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Sustainable Agriculture

Heritage Plant Holds Promise for Northeast Growers

The wild beach plum, a gnarly shrub that grows on sand dunes between Maine and Maryland, offers the potential to both diversify Northeast farm operations and give growers a financial boost.

Beach plums, about the size and color of purple grapes, make a tasty, unusual jam and, for many New Englanders, conjure up summers spent on Cape Cod. The fruit's popularity and historically based appeal—beach plums have been harvested and processed into spreads by locals for more than a century—translate into a highly marketable new commodity.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education-funded researchers at Cornell University planted beach plum stock on research stations and 12 farms in 2002, and their field day and resulting publicity encouraged 22 more farmers to request beach plum plants. Participating farmers in Massachusetts and New York, many of them vegetable, berry, and cranberry producers looking to diversify, are interested in this niche crop that lends itself so well to value-added products.

“It's something unique,” said Rick Uva, a Cornell project cooperator. “People like that it has a local history and mystique.”

The plant, hardy enough to grow a heavy fruit crop in its native harsh dune environment, performed well on research stations even during 2002's summer drought. Growers, who will wait 3 or 4 years for plants to bear fruit, may be able to shore up dry years and attract new customers.

“There's a tremendous local interest historically,” said Ron Smalowitz, a Falmouth, MA, vegetable and berry grower who has grown a plot of beach plums since 1996 and improved and expanded his stock to 300 with help from the Cornell team. Smalowitz processes his own plum jam for sale at his farm stand.

While his berry business remains brisk, beach plum jam retails for $1 more per jar, and “We can't keep it on the shelves,” he said. Project leader Tom Whitlow predicts that restaurant chefs seeking unique and regional products will pay top dollar for the little plums. “It has a local panache,” Whitlow said.


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