The Agriculture Department's search for strange new ways to help small farmers has resulted in suggestions about production of exotic livestock, goats, herbs, wildflowers, mushrooms and other specialties.

Reports from the Office for Small-Scale Agriculture, which is part of the Cooperative State Research Service, are about exotic fruits and so-called dessert vines.Editor George B. Holcomb is the author of the one-sheet reports, which bear the general title, "A Small-Scale Agriculture Alternative." In other words, each one offers potential opportunities for small farmers. Some could lead to big returns. No guarantees, though, and there are pitfalls.

Here's what the report on exotic fruits has to say:

"Certain potentially high-demand tropical or other exotic fruits growing in Florida or California also have varieties that will bear fruit farther north. But potential small-scale northern enterprisers should not buy seeds or seedlings from anyone until checking them out carefully with a horticulturist at their county or state extension office."

The growing demand for specialty fruits in most large cities means that skilled small producers may be able to compete with the big operators from New Zealand, Central America and South America.

But that can be done only if growers select varieties carefully and master their marketing homework.

One of the possibilities is the kiwi fruit, a native of New Zealand that has caught on with many American consumers since it was introduced in the early 1960s. California and Florida are the centers of U.S. kiwi production, but there are some experiments with hardier varieties from South Carolina on west.

"While some fruits do well in one state and not in another, a few, like the feijoa, a native of South America, have also been adopted successfully by New Zealanders, Floridians and Californians," the report said. "With some protection, it too can be cultivated farther to the north; but, according to the latest reports, it hasn't, possibly because damaging fruit flies love it so."

The report lists names and addresses for specific marketing information about exotic fruit production.

In the second new report about dessert vines, the watermelon and its cousins come into full glory with types and varieties that grocery shoppers perhaps never dreamed of a few years ago.

New disease-resistant watermelons, for example, open up new possibilities for small-scale entrepreneurs who want to produce them for local markets.

"It could mean a comeback for watermelons, which were consumed at the rate of about 17.9 pounds per capita in the 1950s," the report said. "The rate dropped to only 12.8 pounds in the 1970s."

The new assortment of hardier watermelons includes the miniatures, the "icebox" melon that weighs 5 to 10 pounds. Also, hybrids are being produced without seeds, with some of these melons averaging about 15 pounds.

"Growers say that besides their resistance to the common diseases of anthracnose and fusarium wilt, mini-melons are firmer, crisper and sweeter than other watermelons," the report said. "Whether size gives them a marketing advantage over their 20- to 25-pound cousins is a queston."

Another dessert vine is the cantaloupe, which are grown in many parts of the country. And there are some varieties that will do better than others, depending on location and other climatic factors.

For free single copies of the two reports - "Exotic Fruits" and "Dessert Vines" - write to: Howard W. Kerr Jr., Program Director, Office for Small-Scale Agriculture, Cooperative State Research Service-Office of Grants and Program Systems, Room 342-D, Aerospace Building, USDA, Washington, D.C., 20251-2200. Or telephone (202)447-3640.