Specialty crops are defined as fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, and horticulture crops and nursery crops, including floriculture. They do not include field crops such as corn or hay, nor major livestock operations such as dairy, but they do include all vegetable and fruit crops as well as minor animal enterprises such as fish farming and honey. Specialty crops are mostly very labor-intensive, and mechanization efforts are needed to provide engineering solutions applicable to their production: efficient, scale appropriate powered equipment; labor-aids and automation; sensors and diagnostics; and integrated and sustainable production systems.
Kentucky does not have any strongly established specialty crops industries, but it does have widely scattered specialty crop production supplying both local and wholesale markets. Small-scale production by market growers, selling their products through farmers markets, farm stands, and community-supported agriculture (CSA) operations, has grown considerably in recent years as consumer interest in buying local has increased. Larger-scale production for wholesale markets also shows great potential, however, as Kentucky is strategically located within a distance of less than one day’s drive from nearly half the population of the entire United States.
Kentucky has a rich history of smaller-scale family farming operations, but as tobacco production has decreased since the demise of the federal support system, the need for diversification has increased. Specialty Crops Mechanization efforts in the Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department are focused on diversification efforts for family farms in Kentucky. Of particular interest is vegetable production using black plastic mulch and trickle irrigation. Important issues being addressed are water use conservation, weed control between rows of plastic, and improving ways for pulling and handling plastic following the growing season. Additional efforts directed toward market growers include developing lower-cost alternatives for season extension and post-harvest storage and processing of produce.