Growing Herbs as a Cash Crop
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Jeanine M. Davis
Department of Horticultural Science
I encourage growers and would-be growers to consider herbs as a potential crop because of the tremendous diversity of herb enterprises. When vegetable growers consider growing herbs, they usually think of fresh-market herbs, the most popular being sweet basil, cilantro, and flat-leaf parsley. Fresh market herbs can be grown on large acreages for sales to wholesalers and chain stores or on very small acreages for direct sales to restaurants, farmer’s markets, and specialty grocery stores. One of the largest obstacles to getting started in fresh-market herb production is the lack of reliable, commercially oriented production information. There is no cookbook method for growing all the herbs. Often, your only option is to try cultural practices appropriate for a crop similar to the herb you are growing. For example, when developing production information for sweet basil, I started with cultural recommendations for leaf lettuce.
One of the most important cultural considerations for herbs is site selection. The site should have good drainage, adequate water supply, and few weeds. Remember that few, if any, agricultural chemicals are cleared for use on herbs. Seed selection is also very important. For example, depending on the seed source, a high percentage of basil seed can produce an off-type leaf which may not be marketable. In addition, many herbs, such as members of the mint family, should never be grown from seed and must be reproduced vegetatively to obtain the desired characteristics. In North Carolina, most herbs benefit from being grown on raised beds because they allow the soil to warm early in the spring and provide good drainage. I also highly recommend the use of mulch to control weeds, keep the foliage clean, and to hold moisture in the soil. My research, however, has shown that mulch type can be important for some herbs. For example, I looked at a variety of mulches for basil production, including black plastic, hardwood chips, softwood chips, and straw. All provided good weed control, but fresh wood mulches severely reduced yields. Overall, best results were obtained with black plastic mulch. In most situations, irrigation is essential, with drip-irrigation being the best choice because it reduces the incidence of foliar disease and permits harvest at any time. In western North Carolina, most growers must set-out transplants of tender annuals to obtain high early season yields. They also use high plant populations, including double rows per bed and close in-row spacings, to get the highest yields per unit land area.
Because there are so few agricultural chemicals cleared for use on herbs, the primary method of pest control is prevention. Multiple crops, strict crop rotations, careful sanitation, and small, multiple plantings tend to keep disease and insect problems to a minimum. Because there is so little information available on herb fertilization, a soil test should be taken and general recommendations for lettuce or vegetable gardens are usually followed. My experience has shown that it is better to be conservative with fertilizer, especially nitrogen, because many herbs lose flavor if they are grown too rapidly. Because the best prices for many herbs are obtained in the off-season, growers may try to extend their seasons with the use of row covers, tunnels, and small, moveable hoop structures covered with plastic. Greenhouse production is also popular and often profitable.
How and when the herb is harvested is critical for a high-quality product. For example, basil should be harvested in the cool of the day, handled very gently, and packed in coolers immediately after cutting. If you are creative and organized, there should be little waste. For example, if you have an overabundance of fresh basil, make pesto and freeze it. As with any crop, it is important to establish markets before the crop is planted. The most successful growers in North Carolina have been the ones who have been creative with their marketing strategies. For example, for restaurant sales feature an “‘herb of the week” and provide some free herb and recipes for chefs.
Another herb enterprise which has been very successful is production and sale of herb plants. There is a high demand for bedding plants in the spring and the demand in fall is increasing. Unlike some other bedding plants, people want a variety of large, well-established herb plants. They don’t buy many of one kind, but one each of many different kinds. This provides a nice little niche for small greenhouse owners who can produce a variety of herbs including annuals and perennials. Herb plants are sold in many ways including mail order, specialty shops, nurseries, and spring fairs and festivals.
Another herb crop of interest in North Carolina is garlic, particularly elephant garlic. Many small-acreage growers like garlic because it is planted in the fall and harvested in the spring, allowing them to multi-crop the land if desired. Weed control is critical for good bulb size, and presently, this is all done mechanically. To prevent serious insect and disease problems from developing, a strict crop rotation plan should be followed and only the best bulbs should be used for replanting.
The key to being successful with herbs is, of course, marketing. Because of the diversity of herbs and herb products, there are many opportunities for all size herb operations. Herbs are particularly well-suited to small, part-time, family operations where different family members take responsibility for growing, making value-added products, and marketing. No matter how you sell your herbs, it is important to educate the customer. Most people are fascinated with herbs, but they know little about them. The more they know how to use herbs, the more they buy. One way to handle this is to provide recipe cards with your herbs. If you are selling herb plants from your farm, display gardens will help make sales. Offer tours of the gardens. Describe the plants, how to grow them, how to landscape with them, and how to use them. Provide plans for the display gardens along with a list of plants needed, and have plenty of those plants for sale. Herb fairs and festivals have also proved to be excellent promotional tools and big sales events in North Carolina. During these events, demonstrations and talks are offered on a variety of topics such as how to make pesto, how to use Chinese herbs, and how to make a tussie mussie.
People are hungry for herbs and herb products and we haven’t even begun to reach the full potential of what can be offered, from plants, to teas, to wreaths, to soaps, etc. You are only limited by your imagination and your abilities to manage a diverse operation and effectively sell your products. The keys are to take advantage of the many opportunities to market; direct sales, wholesale, mail-order, and craft shows. Keep informed and share information through your state or regional association. Herbs can offer exciting opportunities to many people. To be successful, however, you must be willing to take a different approach to selling then maybe you have ever done before. In my experience, that has been the challenge.
The original version of this article was produced for the 1994 New Jersey Vegetable Conference