Fresh Herb Production and Marketing
Jeanine M. Davis
Department of Horticultural Science
Many vegetable growers are looking for new ways to increase profits and diversify their operations. There also is an increasing number of part-time farmers who would like to supplement their income by growing small acreages of a high-value crop. At the same time demand for herbs and herb products has increased dramatically. We are now exposed to herbs on a daily basis at home, at work, and in public places. Herbs are used to flavor food and to add beauty and fragrance to our surroundings.
I encourage vegetable growers to consider producing herbs because of the great diversity in herb enterprises. I classify herbs into six general categories; fresh culinary herbs, dried culinary herbs, herb plants, decorative and fragrant herbs, essential oils and dyes, and medicinal herbs. The herbs in these categories differ in terms of cultural methods, scale of production, post-harvest handling, and marketing.
The first group of herbs, and the one of interest here, is fresh culinary herbs. This is production of fresh herbs for sale in the produce department of the supermarket or for fresh deliveries to restaurants, specialty shops, and food service institutions. Popular fresh herbs include basil, cilantro, mint, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, lemon balm, sage, and parsley.
Many fresh-market herb growers start out by producing small acreages of herbs and selling them directly to restaurants. In an area with a large number of gourmet restaurants, this may be a good way to supplement income. If the restaurants are few and far between, however, as production increases more and more time must be spent making deliveries. Eventually a point is reached where it doesn’t pay to deliver small quantities, a pound or two at a time, to many locations. At this stage, selling wholesale may be considered. In some areas there are wholesalers who specialize in herbs, organics, and ethnic vegetables. Bulk or retail packages can be prepared for them. Because of the perishability of the product, it is important to have markets established before herbs are harvested or even planted. It also pays to work closely with the buyer as to what to produce, when, and in what volumes.
The fresh-market herb produced in the largest volumes is basil. There are many small-scale fresh basil producers in North Carolina. Unfortunately, when most of them have product, in mid-summer, prices are low. The trick is to have fresh basil when no one else does; in early spring, after frost, and during the winter. Season extending methods, like covering plants with row-covers or trench culture, help stretch harvests into these low-product seasons. Greenhouse growers who produce basil in mid-winter rarely complain of an over-supply problem.
Whatever the scale of operation, post-harvest handling is critical to the success of fresh-market herb production. The herb must be handled very gently to prevent bruising. Leaves should be harvested and cooled quickly. If the herb needs to be washed, it also has to be dried. Herbs must also be packaged for long shelf-life and to prevent damage. Use of inferior packaging to save money will probably end up costing sales in the long run. Herbs should be treated like any other vegetable and packed in the proper boxes so they can be stacked and moved without damage to the product.
Value-added products can also be produced, the most common being pesto. This is the real reason for the popularity of basil right now. Pesto is a sauce made from fresh basil, olive oil, parmesan cheese, garlic, and pine nuts. Gourmet restaurants present it served over pasta. There is also a demand for pre-made pesto sold fresh or frozen. Fresh herbs can also be used to make vinegars and jellies.
Excess fresh herbs can also be processed and sold as dried culinary herbs. Examples of popular dried herbs include parsley, basil, rosemary, and sage. Dried herbs are sold in bulk or retail packages. Many small-scale growers sell retail packs at specialty stores or in their own shops. Dried herb production does require drying facilities. These can, however, be easily constructed by the grower. One real benefit to dried herbs is they can be stored till the market is ready. Dried herbs, too, can be used to make a variety of value-added products such as tea bags, herb blends, simmer sacks, and carpet fresheners.
As with any new crop, the first order of business is to establish markets. Then, determine what time of year the crop is needed and if it can be produced then. Will it fit into the production schedule of other crops and does the grower have the time, labor, space, and equipment to grow it? Is there a good location for direct marketing? Is there a specialty grocery store, gift shop, or health food store that will carry the products? What about a farmers’ market or roadside stands? Businesses can be promoted and customers educated by holding workshops, cooking classes, garden tours, and festivals. All of these advertise, educate, and help promote new specialty items.
Once a grower decides there is a market for herbs or herb products, he or she must learn how to grow the crop. An important point to keep in mind is that there is little reliable, useful production information available on fresh-market herbs. A grower must rely on his or her general horticulture knowledge and seek advice from successful herb growers.
Some general recommendations include: choosing a good site out of a frost pocket, maybe with a gentle slope, with good soil and good drainage, few noxious weeds, and a good water source. A worthwhile investment is an irrigation system; preferably drip. Most herbs will not tolerate moisture stress and benefit from a steady supply of water. Use a mulch; it holds moisture, controls weeds, and keeps the foliage clean. My research has shown that black polyethylene provides high yields and a clean product. Wheat straw works well in some locations, but can harbor slugs. Wood mulches, especially composted products, can provide some disease suppression but may reduce yields compared to other materials.
Keep in mind that there are very few agricultural chemicals cleared for use on herbs. Many herb producers use organic methods, but even if synthetic pesticides are used on other crops, it would be wise to learn some organic production techniques to raise herbs. Prevention is the best approach. Don’t plant in a weedy location, plant in a low lying area, space plants too close, or use a monoculture system. Do rotate your crops, diversify your plantings, and water properly.
If a grower is serious about herbs, he or she should join state and national herb associations. They can provide a wealth of information, often based on growers’ experience, that is unavailable through any other agency. They also provide marvelous opportunities for networking with other growers.
Herbs are beautiful plants to work with, fascinating in their variety, fragrance, and flavor. The public is also very interested in herbs. Of course, only the grower can make the final decision as to whether herbs fit into his or her business plan and production scheme. But if the decision is made to give them a try, remember to start small and develop a market early.
This is a revised version of an article which first appeared in the Proceedings of the 1993 New York State Vegetable Conference.