February 01, 2005

Researcher exploring specialty crops' potential

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- They'll never replace corn and soybeans, but Alan Walters thinks specialty crops could provide a spot of ready cash for farmers wanting to diversify. "They're things that local growers could grow fairly easily on less than five acres and without a lot of worry about insects or diseases," said Walters, Southern Illinois University Carbondale's point man on vegetables. "We sell a lot of these crops here on campus from our vegetable produce truck and have developed quite a following for some of them - globe artichokes, for example. When we don't have them, people are upset - they're asking for them."

Walters is now halfway through a three-year study of such alternative crops, paid for by the Illinois Department of Agriculture's Conservation 2000 Sustainable Agriculture Grant Program and the Council for Food and Agricultural Research. He's focusing on such items as sweet potatoes, garlic, cilantro, heirloom tomatoes, Asian vegetables and, of course, globe artichokes, searching for ways to maximize their production and maintain their long-term productivity. He's also looking at potential markets.

"It doesn't matter if you can grow these things - if you don't have a market, you won't get your investment back," he said.

Because of their popularity at the produce truck, Walters has taken a particular interest in globe artichokes, a thistle-like perennial with edible flower buds that provide a real challenge to diners who have never seen one eaten before.

"I'm kind of excited about this because there aren't that many perennial crops," he said. "If we can get it to overwinter, that's a new market for growers in the early spring."

But wait - if globe artichokes are perennials, why wouldn't they overwinter? That's what perennials do, after all.

"They're perennial in California (where most of America's artichokes are grown), but in colder climates, they're more like an annual," Walters explained.

"We're looking for ways to manipulate the environment around the plant so it will come back."

Walters is growing three green globe cultivars at the SIUC horticultural research station: Emerald, which can tolerate a certain amount of freezing; Imperial Star, which matures more quickly than any other in its family; and Northern Star, bred to survive sub-zero temperatures. He's experimenting with straw mulch and fabric covers for protecting individual rows to see if he can coax winter survival out of the less hardy cultivars and should have some preliminary answers come spring.

He's also looking at yields.

"If you want to pick for four months or so, Imperial Star is probably the best bet for a seasonal crop, and it's noticeably sweeter and more tender," Walters said.

"Emerald produced similar bud numbers over the season, but most appeared during the first part, of it where Imperial consistently produced buds throughout."

Northern Star yields didn't compare to those of the other two cultivars, but Walters thinks that might be a temporary difference.

"Being perennials, none of these cultivars would normally produce buds the first year they're planted, so for this evaluation study we had to trick them into thinking they went through the winter (by planting seeds in a conventional greenhouse and then moving the seedlings into an unheated shelter for four to six weeks)," he said.

"Since Northern Star is bred to be a lot more cold tolerant, it may have needed to go through the whole winter. It may produce better next year."

For more information on alternative crops, call Walters at 618/453-3446 or e-mail him at awalters@siu.edu.

Caption #1


Choked up — Alan Walters, Southern Illinois University Carbondale's vegetable expert, shows off a globe artichoke. Walters is growing the "chokes," as they're commonly called, as part of a research project focusing on specialty crops that could boost farm income.

Photo by Jeff Garner