Tapping Into the Organic Herb & Spice Market

Niche markets with unlimited potential.

Richard Alan Miller interviews Conrad Richter for Acres USA.

Conrad Richter

With the winds-of-change, and the ever present need for agriculture to find new directions and opportunities, Richters Herbs of Canada has emerged as the premier seed source for common and rare herbs and botanicals.

Richters Annual Herb Growers Conference has become the largest-attended annual event in North America for the farmer and those specializing in herb farm production. No other event in North America is oriented with the depth information toward these producers, and their niche-marketed items.

With Internet web-page presence, in-depth services offered, and the national emerging interest in this form of alternative agriculture, Richters Herbs has become the focus for herb and spice farming resources. Conrad Richter, in the tradition of both his mother, father, and family, continues the effort toward the development of the herb and spice trade for North America.

Whatever else can be said about the herb and spice trade, it is written in stone that whatever might be purchased for use in North America, European usage and total dollars spent constitute more than ten times (10X) that spent domestically. Situated with good export potential, alternative crops such as herbs and spices have become the next great focus for export this next century, and the changing faces of agriculture.

 
ACRES U.S.A. Let’s begin with some basic historical background on your father and mother, and how they eventually came to Canada?

RICHTER. My father took an apprenticeship in the nursery trade in Austria. Soon after marrying, my parents started a small nursery in Austria growing vegetable transplants and bedding plants in cold frames. The thing I remember about that period was my dad telling me that the cold frames were heated with the heat from freshly decomposing manure placed beneath the plants. I always thought this was kind of neat.

ACRES U.S.A. Memories are nice. They give us a sense of why we do what we do, and are often very informative. Perhaps you might share another memory from your father?

RICHTER. Another thing I remember was that it was not common practice to grow and sell transplants in containers. Seeds were sown directly in the cold frames, and seedlings were dug and wrapped in newspaper as customers bought. With all the talk about growing seeds and plants organically, it strikes me that even the most lauded nurseries are doing way more damage to the environment consuming vast quantities of hydrocarbons and using plastic pots than was common practice even just a few decades ago in Europe.

ACRES U.S.A. When did your mother and father (and family, including you) move to Canada?

RICHTER. My parents emigrated to Canada in 1953 and immediately took a variety of jobs working in nurseries in southern Ontario. In those days nurseries hired immigrants from Europe to do weeding, pruning, grafting, and planting. I think the starting wage was 25 cents an hour. My father joined the Metropolitan Toronto Parks Department as a foreman in the 1960s, working his way up the administration until he was near to the top when he retired in the 1980s.

ACRES U.S.A. How old were you and your brother at that time? Perhaps share some of your first memories of Canada back then? And how has it begun to change?

RICHTER. I was born in Canada. My brothers and sister were ages 3 to 10. I remember hearing how my siblings were so easily able to excell in school because the quality of education in Europe was superior at the time despite the ravages of war.

ACRES U.S.A. How did the family business of Richters first begin in Canada?

RICHTER. My father and mother founded the Richters business in 1967 with the purchase of a decrepit greenhouse operation near Toronto. My brothers and I helped to restore the greenhouses, rebuilding them, adding new glazing and repairing the service buildings. My father worked weekends, evenings and summer vacations getting Richters off the ground. This is very important because for many years the herb business just was not profitable enough to provide a living wage for the family full time. He kept his job with Metro Parks until his retirement in the 1980s. Retirement did not slow my father down a bit; it just meant that he could devote all of his time to the business. He worked seven days a week, ten or more hours a day, almost until his death in 1991. The original idea was to start a general nursery business with landscaping and garden equipment as sidelines. My brothers each took charge of the sidelines. It was really my mother who got us started with herbs, and that became my area of responsibility.

ACRES U.S.A. At your mother’s guidance, how did Richters evolve into a multi-herb business it now finds itself?

RICHTER. Richters began as a bedding plant grower supplying large contract buyers and selling at our own retail garden center. My mother insisted that we grow the herbs she remembered from home but could not find locally. In the 1960s, the only herbs familiar to Canadians were parsley and mint (and Cannabis!). But like most Europeans, my mother grew up with herbs, in the kitchen and the garden, and she wanted to bring them back in her life. I remember laboring hard to write by hand the hundreds of labels for the pots of herbs we grew: “Salbei” (sage), “Kerbel” (chervil), “Thymian” (thyme), “Majoran” (marjoram), and many others. We didn’t even know the English names then. The herbs were intended for planting in our own gardens, but customers noticed the strange plants growing in our greenhouses and began to ask about them. They were fascinated by the flavors and aromas and health benefits of herbs and to our surprise, they began to buy them. To be sure, sales of herbs were tiny in the early days, but we saw a real latent interest in herbs, enough to prompt us to put out our first herb catalogue in 1970.

ACRES U.S.A. What is the first advice you offer the newcomers to the herb trade? And, how fast is the current growing in interest over the last five years?

RICHTER. I find myself telling the legions of refugees from the city who are getting into the herb business: Don’t quit your daytime job; you will need the money to tide you over until the herb farm becomes profitable. Herbs are not a get rich quick scheme! Over the past five years there has been a huge upsurge of interest. What is remarkable is the change in perception of herbs: herbs are no longer fringe; they are firmly in the mainstream of modern society. Bankers and investors now take the herb industry more seriously; suppliers are easier to work with; so, it is generally easier to get started today than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

ACRES U.S.A. Can you give an example of what usually happens to those first starting out? What might they avoid to protect themselves and their crops? What can they expect over their first years of production with herbs?

RICHTER. People start out with great enthusiasm, planting acres of crop, only to be disappointed when it comes time to sell their crop. Buyers just don’t show up magically. I always advise customers to start small: plant a few crops – even just a quarter acre each – to get familiar with their crops, how to grow them, how to harvest them, and most importantly, how to market them. It is very much a “chicken-or-egg” situation in that buyers won’t buy or contract until they know the product you produce. But if you produce without knowing the input costs, you can get burned easily and forced to sell at a loss. There is a high failure rate in this business; not because it is impossible to make money on herbs, but because people have unrealistic expectations at the start, coupled with a real lack of reliable information on the input costs and the prices buyers are willing to pay.

ACRES U.S.A. What were those influences, or the mandates and “ways of doing business” from historical influences of your parents. And, besides trying to make a living, what are your current concerns and goals?

RICHTER. Our biggest concern was always to grow a good product and give good service. But the reality was clear very early that we needed to educate people about herbs. In the early days there was no market for herbs, so we had to create it. We are always eager to teach people about the benefits of herbs and how to use herbs. The catalogue became our primary educational tool early on, and it still is. People tell us that they rely on Richters herb catalogue as a handy reference guide to herbs. We have added free seminars, an annual commercial herb growing conference, workshops, even our detailed plant labels – all initiatives that help to educate people about herbs. When herbs started to attract new entrants to the industry in big numbers, we became inundated with requests for information on how to start a herb farm. We saw a opportunity to service those new entrants with seeds and plants, but that wasn’t enough. These people were hungry for information, and so it came back to education, just as it has always been for our retail business. Just as my mother sparked our interest in herbs, she was responsible for our commitment to organic growing principles.

ACRES U.S.A. How did sustainability (and COG) issues evolve in the seed business, and Canada in general?

RICHTER. We have always promoted “grow your own”. In the early days we could have gone into herbal product manufacturing – herbal pills, tinctures, and the like – but we stuck to our roots: the business of growing herbs. To be sure, selling seeds and plants are not as lucrative as pills and tinctures, but growing herbs was the path we chose because growing is what we know best. So, in that sense, I guess, you could say we have promoted “sustainability.” Even as manufactured herbal products became widely available, people still want to grow their own herbs. With the enormous increase in demand worldwide, questions about the sustainability of harvesting herbs from the wild have cropped up. Some herbs have been harvested to near extinction; Goldenseal is a poignant example, moving the U.S. government to protect wild stocks by getting Goldenseal on the CITES II list. But as shortages become more common, they present real opportunities for commercial herb growers who are bringing into production plants that were once only collected from the wild.

ACRES U.S.A. Are you saying you have always been organic, even before this current trends (from the early 70s)?

RICHTER. Already in the 1960s we were selling organically grown bedding plants and herbs and vegetables, long before people understood the significance. In the early days it was really tough to keep up that commitment because people only saw the leaves that were lighter green or had the occasional whitefly or spider mite on them. “Organic” certainly did not have the cachet it does now, and early on it was even a bit of a drawback from a marketing standpoint because wholesale customers had no patience for bugs and blemishes.

ACRES U.S.A. What has been done by Richters to improve pest control in organic-style farming?

RICHTER. We stuck to our principles because we believe in them. Since 1993 we have conducted research on organic pest control. Our research has followed both experimental and theoretical lines in an multi-disciplinary approach. The theoretical realizations have been profound for us – not necessarily anything new to science, but real eye-openers for us as commercial growers – forcing us to think in ways we hadn’t before.

ACRES U.S.A. You have, to some extent then, pioneered in the concept and new field of beneficial insects to specific plants. Explain what you are accomplishing with the introduction of insects to the plants?

RICHTER. We began to see why introducing beneficial insects would not work on a potted herb product, except when used in a particular way. Beneficials cannot be counted on to keep pests down once a plant is removed from a greenhouse environment and placed in a customer’s home. There are many reasons for this, including temperature and humidity changes, and the loss of a migrating source of beneficials from neighboring plants. But predator-prey models in theoretical ecology suggest a possibility of driving pest (prey) populations in greenhouses to extinction with heavy predator (beneficials) pressure, an outcome not possible according to theory in the open environment of the outdoor garden or field (because of immigration). We have actually managed to drive pest populations to extinction as predicted by theory.

ACRES U.S.A. Are there any setbacks or drawback to COG (Certification of Organically Grown)?

RICHTER. Despite our long commitment to organic principles, we are aware of the limitations. We frequently cannot get organically grown seeds, or have them produced for us organically. And we cannot always rely on organic methods to keep our stock plants clean. Our policy has evolved to one where we are resolutely committed to finding organic solutions, but not if the situation otherwise forces us to reduce our selection.

ACRES U.S.A. What area (or areas) of improvement are you most committed to now?

RICHTER. You could say our commitment to selection is higher than our commitment to organic-style farming – but that is not really correct. It is relatively easy to find new herbs to expand our selection (now over 800 varieties), but the research we are doing to improve organic techniques is costly and sucks up most of our brain power. Increasingly, we have been working to improve herbs. Traditionally, little or no breeding was done to improve active constituent levels or yields or other agronomic characteristics. For most herbs, only the type species or what we have begun to call “Standard” varieties were available. That is beginning to change, and we have led the way to introduce new and improved varieties developed ourselves or by leading breeders. Initiatives in this area will expand, supported by a significant research and development investment we are making. Already, many improved varieties are available and many more are in the pipeline. These varieties are significant for commercial growers because they offer important commercial advantages.

ACRES U.S.A. To what extent, if any, does politics play in all of this?

RICHTER. You ask about politics. This has occupied my time increasingly over the past few years. In Canada, the herb industry faced a serious challenge from the government. The regulators wanted to impose new rules that, by the government’s own estimates, would have forced over 80% of herb businesses grossing less than $1 million in sales out of business. Guess what: over 80% of herb businesses gross less than a million, which meant a profoundly different herbal scene was in the making. As a seed and plug company, we wanted to see the industry grow and these changes would have hurt us a lot. We had no choice but to get involved in the fight against the government regulators. We were doing it as much for our customers as for ourselves.

ACRES U.S.A. What happened next?

RICHTER. A huge protest campaign mounted by a broad coalition of consumer, professional and industry groups succeeded in getting the government to announce a moratorium on the new regulations until the whole issue of herbs regulation and natural products industry is studied. So far, we optimistic that the government will acknowledge finally the right of Canadians to access to herbs and herbal products – but we shall see what happens. Incidentally, a key element of the proposed rules was to be the introduction of herbal “Good Manufacturing Practices” (GMP) rules. GMP is not in itself a bad thing for the industry, one that has had its fair share of charlatans and crooks, but the cost of compliance was threatening to do serious damage to the Canadian industry. In the U.S., the FDA has begun discussions on GMP which could spell trouble if the industry is not careful.

ACRES U.S.A. Can you give me an example of a monthly concern or problem which might require your personal attention? In this trade, what makes the largest demand on your time?

RICHTER. There are a large number of projects in which I have a hand. I am involved in the research and development projects which tend to occupy my time in big chunks through the year. The summer months are important when we can get in the field to evaluate material. I am also heavily involved in the pre-press work on our catalogue, and that tends to take up much of my time in the fall. Our annual commercial herb growing conference takes a significant chunk of my time. And, I am involved in the development of our website, which is an ongoing concern but becomes a main focus just before the new year when we overhaul the site and update strategy and establish plans for the coming year. I also serve on the boards of the International Herb Association, the Canadian Herb Society, and the Ontario Herbalist Association. Each of these organizations is facing big challenges, especially of a philosophical nature – what is the target membership, what services do members want, how can get they be delivered.

ACRES U.S.A. I would like to know more about these three organizations? Perhaps a brief overview and history, and what they do now? And, what are the issues involved?

RICHTER. The International Herb Association (IHA) was founded in the early 1980s to serve the herb industry: growers, processors, manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers, brokers, researchers, educators and government.. My father was a founding member of the board. In the early years it seemed to fulfill this role as big and small players joined and hundreds attended its annual conference. The bigger players have left to join other commodity and specialized groups; so, now, its focus seems to have narrowed down to herb shops and farms, mostly operating at the retail level. With all the growth in the herb industry, the IHA should be much bigger. The IHA still offers a lot to members, especially those new to the industry, and this year’s [1998] conference in Lexington, Kentucky, had a great program, one of the best in years. The Canadian Herb Society (CHS) was founded just two years ago. It puts out a very nice quarterly newsletter called Herbal Times and it has put on several conferences of broad appeal. Its main appeal is to the informed herb enthusiast and to the enthusiast who wants to become informed; but the CHS has been very active in industry and government regulatory issues. Presently, the CHS is working on expanding its presence across the country with the hope of setting up provincial chapters. It is actively seeking corporate participation. The Ontario Herbalist Association (OHA) started out, as its name suggests, as an association of professional herbalists. It had, at one point, organized a training program for herbalists and worked on establishing standards for professional herbalists. However, it has gravitated more toward a focus toward end-users of herbs and herbal services. It puts on a very successful fair in Toronto, easily the biggest in Canada, and it puts out the Canadian Journal of Herbalism. The CJH is a good journal for professional herbalists, but its focus belies the composition of the membership. The OHA is considering whether it should go back to its herbalist roots, providing more value to professional herbalists, or whether to continue its more recent end-user orientation. I worry a lot about the issues facing these organizations because it is my personal desire to see the industry grow in all areas: commercial growing, retailing, professional herbalism, etc. But the industry, especially the grower and herbalist sectors, does not have strong managers that can lead. It is in serious danger of being overwhelmed by much stronger leadership from pharmaceutical companies and drug store chains. We need strong industry groups to counter competitive and regulatory pressures from outside.

ACRES U.S.A. Let’s focus on you for the moment. What is a typical day-to-day schedule for you? When do you debrief, and how each day?

RICHTER. Before I arrive at work, I will have already done 2-3 hours of e-mail work at home. I spend most of my time in the office either meeting with staff, clients, and suppliers, or I am on the phone helping customers. I try to get to the fields and greenhouses as much as I can but it is never enough. I always make myself available to customers because I believe that is the only way to really know what your customer thinks about your product and what your customer needs. Our staff knows that I will take calls from any customer that asks for me. I usually get home late, and frequently do more e-mail before going to bed. It is a good thing I don’t have a television otherwise I would never be able to keep up!

ACRES U.S.A. What about the more private side of you? What are your off-time interests, or outside the business of herbs?

RICHTER. Non-work pleasure? Definitely spending time with my young family. I have a wonderful 11 month old, and another is on the way. After all that, any spare time is taking up by my support work for Tibet. I am involved in various groups that are trying to free Tibet from the iron grips of China which invaded the country in 1949 and has never relinquished control, despite international condemnation. It is my fervent wish that Tibet become free one day and that the Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan people, return to lead his people once again. I helped to pioneer the use of the Internet to get the Tibetan diaspora linked and communicating with Western Tibet support groups. A big part of our strategy was to put out a newsletter that is distributed daily over the Internet. The Internet-based newsletter worked so well to promote the cause of Tibet that we started to put out one for herbs as well. I also helped get the Tibet Net off the ground to link the many refugee communities in India and Nepal.

ACRES U.S.A. What makes you different?

RICHTER. What makes me different? I guess I am a real yin-yang combo of “Type A” hard-working, ambitious personality and “Type M” (my invention!) meditative, reflective tendencies. I love to create order, but I know that real energy flows from disorder, and I try to harness that if I can.

ACRES U.S.A. What is your image, or mind’s eye for Richters in the year 2,000? What role does Richters play for the 21st century farmer? And, why herbs?

RICHTER. To be the pre-eminent source of herbal propagative material for the commercial herb growing industry and for the discerning public. Technical excellence at all levels – product quality, service, innovation, support – are what we are striving for. We have a long way to go, but we have come a long way already. The challenges are many. The herb industry has experienced tremendous growth in the past two decades. In many ways, this has been like a “Wild West” phase of development where anything seems to go. It is easy to make money in this environment. That is going to change as the industry matures and the easy growth ends. Which companies have the ability to adapt and which don’t is going to be interesting to watch.

ACRES U.S.A. What are the future problems and political change ahead?

RICHTER. Politics will become less of a concern over time. I think that governments in both Canada and the United States have seen the power of the herb lobby and they are showing more respect, even if grudgingly so.

ACRES U.S.A. Can you expand a little on this?

RICHTER. I think that as government begins to understand the needs of the industry, the regulatory environment will improve. Fortunately, the regulators on both sides of the border have taken note of the growth and size of the industry and of the widespread appeal that herbs have nowadays. Two years ago regulators I met in Ottawa had no idea that herbs were being grown commercially in Canada. Now, the government has completed three separate inquiries into the status of herbs in Canada, is funding research and development, and is reorganizing its own departments to regulate and support the industry better. The situation is by no means ideal right now, but at least the government realizes that we exist, which is a big improvement over two years ago. In the U.S., the situation is also changing, although I would say that the government’s support of research in herbs is lacking compared to Canada.

ACRES U.S.A. What are your thoughts on the market for herbs?

RICHTER. Growers cannot expect buyers to pay more than the world price for herbs, no matter how much sweat and tears growers put into their crops. If local growers cannot produce at a competitive price, then they cannot expect buyers to bail them out. Why? Because buyers have to turn around and sell those same crops to their own customers who, generally, will not pay more than they can get from an other supplier. Competitive pressures are very strong and buyer-grower relationships are very much dictated by the market.

ACRES U.S.A. What are your primary services at Richters? And how is that changing, and to what?

RICHTER. Our primary services are the supply of herb seeds, plugs, and information. We are the place to come to if you are interested in starting a herb business, whether that be a potted plant producer, a fresh-cut herb producer, a dried spice producer, or a dried medicinals producer. If you have questions on any aspect of growing or marketing herbs, we can help. We have experts available to answer questions on our website, and we can advise you on the right varieties to grow. And we are not afraid to tell you to stay away from a certain crop if we don’t think it will work in your area. If only we could have ten cents for every dollar we saved our customers that way, we might just be able to retire comfortably!

ACRES U.S.A. Where do most herb growers go wrong in their first attempts in the actual farming of these crops?

RICHTER. Underestimating the marketing effort that is required to be successful in the herb business is easily the most common problem. And not knowing the real costs of production before scaling up production is a serious problem; if growers know their true costs of production they can avoid jumping into a loser crop before investing thousands of dollars. Right now the only truly reliable way to deal with these problems is to plant a small test plot to acquire production data and grow samples for test marketing. The problem is that a test plot takes at least a year to bear fruit, and many just do not want to wait. There is no question that there is a herd mentality out there. With St. Johnswort the hot crop of 1998, many appear to be jumping in on the assumption that it must be a profitable crop. I happen to think it will turn out to be a profitable for several years to come, but acreage has expanded faster than any other crop and the risk of oversupply has to be a concern. As far as actual production goes, I see growers making the mistake that herbs are the same as other agricultural crops such as soybeans and corn. Many herbs cannot be sown directly like other crops; they are often better transplanted to the field as plugs. One farmer this spring insisted on direct-sowing Echinacea even after I warned him several times that weeds are harder to control in direct-seeded crops. I sincerely doubt that this farmer is going to have a successful harvest, but he apparently attends the school of hard knocks.

ACRES U.S.A. What needs to be done to be successful in farming these types of crops?

RICHTER. Beyond what I have already talked about, farmers, especially new entrants, need an open mind and a tough determination to solve production and marketing problems when they come up as they inevitably will. An example: Borage is a seed crop grown for its oil which is high in gamma-linolenic acid, the same essential fatty acid found in evening primrose. The seeds shatter easily and they mature unevenly over several weeks. Traditional combining means you get only a small fraction of the seeds produced. Farmers, faced with competitive pressures from the evening primrose market, are trying to develop methods of capturing more of the crop, including looking at ways of vacuuming up seeds. Another example: in the face of a free fall in ginseng prices, growers are experimenting with woods-grown ginseng to improve quality, reduce expenses, and increase profits.

ACRES U.S.A. Is there a role for the “family farmer” participating in the international marketing aspects?

RICHTER. The balance of power rests with the buyers, for the most part. Buyers tend to be much bigger than the producers, and there tend to be many more producers than buyers. This situation is not new or unique to herbs, so we might assume that there are lessons to be learned from other areas of agriculture. There have been some moves to “collectivize” producers in order to strengthen marketing muscle. Growers associations are in the early stages of what I feel will develop into producer blocs. The British Columbia herb growers are talking about sharing price data and possibly joining forces to market product; the Ontario garlic growers have successfully lobbied to get the Canadian government to block imports of Chinese garlic; and Frontier Herbs has been a wildly successful business collective for American herb growers. Even the contract farming model used by companies such as Trout Lake Farms (Trout Lake, WA) is a form of “collectivization” where Trout Lake, effectively, acts on behalf of many contract farmers to market their herbs. We feel that this “collectivization” trend will continue. Although herbs are very much commodity products in many cases, there are still many opportunities for family farmers to develop outside of the commodity market. Some growers are developing their own value-added products, including medicinals. We have been encouraging partnerships between growers and specialty pill and tincture manufacturers to produce farmers’ own branded products. All sorts of opportunities exist in the areas of culinary and aromatic herbs too. One client of ours is developing a lavender theme farm, where visitors come for workshops on all aspects of growing and using lavender and can buy all sorts of lavender products. Near major metropolitan areas, this theme farm idea could be very successful because city people are looking for more than the product themselves: they want information, inspiration and a fun experience.

ACRES U.S.A. What information or resources are still missing that need to be developed to make North America successful in competing on an International basis?

RICHTER. North America is one of the world’s great agricultural powerhouses. It has an amazing wealth of agricultural know-how and technology. It can compete effectively against the rest of the world despite higher wages. Why? Because of technology. We have developed agricultural equipment so that the one advantage other regions have – cheap labor rates – has little impact. We can harvest grain as cheaply as, or cheaper than, many Third World nations can. In some cases, existing farm equipment for grains and vegetables can be redeployed for herbs. The successes of mustard, coriander, caraway and Borage are examples. In other cases, the technology needed is not yet there. Chamomile is not grown commercially here because there is no mechanized way to harvest the flowers. Harvest has to be done by hand and there is no way we can compete with Egypt cheap labor where most of the world’s chamomile is produced. But once a chamomile harvesting machine is developed, and once more uniform varieties of chamomile are available, chamomile will take off as a commercial crop here. Crops such as chamomile will take off here despite the market dominance of Egypt because of quality. North American growers have the understanding of quality issues and the know-how to deliver what the market wants.

ACRES U.S.A. In your mind, what is a niche market, and how does a small grower get involved and/or in position with marketing his limited productions correctly? What steps need to be actively made by him, and when (in his overall production schedules or farm plan)?

RICHTER. Niche markets are often thought of as “small” markets. That is often true, but it doesn’t have to be. I see “niche markets” as the opposite of “commodity”. A product becomes a commodity when it is indistinguishably produced by more than one producer in a freely competitive environment, driving prices down to zero economic profit. Here I am using the “profit” notion of economists where if you are not making more than you could investing your money in the money markets, you are not making an economic profit. Niche markets require some sort of specialization or extra effort. In most cases, it is extra marketing effort to create a market for a new or unknown product. These items are not hard to produce, but the market potential is yet to be exploited. In these cases supply is looking for demand. Gotu Kola is an example. In relatively few cases, production is more difficult and requires extra capital outlay and specialized know-how. Demand is often looking for supply in these cases. Goldenseal is an example. At one time all herbs were a niche market, but those days are gone. For smaller growers, lesser known herbs are niche markets that let them get their foot in the door before competition drives prices down and makes entry difficult for new growers. There are literally hundreds of possibilities, including new ways to market existing crops. I know of at least three growers that are experimenting with the idea of selling fresh ginseng and Echinacea roots to the fresh produce markets.

ACRES U.S.A. How does a small grower develop a niche market correctly? How does he or she time his or her entry and exit from such markets? How does he or she work niche products into production schedules?

RICHTER. These are difficult to generalize on. I cannot say that we have revealed any patterns that are unique to niche markets; each crop presents its own peculiarities which need to be addressed carefully. If I had to generalize about how to find a niche market herb, I would say that growers should look for new crops that have solid medicinal or culinary or aromatic credentials. Gotu Kola has solid credentials for connective tissue repair and I believe that it could be an outstanding niche crop. There are many others. The idea is to try to identify them at the early stages of market development.

ACRES U.S.A. What is missing now that needs to be in place for North America to become a significant player in the world production of these crops?

RICHTER. I talked about the need for more crop-specific technology already; that’s very important. We need more infrastructure to support the herb industry: for example, we need more laboratories to test herbs, field inspectors to certify botanical identity, government research stations to conduct field trials and set up demonstration farms, university research to develop new varieties specifically suited to North America, product development and marketing consultants. All of this will help growers feel more confident about entering the herb industry – really, it comes down to confidence, and having the knowledge that supports that confidence. There is not much preventing North America from becoming a dominant player internationally in herb production. As long as herb crops make more than soybeans and corn per acre, there is no reason why growth cannot continue.

ACRES U.S.A. What firm advice can you give to the new or budding herb farm?

RICHTER. Go slow, and test. Test grow, test process, and test market. You will be surprised by what you will learn and how you can turn that knowledge into value.


Conrad Richter can be contacted at Richters Herbs, 357 Highway 47, Goodwood, Ontario L0C 1A0, Canada, 1-800-668-4372 (in Canada and the United States), (905)640-6677, extension 203, fax (905)640-6641, e-mail conrad@richters.com. For more information on the International Herb Association, visit www.iherb.org. For the Canadian Herb Society, visit www.herbsociety.ca. For the Ontario Herbalists Association, visit www.herbalists.on.ca. Interviewer, Richard Alan Miller, is an author and consultant specializing in herbs and a herb broker; he can be reached by email at drram@magick.net.

Originally published in Acres USA, October 1998 (Vol. 28, No. 10). ©1998 Richard Alan Miller.

 
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