It is interesting to compare the success of pickling cucumbers, cotton, and rapeseed with broccoli which has been the focus of a large research and extension program in the College of Agriculture at VPI&SU over the past 10 years, but has not lived up to its potential as an alternative crop. In the early 1980s when prices were severely depressed, a group of tobacco growers from southern Virginia asked the College of Agriculture at VPI&SU for assistance in developing alternative crops for their region. A USDA marketing study showed that there was a strong demand for fall broccoli in the eastern United States. Since broccoli produces a high return per unit area, as does tobacco, and because of the long growing season in southern Virginia, researchers at VPI&SU developed production recommendations and encouraged growers to produce fall broccoli. Extension specialists enthusiastically provided on site production demonstrations for interested growers. The state government helped finance a modern vegetable cooperative in Halifax to market broccoli. Yet in spite of this massive effort, today less than 40 ha of broccoli are produced in the tobacco belt of southern Virginia, only a fraction of the area that was originally envisioned.
Broccoli has failed to become an important crop in southern Virginia for several reasons. The tobacco market which had been depressed in the early 1980s rebounded dramatically, largely due to tobacco exports. Today, there is a near record high 21,457 ha of tobacco grown in Virginia (Anon. 1991). Broccoli is a delicate crop and requires more precise management than tobacco, making it a more difficult crop for farmers to produce. Unlike tobacco, broccoli is a very perishable crop that must be harvested and transported to market in a timely manner. Most of the farmers who tried growing broccoli continued raising tobacco as well. Often planting dates for broccoli, irrigation schedules, and fertilizer applications conflicted with the tobacco harvest, and as a result the broccoli crop was often neglected. Stand establishment was also a problem because of the high late summer temperatures during planting season. One of the most important factors working against the successful development of broccoli as an alternative crop was the fact that tobacco had been a staple crop and a part of the local culture for many generations. Consequently, farmers were reluctant to abandon tobacco in favor of an another crop, despite the economic potential it offered.
Approximately 80 ha of pickling cucumbers are grown in southern Virginia by tobacco growers for a pickle packer in North Carolina who has encouraged production in the area (P. Ramsey pers. commun.). Pickling cucumbers only return about $1,225 per ha, much less than broccoli or tobacco. However, pickling cucumber production is much more compatible with tobacco than broccoli because the cucumber harvest coincides with the slack period before tobacco harvest. This allows growers to maximize the use of farm laborers throughout the entire summer.
Cotton has become a successful alternative crop for several reasons. Cotton offers growers a higher return per hectare when compared with other traditional agronomic crops grown in southeastern Virginia. The production practices, although some what different, were similar to those used for other crops. New and used harvesting equipment was available in nearby North Carolina. Although no research and extension work had been done in Virginia on cotton, production recommendations developed at North Carolina State University were successfully used by growers in southeastern Virginia.
Rapeseed is a crop that could also be grown using existing farm equipment. Rapeseed production is compatible with other crop rotations and provides a comparable or higher return compared with other winter annuals. Grain dealers set up collection points in northern Virginia which made marketing easier. In addition, grain dealers and a farm supply company distributed a video cassette on rapeseed production to growers throughout the state which stimulated interest in the crop.
While the results of this study show that the agriculture universities in Virginia are very actively involved in new crop development, the role of the private sector in the process should not be discounted. In times of reduced public funding for agricultural programs, private industry should be looked upon to provide funding and markets for new commodities. The successful development of alternative crops in Virginia involves many complex factors that may make the success of a project difficult to predict. Grower interest in all aspects of the production and marketing of a given crop is essential. The results of this study suggest that grower interest in alternative crops involves other considerations besides profitability.