As U.S. agriculture continues to diversify, more first time farmers are turning to niche markets to establish their new family farms.
While the term horticulture is broad by definition but limited in scope, the so-called niche market is opening the door to a new generation of organic farmers, specialty crop producers and aspiring floriculture landscapers and nurserymen.
Defining horticulture isn't an easy task.
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According to Louisiana State University, horticulture is the science and art involved in the cultivation, propagation, processing and marketing of ornamental plants, flowers, turf, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. But the University of Minnesota defines horticulture as the art and science of plant production for both beauty and utility, indicating that rather than staple crops, horticulture focuses on value-added, luxury crops.
To further complicate things, according to American scholar and one of the fathers of horticultural science, Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954), horticulture is the growing of flowers, fruits and vegetables, and of plants for ornament and fancy. Taking it one step further, an Ohio State University agronomist defined horticulture as that part of plant agriculture concerned with “garden crops” as contrasted with agronomy, the science and production of field crops such as grains and forages.
It's not surprising then that a degree of confusion exists when it comes to properly differentiating between a row crop farmer and a farmer who grows crops in a greenhouse or wind tunnel or on a vine or tree.
Perhaps the best definition of horticulture – and the one that sets the bar – is provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Simply put, horticulture is the cultivation and production of fruits, nuts and other specialty crops and floriculture products like flowers and other plants for landscape.
SPECIALTY CROP PRODUCTION
Ultimately, USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) brings the clarity of the term to light with the release of their 2014 Census of Horticultural Specialties report, published Dec. 14. The report focuses on specialty crop and floriculture production, and regardless how you term it or how you choose to define it, it indicates horticulture is a viable and growing area of U.S. farming.
For example, horticulture operations sold a total of $13.8 billion in floriculture, nursery and specialty crops in 2014, up 18 percent since 2009. The number of horticulture operations in the United States also increased, from 8 percent during this time to 23,221.
“This report contains the results of the tenth Census of Horticultural Specialties,” said Chairman of the Agricultural Statistics Board Mark Harris. “First conducted in 1889, the horticulture census provides data on industries for which there are no other comprehensive data sources. It is a valuable tool to highlight the contributions horticulture growers bring to state-level economies – whether in sales earned or expenses paid for hired labor.”
The top 10 states for horticulture production represent about 65 percent of the total $13.8 billion in sales, including Texas, which ranked No.5 with $594 million in sales.
Other key findings from the 2014 Census of Horticultural Specialties report include:
- Family- or individually-owned operations made up the largest number of operations, accounting for 53 percent, but corporately owned operations accounted for 76 percent of sales ($10.5 billion).
- Total industry expenses were up 16 percent since 2009, with labor being the largest, accounting for 37 percent of total expenses in 2014.
- Food crops grown under cover gained in prominence as the number of operations engaged in this practice increased 71 percent to 2,521.
“Because horticulture production is becoming more diverse in the United States, NASS worked with key stakeholders to ensure the 2014 Census of Horticultural Specialties would meet the needs of growers, industry leaders, and policymakers,” said Harris. “We added 60 new items to the questionnaire to provide the most up-to-date assessment of current industry trends, including items like peonies, lavender, rudbeckia, cacti and succulents.”
TOP U.S. HORTICULTURE COMMODITIES
The top commodities in U.S. horticulture sales reflect this diversity. The top commodities sold in 2014, and compared to 2009, were:
- Nursery stock, $4.27 billion, up 11 percent
- Annual bedding/garden plants, $2.57 billion, up 11 percent
- Sod, sprigs and plugs, $1.14 billion, up 30 percent
- Potted flowering plants, $1.08 billion, up 24 percent
- Potted herbaceous perennials, $945 million, up 12 percent
- Food crops under protection, $797 million, up 44 percent