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Specialty crops bring income opportunities

In 1972, Levi and Norma Huffman operated a 1,800-acre family farm near Lafayette. Nearly 40 years later the farm has grown to 3,000 acres, and the couple raises specialty and row crops. Today, the farm is run by Levi, son Aaron, son-in-law Jim Hawbaker, and their families.

Huffman & Hawbaker Farms expanded a traditional family operation in a nontraditional way. By incorporating a specialty crop venture into their business, the family made a positive economic decision while remaining a successful family operation.

In 1997 and 1998, Aaron and Jim joined the operation. The family felt the need to expand. They decided specialty crops would be the best economic option.

“Our farm is a three-person venture,” Levi says. “Each person manages a different aspect of the farm. Aaron manages row crops. Jim operates specialty crops, and I help make management decisions based on what they’re doing.”

“As the farm grew, we knew we wanted to diversify,” Aaron adds. “We needed to find a crop that would maximize profit per acre and a specialty crop operation did that.”

In 2009, they grew tomatoes for Red Gold, peppers for Bay Valley Foods and Indian corn. One hurdle all specialty crop producers must overcome is finding a market.

Planning pays

Maria Marshall, rural development specialist with Purdue University Extension, says producers can be successful if they plan properly.

“First, they should research the industry and familiarize themselves with potential competitors and customers,” Marshall says. “Second, determine if you could still make a profit based on customers’ willingness to pay. Take into consideration promotional strategies to advertise your product and choose a distribution strategy that fits best.”

The farm raises 540 acres of specialty crops, with tomatoes being the main crop. In 2000, they contracted with Red Gold. “It’s a great company to work with,” Hawbaker says. “They treat us like part of the team, making sure we’re a healthy farming operation so that we have the opportunity to deliver good products in a timely manner.”

Key Points

• Specialty crops helped the Huffmans bring in the next generation.

• Choosing a good company as a partner is crucial.

• Training helps prepare your seasonal labor force.

Special challenge

“Between planting and harvest we hire 80 seasonal workers,” Hawbaker says. “The main issue when hiring is a lack of training and education. Once seasonal laborers are trained they do a great job.”

Hawbaker implemented a safety and specialized video program. “Each employee must watch a safety video and participate in field safety training before they go to work in the field,” Hawbaker explains. “We also require employees running specialized equipment to watch a video on how to properly operate that machine.

“By maintaining our video program, especially with new employees, we have increased our work performance and efficiency.”

He wants to continue to be a low-cost producer of specialty crops. “I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn from others,” he says. “We’re surrounded by good farmers. Without being exposed to their knowledge, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Huffman & Hawbaker Farms strives to be a good steward, Hawbaker notes. They feel it’s important to maintain a sense of community responsibility while being governed by Christian principles.

Rayburn is a senior in Purdue Ag Communications.

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LABOR-INTENSIVE: The pepper harvest involves seasonal help. Jim Hawbaker trains workers before the season.

This article published in the April, 2010 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.