Specialty CropsSpecialty crops are among the largest agricultural outputs in the United States today. Accounting for more than 16% of total agricultural output and possessing a market value of approximately $79.8 billion, the importance – and growing prominence – of specialty crops in the wider ag industry can’t be overstated.

With that fact in mind, AEM is committed to working with company leaders to better meet the needs, wants and demands of equipment end users who have helped make the specialty crop industry what it is today. This is largely accomplished through the work being done by the association’s Specialty Crop Leadership Group, which works to identify product-related challenges to the specialty crop industry, formulate industry driven solutions, develop and grow awareness of specialty crop-related issues with the general public and governing bodies, as well as identifies means by which AEM may better support this product group.

AEM recently spoke with four of the group’s representatives to discuss the future of the specialty crop sector, AEM’s role in its ongoing evolution and much, much more.

AEM: There seems to be a wealth of opportunities and challenges facing the specialty crop sector right now. With that in mind, do you feel like there’s reason to expect growth on the horizon in this sector? Why or why not?

Pat Abert, President, Pellenc America, Inc.: That’s a pretty tough question. In my opinion, though, there’s reason to be pretty optimistic for the next five years, overall. Generally, in the United States. we’re still lacking mechanization in the industry. I think more mechanization is coming, just because it has to at this point. It’s really just a matter of time.

We’re also going to see good longer-term rentals in the future, and we’re already seeing consolidation between larger corporations in our industry. It’s really difficult to tell if, or how, it’ll impact our business. Large companies are trying to run as lean and as efficient possible. And, ultimately, it’s difficult to say how that’ll impact the overall sales and growth.

Also, in my experience, anytime you talk about specialty crop sector, we’re behind the general ag industry. At least, that’s what I’ve seen over the last 30 years. One of the challenges is that, because we are specialty equipment, growers want something very specific. You talk to one customer, they want one thing. Then, you talk to another, and they want something a little bit different.

The challenge for companies is to try to put on the market something that they will sell more just a handful of units. I don’t know how that’s going to affect our industry long term, but I really do believe there’s going to be more and more standardization of the specialty crop market over time.

Matt Walker, Product Manager, Kubota Tractor Corporation: Overall, I think the next five years will be fairly interesting, as people understand more, and as technology becomes more and more prevalent with time. The consumer is demanding it, and that demand isn’t going to go away.

Bigger picture, when you look at the crops that are in this category, demand will continue to be there, and growers will have to react accordingly. Bigger companies have – and will continue to – get involved in the market, and the impacts are going to be interesting to watch as things unfold. Overall, though, I think the outlook is a positive one.

AEM: AEM has begun to expand into specialty crops, and work is underway to better serve that sector. Can you speak to the efforts of the Specialty Crop Leadership Group thus far, and also what it’s purpose is moving forward?

Walker: As a group, we are trying to put across more balanced viewpoint on the industry and all that entails, as well as serve as a voice to growers and give government agencies that are making decisions more information about the industry as a whole.

AEM: In what ways can AEM better serve the specialty crop industry?

Abert: When you talk about specialty crops, there’s always concerns about safety. There isn’t a lot of guidance, I would say. If you look at root crops, for example, you’ve got equipment that is custom built, a company is trying to make some modifications, and you’ve got equipment that is being modified by some companies to meet specific needs. There isn’t much out there to help these companies know what they should or shouldn’t include from a safety standpoint. For equipment manufacturers, I think that could be a part of the challenge depending on the regulations that pop up. I’m thinking of specifically California. I think AEM can help guide what is -- and what is not -- required in terms of safety.

Jerry Johnson, President and CEO, Smart Guided Systems: I think AEM’s Ag Sector Board should have a seat allocated to a short liner from the specialty crop sector. We brought in dairy in the past, and it helped broaden the discussion among the Board. The large OEMs are broad enough that they cover all markets. But I think if there’s someone from specialty crop represented, and that’s all they do, I think AEM could help that way.

AEM: What do you and your organization hope to get out of your involvement with the Specialty Crop Leadership Group, or what do you hope to gain from that experience?

Johnson: For me, it’s simple -- knowledge and visibility for us as a startup company and the value we add to growers and OEMs.

Walker: It’s about having a presence to show who we are, show that we are invested in the market, and that we are investing in technology for the market. It’s also a good opportunity to learn from and speak to other people in the industry who have different views and experiences.

AEM: Let’s say another manufacturer had some questions or interest in contributing to this group. What advice would you give them about getting involved themselves?

Walker: Don’t hold back! We’re all here to learn, and we’re all in the same situation. It’s an important industry. Ask questions, get involved and be curious.

Tanner Cady, Product Marketing Manager, New Holland: Be open minded, as we have a whole array of products. And, in order to keep up, listen to your dealers, and listen to your customers.

AEM: Imagine someone came to you and asked, “Why do specialty crops matter?” What would you say?

Walker: I would say, the next time you hit the bar and have a pint of beer or a glass of wine, or you order a salad, think about where it’s coming from. That is a great way to impact people and show the importance of specialty crops.

Cady: Absolutely. We touch everyone in the world, 100%.

Abert: I think for me, it’s usually a lot of people have a passion for what we do. I’m not saying others lack passion. But once you enter the specialty crop industry, nothing is black or white. It’s very interesting how things are always changing. I’ve been here for 20 years, and I’ve never been bored. It’s always evolving, and it’s always a challenge. And, to me, ultimately, that’s a good thing.

Learn More

Want to learn more about AEM’s Ag Leadership Groups and the work being done on behalf of members? Contact AEM Agricultural Services Manager Austin Gellings at agellings@aem.org.

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