Yaks and other new `crops'. Low crop prices push farmers to diversify

Bill and Shirley Gibbons are farming in a brand new way. Gone is their traditional farm machinery. Gone, too, is the land they used to rent to plant corn and soybeans. Instead, starting next month, the family plans to run its own roadside farm market in Goshen, Ohio.

``This has to be an experiment,'' says Mrs. Gibbons, leaning on a stack of bushel baskets that will soon be filled with sweet corn. ``We feel pretty sure that that will sell.''

The Gibbonses are part of a trend that is blossoming across rural America. After nearly a decade of low prices for traditional crops, farmers are increasingly diversifying into new, and sometimes exotic, farm products.

Jerry McRoberts, for example, raises llamas. For 10 years, the Gurley, Neb., farmer has sold the animals to breeders, who show them at contests or sell them for pets. When his family bought a nearby ranch last year, Mr. McRoberts expanded into bison, reindeer, deer, elk, miniature donkeys, and yak. ``It's the biggest yak herd in North America,'' he brags.

Kathy Dohrman and her husband run a hog, cattle, and grain farm in Sweet Springs, Mo. Five years ago, they diversified into the pigskin business. By mail from her home, Mrs. Dohrman sells pigskin blazers, skirts, and other clothing, as well as craft items, such as pigskin flowers.

``I think it has been a great awakening,'' says Larry Statler, director of the Rural Diversified Enterprise Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. ``Sometimes you have to struggle to learn.'' Mr. Statler's center, established by a local community college, has helped 1,500 rural families find better ways to turn a profit since it started in 1985. Statler himself opened Safari Iowa in March - a licensed hunting and nature preserve on a farm in east-central Iowa.

``It is the first time in my life that I am pricing my product where I am making a profit,'' says the one-time traditional farmer. ``I was almost a victim of the farm crisis.''

In the depths of the farm crisis a year and a half ago, Successful Farming magazine held the first of two conferences on diversified farming. Some 5,500 farmers, many bused in from all over the United States at the magazine's expense, heard about everything from beekeeping to raising okra.

``We were overwhelmed by the response after the first conference,'' says Betsy Freese, the magazine's associate editor. Some 800 letters flowed in, many from people making a last-ditch effort to save their farm. ``A lot of it was people going full bore into one operation. And then people realized they weren't going to save the farm by starting a shiitake mushroom farm.''

Since then, a more balanced view of diversification has taken hold in farm country, she adds. Farmers are experimenting with new crops without abandoning traditional sources of farm income.

``It's just like other businesses that diversify to make more money,'' says Dennis Heyob, a Harrison, Ohio, farmer who raises sweet corn and cantaloupes in addition to traditional field crops, such as soybeans and field corn. (Cattle eat field corn; people eat sweet corn.)

Here in Goshen, the Gibbonses are counting on traffic from the burgeoning Greater Cincinnati area to make their farm market successful. In 1986, low corn and soybean prices forced the Gibbonses and their two sons to give up their traditional corn-soybean operation. To meet payments, the family sold off its four tractors and the rest of its farm machinery. The Gibbonses gave back the land they used to rent.

Mrs. Gibbons had planned to start a small-scale farm market this spring. But at the retirement of her husband, who had worked full-time and farmed part-time, Mrs. Gibbons expanded her horizons. She now has six acres of sweet corn, an acre of Indian corn, a half acre each of peppers and tomatoes, and plans for three acres of pumpkins later this year. (One of their sons raises hogs with his father.)

``I have no idea how much I am going to sell, so I just go out and plant,'' she says. ``I do know there is more money to be made than in grain farming.''

In an average year, the family might have grossed $140 off an acre of field corn; off sweet corn, the comparable return could be $1,500.

A major drawback, however, is that prices fluctuate dramatically, depending on the season and the supply. The local market for sweet corn is so small that prices dip quickly if a few more farmers get into the business. That is why Mr. Heyob, who has been growing sweet corn for 20 years, tries to harvest his crop early. If successful, he can get high prices for a week to 10 days by sending his corn to northern Ohio and Detroit, which usually harvest their crop later.

Another major challenge is that specialty crops are time-consuming. The Gibbonses will not only have to spend the time selling their crops to the public, the crops demand a lot of care.

When the Gibbonses started to plant by hand 2,000 tomato plants in mid-May, they quickly got discouraged. ``After a while, we said: `There's got to be a better way.''' Finally, they pulled out their used mechanical planter and found, to their surprise, that it could plant tomatoes. Thus began what promises to be a long experiment in new farming in the late '80s.

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