Ten years ago, the word “niche” occasionally came up in conversations — usually those about foreign words no one could define.
Today, niche is a common term. It describes how businesses carve out a small portion of a market as a specialty. Especially in agriculture, farmers, ranchers, processors and retailers all seem to be looking for just the right niche. Especially for small-scale operations, a niche is an important part of any business plan. No small farm or processor could ever produce the same crop or product as a large one and hope to compete. The economies of scale are always on the side of the big guys.
But if the right niche can be carved out, size doesn’t matter. In fact, in the case of many niches, small is better.
Micro-breweries are a perfect example of how niches work. Every consumer knows the large players among breweries. They produce such international brands as Budweiser, Miller and Coors, which they sell by the truckload.
A micro-brewery, however, is selling more than good beer in large quantities. It’s selling a much smaller amount of many unique beers. Beers can have unusual flavors such as berries, honey, chocolate and vanilla. These and others are added to styles such as pale ales, pilsners, porters, stouts, lagers and hefeweizens.
A recent stroll through a neighborhood supermarket found 142 distinct types and styles of micro-brews for sale in addition to the mainstream brands.
This creates the triple benefits of allowing small breweries to survive — and even thrive — in a world of brewing goliaths. At the same time, the added niches generate demand for different types of ingredients such as hops and barley, benefiting farmers. And finally, the proliferation of micro-breweries benefits large brewers, too, as consumers will also try their many types of beers.
That same principle is being applied to nearly every sector of agriculture. Whether it’s meats, vegetables, nursery stock or even Christmas trees, growers, marketers and retailers are carving out niches for their crops.
One type of niche is certifications such as organic, biodynamic and salmon safe. Other niches are kosher, halal, local, artisan and hand-made. Others are gluten-free, vegan, GMO-free, grass-fed and everyone’s favorite, sustainable. How crops are sold is also a niche. CSAs, U-pick, roadside stands, niche grocery stores and even meals-in-a-box are all gaining popularity.
All of which is good, and provides consumers with many choices, depending on their preferences and how much they can afford to spend.
Which brings us to another niche, the largest of all. It’s the niche filled by the vast majority of farmers and ranchers, who provide Americans — and much of the world — with healthful, plentiful and affordable food.
It is a niche that none of us could do without.