Culinary Herb Production in Ohio
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Krista Cook
Posted on: March 08, 2008

I just purchased 16 acres of land in northwest Ohio and would like to start growing marketable culinary herbs. Do you have any suggestions on easy to start in the herb growing business? Some of our land is woodland, hillside, along a waterway, and also a large amount of flat well drained area. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

The first decision is whether you want to grow for the fresh herbs market or for the dried herbs market. These two markets are very different and present different opportunities and challenges.

The fresh herb market is very much defined by the freshness of the product and how well it holds up in transit. Fresh herbs don’t travel well beyond a few days so the market is limited by what the produce distribution system can deliver within that time frame. Basil is usually the first to suffer, but others such as chives and cilantro have short best-before dates. The main challenge fresh herb producers in northern temperate zones face is continuity of supply. A buyer that takes you on is doing so because the poorer quality imported product doesn’t meet expectations, but he or she also wants consistent high quality throughout the year and doesn’t want to juggle a lot of different suppliers to get quality. Inevitably, fresh herb producers in northern areas end up either 1) competing only for the low priced market during the summer and fall months, or 2) they develop year round production under greenhouse cover, or 3) they become brokers and are able to supplement their own production with imported product from quality suppliers who can deliver overnight. Nearness to major markets is an important consideration because if product has to be transported by common carrier then you lose your advantage over the 2-3 day old imported herbs.

A common tactic for new fresh herb growers is to cater to chefs at top hotels and restaurants in nearby cities and towns. A top chef buying your product is an endorsement for your product -- something to build on when approaching other buyers.

Sandie Shores’s excellent book, Growing and Selling Fresh-Cut Herbs, is required reading for anyone beginning a fresh herbs business. It is available from Richters (http://www.richters.com/Web_store/web_store.cgi?product=XB4075). The book covers the most important culinary herbs and greens, and how to grow and market them.

Dried herbs must compete with herbs from around the world. Potential buyers are unlikely to be near enough to deliver by your own truck, so packing and shipping become important considerations. Generally it is harder to interest local stores and food establishments in dried herbs, so you need to court buyers who may be located across the country. We have noticed in recent years that large dried herb buyers such as those in the ingredients industry are insisting on greater control and documentation of the production and processing steps. They are looking for growers who adhere to Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and apply Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) which helps to reduce the risk of contamination of foods and the losses associated with recalls and consumer lawsuits. Organic certification is an important consideration also, especially if you are just starting out. The organic market continues to grow rapidly.

One other option to consider is what we call "boutique growing". Growing small batches of very high quality dried herbs produced largely by hand, and involving few damaging mechanized processes. The market for "boutique" herbs is very small now but it is growing steadily as more people begin to realize that there is something superior to the powdered or crushed herbs commonly sold in stores. Like fresh herbs, the market for boutique dried herbs in whole leaf form cannot be served well from long distances because tight packing crushed leaves.

A good reference for dried herb production is Greg Whitten’s book, Herbal Harvest: Commercial Organic Production of Quality Dried Herbs (http://www.richters.com/Web_store/web_store.cgi?product=XB5060).

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