Commercial Fresh Culinary Herb Production for the Restaurant Market
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Dean
Posted on: April 02, 2004

I visited your website today for the first time. Truly an amazing site! I am considering commercial herb production and would appreciate any advice you may have. I have an agricultural background (University of Guelph) in field crop production (corn, soybeans, alfalfa, wheat and small grains), however I do not presently farm. Rather, I am employed as a Technical Sales Representative. I work with farmers giving recommendations on field crop production as well as selling them seed, fertilizer, pesticides and associated services such as Nutrient Management Planning and soil sampling.

I live near Stratford, Ontario (you may know of the Stratford Festival) and have wondered about growing fresh culinary herbs for the higher end restaurant market. Also, I am wondering about the possibility of growing fresh culinary herbs in a greenhouse as opposed to in a field environment. I am simply at the research stage and can use all the advice I can gather! As you suggest at your website, I would be starting on a small scale. My degree at Guelph is in Agricultural Business so I do understand the importance of having a realistic marketing plan. Am I "nuts" to be considering this idea?! If not, please give me your thoughts on how to proceed from here. Thanks in advance for your help!

No, you are not "nuts" to consider the idea. There are successful fresh herbs growers in Ontario. But there are some key points to consider before you jump in.

I am sure that you have noticed that farming in general is a hard business. It is no different in herbs, especially in recent years as prices have come down from those in the 1990s. If possible, don’t quit your "day" job until your new business is established. Most commercial herb farming businesses start small and grow from there. It is not so much an issue of production as it is an issue of building your business clientele: you can easily scale up to grow lots of culinary herbs but it takes longer to build the customer base to take those herbs.

You will find that chefs in high-end restaurants like to work with growers who can bring fresh herbs to their door. Organic herbs are preferred usually. They will pay a premium for the freshest, highest quality herbs and if you can deliver that consistently they will stay with you.

Although there is a market for seasonal herbs, i.e., field-grown herbs harvested April through to the killing frosts in October, restaurants prefer a reliable year-round source. One source is much easier for them to manage than many sources. So this puts pressure on fresh herb growers to find ways to fill the production gaps. Some growers import fresh herbs seasonally while others choose to grow herbs in greenhouses. There are significant pros and cons to each strategy. I find that most growers prefer the latter route because it gives them more control over their quality; but obviously the cost of building and running greenhouses alters the bottom line considerably. And growing in greenhouses is very different from growing outdoors. Growing in the field is often easier than growing in greenhouses.

A diversity of offerings is important. Having only basil and chives and not rosemary, arugula, oregano and tarragon (for example), makes it much harder to get your foot in the door. Probably, you will find that chefs will want some greens and some vegetables from you also, so you need to think about how far you can stretch yourself. Herbs, greens and vegetables mostly have very different production cycles so your project depends very much on how well you can juggle your resources. High end restaurants frequently want exotic items that can take a lot of effort to find and learn how to produce.

I highly recommend Sandie Shores’ book "Growing and Selling Fresh Herbs" (http://www.richters.com/Web_store/web_store.cgi?product=XB4075). She is a long-time fresh herbs grower based in the northern U.S. Sandie Shores spoke at the Third Richters Commercial Herb Growing Conference in 1998 and her remarks have been transcribed and published in the conference proceedings (http://mail/richters/Web_store/web_store.cgi?product=XB7102). David Cohlmeyer, a successful fresh herbs and vegetable grower for the Toronto-area high end market, spoke at our first conference and he has some very helpful things to say about his experiences, particularly about marketing (http://www.richters.com/Web_store/web_store.cgi?product=XB7100).

For your research, look at the online resources we provide in "The GrowerZone" section of our website. In particular, you will want to follow the links to the fresh market prices in both Canada and the U.S. (but bear in mind that high-end certified organic product fetches a premium, usually 20-25%, over conventional produce). Also, there is a link to ATTRA’s excellent paper on organic greenhouse production of herbs (see the link "Greenhouse Herbs" under "Crop Production".

With determination and hard work a fresh herbs business can be very successful. Will it make you rich? Not likely. But it is a very satisfying profession for the right persons.

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