with 100 that make their own wine. Like other specialty crops, Iowa’s weather limits the quantity and diversity of great varieties that can be grown here. However, the increased interest in growing grapes in Iowa and other upper Midwestern states has led to more research on grape cultivars that with withstand severe winters and mature in short growing seasons.  According to the Iowa Wine Growers Association, more than 40 different types of grapes are currently grown in the state.

Traditional farm bill commodity programs that support grain, oilseed, cotton, and milk production do not serve specialty crop producers, who provide the country with fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts. The United States Department of Agriculture provides funding to support the production of specialty crops through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.  The program began in 2004 and is designed to “enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops.”  In other words, it provides funds to encourage farms to grow specialty crops.  This in turn, helps to support economic development in rural communities and increase consumer access to fruits and vegetables.





One thought on “Agriculture 101: Specialty Crops

  1. Pingback: Iowa Department of Ag is Helping Drive Demand for Specialty Crops

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