Single-crop cultivation is a common plan-of-attack
Which crops are best to grow in commercial ZipGrow systems? If you have read through our crop list and production estimates resources you know that just about anything will grow in a ZipGrow tower, but the crop that usually catches the new Upstart Farmer’s eye is sweet basil.
Carefully tended, basil can grow better in ZipGrow towers than any other growing technique in the world. It's easy to grow and maintain, and its market price is well above that of most greens or herbs. A reasonable conclusion can be made that a new Upstart Farmer should concentrate on this cash crop to quickly make back the initial investment and begin to make profits.
If that's you, then you need to know: this plan, while viable and advantageous, comes with a certain level of risk and there are a few things to consider when pursuing a monocrop style production.
Historically, monocropping has a bad record
There is a very famous case of monocropping gone wrong that we should briefly visit: the Irish Potato Famine.
In the mid-19th Century there was a mass emigration from Ireland. Millions of citizens were forced to flee the country or face eviction and starvation. The potato famine was an avoidable catastrophe that resulted from an outbreak of a plant disease that turned the potatoes into an inedible black mush. The disease was able to spread so easily because potatoes made up a vast majority of the crops grown in Ireland. The pathogen was able to swiftly infect neighboring fields of potatoes.
Total crop loss is a nasty thing regardless of scale
While Upstart Farmers aren't facing a country-wide famine, the loss of an entire crop could result in the ruin of a business. This will not force emigration or starvation but it can catastrophically impact an Upstart Farm that is just getting off the ground.
We aren't trying to preach doom and gloom
Cultivating only a single species of plant has its upsides as well. In the case of basil, an Upstart Farmer can really boost revenue for his or her farm by selling a full crop of this high-margin, high-demand herb. This can be essential in the early stages of a farm's life but is equally important if you are growing with 50 towers or 500.
When you only have one type of plant in your hydroponic or aquaponic system, you can tailor your system to maximize the production of that plant. Most plant species have specific nutrient requirements, temperature, humidity, and lighting requirements that optimize the plant for more productive growth. This means that you can supplement your nutrients so the plants are getting exactly what they want and nothing extra (or less!).
Tailoring your lighting schedule when using supplemental lighting can have a profound effect on crop growth and will increase production significantly for the crops that the lighting is scheduled for. Temperature and humidity are less vital variables in plant productivity, but having these two factors perfect for the monocrop you are cultivating will have noticeable impact on plant health.
One final benefit of monocrop cultivation is that your planting, harvesting, and tower rotation schedules are much simpler. There is no need to keep track of a variety of plants that all have different growing cycles. One crop means that you will be planting the seedlings, adjusting the tower placement, and harvesting the crops in the same cycle every time. This diminishes the possibility of scheduling errors or crops being skipped in crucial steps of the cycle, such as harvesting.
Even indoors, you'll face risks that can turn into emergencies
All of these advantages make the idea of single-crop cultivation very appealing. Before you rush to start your basil seedlings, I'd like to go over a few of the considerations and risks that you should be aware of.
Disease is not the only way that entire crops can be lost virtually overnight. Many pests have become specialized through evolution to thrive on certain varieties and be resistant to over-used pesticides. This is especially dangerous in hydroponic or aquaponic systems where pesticides are often limited or frowned upon. Even if the pests do not kill the plants, they are capable of damaging a plant until it is no longer fit to sell.
Sudden changes to your growing system such as a pump failure or extreme temperature change can cause a mass die-off of plants as well. Some plants are more sensitive to these environmental changes and will not survive rapid alterations to their growing environment.
A great example is an event that the Bright Agrotech aquaponic greenhouse underwent earlier this year. A fan was left on all night and the entire greenhouse was exposed to freezing January air. Most of our crops were frozen solid; needless to say, this type of exposure is not recommended for optimum plant production. Surprisingly, the kale plants were able to endure the negative degree temperatures and are still producing greens for our CSA group today.
Cultivating a variety of different crops at once can greatly reduce the chances of a mass die-off. Different species of plants have different tolerances to disease, pests, and sudden environmental changes. This means that if your system is exposed to any of these factors some plants may be tolerant enough to survive while other will fail. This will ensure that your farm continues to generate revenue while your system recovers. For an early Upstart Farmer this revenue can make all the difference.
Risk minimization is far from impossible
With proper monitoring and testing, it is not difficult to keep the risks of pest, disease, and environmental shifts to a minimum within your monocrop system. Test your nutrient solutions often and be sure to keep them at the ideal levels for whichever crop you are cultivating. Balancing the nutrients in your system will keep your system healthier overall, decreasing the likelihood of a disease taking hold in your system.
It is equally important to perform regular inspections of your crops to make sure no pests or disease have infiltrated your system. Refer to our Pest and Disease Control packet for best practices to keep the risk of an outbreak low.
What’re you going to do with all of that basil?
Sell it of course! Each ZipGrow tower can grow up to 3.5 lbs of basil in just four weeks. If an Upstart Farmer is skilled, the environmental risks can be managed and overcome. But once the product is ready for sale there are other considerations to factor in.
The first and perhaps most important consideration is your market's demand. Is the demand in your market really strong enough to support a 50 lbs supply of basil per week? If you have done your market research and found that your market will support this level of production, then great! If not, then you need to consider that you may not be able to sell all of that cash crop in a week.
By diversifying your product offerings, you can not only reduce the risk of over-supply but also satisfy multiple market demands. Remember, it is always better for your customers to want more product than you have than for you to have any of your produce leftover.
The final point is especially important for Upstart Farmers whose primary markets are farmer’s markets and grocery stores. Crop variety is essential for attracting customers to a market stand or store display.
Step into the customer’s shoes for a moment and imagine seeing two different vendors side-by-side at a farmer’s market. The one on the left has some of the most beautiful, fresh basil that you have ever seen and it is still alive in its ZipGrow tower. The stand on the right has got the same basil in the same towers but it also has half dozen different types of greens, luscious mint, and rosemary growing in ZipGrow towers.
Which would you choose? Odds are the average customer would choose the vendor who is carrying the wide variety. This is because they can get all of their produce in one stop and they can guarantee it is all right now fresh.
Cash crops can be a powerful and essential asset to the Upstart Farmer. This asset requires temperance and knowledge otherwise they can lead to a disastrous situation. There are some serious benefits to producing large quantities of a single, high-margin crop. It can increase revenue and make your system more simplistic in design and upkeep. A growing system tailored to a specific crop will produce that species more efficiently.
An entire crop can be lost due to a disease, pest outbreak, or other environmental factor outside of your control. If closely monitored and controlled, a monocrop of valuable herbs can boost revenue and open the door for system expansion. These risks can be minimized through proper testing, nutrient supplementation, and vigilant pest and disease monitoring and practices.
The free-market is operated on the idea of balancing supply and demand; the agricultural industry is no different no matter what the operational scale. Finding a balance is essential so you never return home with produce in your towers. Variety is the spice of life; it is also a major factor in influencing potential customers into buying your produce. Keep these things in mind, plan accordingly, and your Upstart Farm will never suffer the consequences of a monocrop crash.
All of these points still beg the question: What should I be growing in my ZipGrow towers to maximize demand and sales? You can find the answer and so much more in our Recommended Crop List and various Growers’ Packets.
With these resources, you can get to know your market demand in a way that will give you a major edge over your competition.