Niche Crop Boosts Farm Revenues

Young couple establishes wildlife seed business as part of growing North Carolina family farm

One of the toughest lessons farm families face is how to make financial room for a family member returning to the farm. It usually means renting or buying more acres, or adding another business enterprise.

In the case of the Lassiter family of Conway, North Carolina, expansion meant doing all three, as I discovered from spending Monday morning at the family operation just south of the Virginia state line.

Parents Bobby and Debbie Lassiter faced the expansion question when their son Donny (pictured with wife Jamie) wanted to come back to the farm after earning his bachelors and Master of Science degrees at North Carolina State in 2000. At the time, the family raised around 2,500 acres of crops – mostly cotton – and were also preparing to make room for another son, Mark.

"I began renting nearby acreage from a retiring farmer and started out as a salaried employee - humble beginnings, but a good way to learn the business," says Donny, now 33. 

After a year on the farm Donny decided to start a sideline business growing Chufa, a food crop used to attract turkeys and water fowl. He liked the business concept because it meshed with the family's commitment to environment and wildlife; and he liked the crop in part because it is a tuber, similar to peanuts.

After working through first year kinks and engineering changes to an old peanut combine, Donny saw steady growth in the business. Jamie moonlights as head salesperson, no small feat considering her full time job is as a speech pathologist. They doubled their initial two-acre plot each year and now grow 60 acres. The crop manages drought well, which North Carolina growers suffered from badly this summer. Today they sell and package seed in 10, 25 and 50-lb. bags for wholesale and retail all around the country.

The couple markets their crop under the name Cypress Knee Chufa, mostly through the internet (www.cypruskneechufa.com). Internet sales and persistent follow-up marketing help keep the Lassiters busy –and sold out – each year as the business continues to grow.

We're going to be telling many more stories of entrepreneurial success in an upcoming issue of Farm Futures. Do you know someone who has started a sideline business from the farm? Let me know at [email protected]

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