Hardy Herbs for Montana (Zone 3-4)
Answered by: Conrad
Question from: Gina Johnston
Posted on: March 06, 2009

We are located near Fort Benton, Montana (zone 3-4) on the banks of the Missouri river. We have 140 acres that is not being used up to it’s full potential, and we are interested in the growing of alternative crops. We would be grateful if you could send some more info regarding the potential of the following herbs.

We need a few annual crops to put into some already-plowed ground. Quite alot of the ground is sub-irrigated by the river, but not too wet. We are considering the following: andrographis, chia,

For some perennials: schizandra, sea buckthorn, edelweiss, rosehips, white sage, rhodiola (roseroot), elderberry, Chinese jujube and sumac.

The crop that interests us the most at present on a larger scale is maralroot. We’d love any information you have about it, specifically the use of the greens and the profit potential and yield of the roots. Also, can we buy larger quantities of the seeds from you?

If you have any recommendations of what else might work well for us, please tell us. We have a ridge that is sandy and dry, some river bottom slew that is quite frankly soggy (mint? The soil tends to be alkaline), and a lot of great sub-irrigated field. The soil is quite fertile.

We are interested in ordering seed for trial purposes of most or all of the plants I have listed this year, but we have several acres we’d like to devote to a larger trial planting, and we’d appreciate your expert input.

It is always difficult for us to overtly recommend one crop over another for a prospective commercial grower of herbs. A lot of the time the question hinges more on market issues rather than production issues. In general the herb market is tiny compared to the markets for traditional crops. A herb can go from undersupply to oversupply very quickly. So if we recommend herb A in year 1 because of crop shortages, you could easily have a situation where the herb is in oversupply by year 3 because other growers have jumped in to grow the same herb. Many herbs are perennial and require several seasons to reach maturity, so this is not an uncommon situation. For these reasons, your cautious approach -- to conduct trials first -- is very good. And your interest in trying a diversified portfolio of crops is also a very good strategy because as one herb shifts from undersupply to oversupply other herbs shift the other way or remain stable. Most of the successful growers we know are running diversified operations growing a dozen or more herbs.

Overall herbs can be very profitable. Many growers are making a decent living from herbs. But not every grower has the patience and persistence to make herbs work. A lot depends on building trust with buyers: if they know that you are a dependable supplier of quality herbs they will come to you eventually. Before that happens you need to grow crops on speculation and send samples to buyers, and be patient when buyers don’t immediately jump at your offerings. One thing we repeatedly tell growers is that buyers prefer to buy when they need the herbs, not when the herbs become available. Only when buyers become hooked on your quality and dependability will they begin to propose contracts for your production.

As for the specific herbs in your list, the proposed herbs are an eclectic mix. It is generally a good idea to stake out a claim on rising stars but often it is hard to know which will reach the volumes to make it worthwhile. However as you do your trials and develop contacts you will soon discover the ones that make sense financially for you. One herb to be cautious of is seabuckthorn because it was promoted widely in the Canadian prairies for a number of years but while it grew well markets were limited and an oversupply probably still exists.

Your zone 3-4 limits what you can grow. White sage (Salvia apiana) for sure is not hardy there. Schizandra is rated hardy only to zone 5. Although dog rose and others are not hardy in your zone (at least according to the ratings), there are no doubt local hardy species that may work for the rosehip market; but that is something you need to investigate. The other perennials on your list are candidates for your trials, but I stress that each herb has special issues that often cannot be known until you do a trial. For example, roseroot is a slow growing herb that may require more labour for weeding than other herbs. A key determinant of success is to find ways to minimize the need for hand labour; so while a particular herb may grow well in your situation and demand for it exists, it may not work for you if too much labour is required to grow it.

As for the annuals, chia and andrographis, I am skeptical that you can make the latter work on your farm. It certainly cannot be sown directly in the field where you are and has to be grown with plugs which immediately puts you at a cost disadvantage. Chia is regarded as a hot weather crop and I have not heard if it can be grown successfully in cooler areas with short seasons. The problem with both is that you need the heat and a long enough season to get a harvest of seeds. Any time that crop harvest is a seed or a fruit you need to take care to conduct trials in your short season area. Both would definitely be experimental if you choose to try them.

Maralroot is an interesting herb. There is demand for this herb which is hardy to zone 2. There is growing interest to grow it commercially in the Canadian prairies. We do believe that the fundamentals of this herb -- with its adaptogenic properties and its relatively straightforward production requirements -- deserves a serious look. Your dryish, sandy soil and cool conditions are perfect for this crop. Again, it is impossible to predict any crop’s marketability, but if I were in your position I would definitely put in a trial patch to see where this crop leads me. You asked if we have larger quantities of maralroot seeds: unfortunately the seed is in short supply right now and we may not have enough for all who are looking for it. In general, our commercial department is always willing to provide quotes for large quantities of seeds. You can reach the commercial department by email at commercial@richters.com.

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