Fresh-cut Market for Greenhouse-grown Herbs
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Carolyn M. King
Posted on: July 14, 1999

Currently I have my own greenhouse and I have a Masters in Plant Science and I would like to open a herb business. I am looking for a little help about the market. Is there a market out there for fresh herbs, such as restaurants and health stores? Is there any one who might be up on this information?

Yes, there is a market for fresh-cut herbs. The market is worth at least $100 million in North America. Much of this is sold through regional wholesale markets found in major cities. Some is greenhouse-grown, including hydroponically grown material, but the vast majority of the fresh-cut produce is from domestic and imported field-grown sources.

For small producers it makes sense to focus on specialty markets. For example, there is growing demand for organically-grown fresh-cut herbs and for very fresh locally-grown top quality material. Restaurants, gourmet food stores, and, increasingly, health food stores, are prime markets for specialty high-end product.

There are several challenges which must be overcome. First, the high capital and operating costs of a greenhouse facility puts such operations at a disadvantage compared to field production farms. Of course, in temperate areas field production is limited to the summer season while greenhouses can produce year round crops. But without supplementary light during the winter months growth slows down and marketable product yields decline as much as 80%. On the other hand, with or without supplementary light, it is possible to produce a cleaner, better quality product compared to imported field-produced material. Competing on price alone, especially during the winter months is sure to fail, but competing on quality is definitely viable.

Second, many customers, especially the high-end restaurants, require a stable supply year round. Chefs, for example, want reliable supplies of basil and chives and rosemary year round. For growers in temperate zones this is a big challenge because some herbs go dormant or semi-dormant during the winter months and need special handling and supplementary lighting to induce new growth. Chives and tarragon, for example, benefit from a cold rest period once a year, otherwise they will languish for months. With careful planning and selective cold treatments, it is possible to force new growth and produce these herbs year round.

The United States Department of Agriculture tracks the wholesale fresh-cut herb market in cities throughout the United States. Several publications report those results, including the Today’s Market website (http://www.todaysmarket.com). Prices for organically-grown and high-end product will be 20-100% higher than these prices.

For more information see Sandie Shores’ book, "Growing and Selling Fresh-cut Herbs" (available from Richters). Lee Sturdivant’s "Profits from Your Backyard Herb Garden" is worth looking at because its focus is on small producers and how to successfully service restaurants and smaller produce markets. Also, fresh-cut herbs was covered in each of the first three Richters Commercial Herb Growing Conferences (transcripts are available from Richters). Sandie Shores presented at the third conference.

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