Fresh Herb Production in Croatia
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Ivana Kljucaric
Posted on: May 18, 2006

I have a university degree in agriculture (that I say because I have some basic knowledge to build on) and along with my husband plan to start a herb business. We plan to grow year round herbs for fresh-cut sale.

We live in Croatia where there is no such production; actually some producers who grow flowers or vegetables do it occasionally on a very small scale, but there is an increasing demand for herbs.

We are in a process of buying a greenhouse 30m x 8m, heated with hot water circulating in plastic pipes, some of which we are planning to place into raised beds for root-zone heating. Since in Croatia there is no source of information about this kind of production, we ordered few books from the US (but it was not until last week I discovered your page). The one with most information is from Sandy Shores, "Growing and Selling Fresh Cut Herbs" recommended by Attra and I saw it on your web page too. But still, I have a lot of questions about this production.

I am having doubts whether to grow herbs in raised beds (6 beds; size: 1m x 30m; material: wood, filled with 30cm gravel for drainage, and 30cm soil) or in containers on high tables. As I found out till now, herbs grown in containers do not produce enough leaf for fresh cut use. Please, correct me if I am wrong.

Can you, please, advise me in that matter?

As a general rule beds produce more fresh herbs than herbs in containers (such as pots). This is because the plants in beds develop larger root systems than plants in pots. Growing herbs in greenhouses involves more capital and operating expenses than outdoors in fields, so it is important to maximize fresh yields and one way that commercial growers do that is by setting up beds such as those that you propose. But pots (or some other similarly easy-to-move container) do have one advantage and that is that herbs can be moved in and out of the production cycle more easily than herbs in beds. This may be important for a number of reasons: for example, for pest control if you are growing organically (you can remove infested plants when other natural pest controls fail); or for replenishing organic soil which needs to be replenished more frequently than media used for non-organic production.

Your proposed design for the raised beds will work provided the "soil" you propose to use is not simply soil from the field but rather a prepared growing medium with suitable amendments added for drainage and nutrition. The main drawback with growing medium in beds is that it is likely to be reused in order to reduce costs and that could introduce problems with pest and disease build up.

Growers have moved successfully to soilless media, such as pure perlite, on benches. Perlite is very light and easy to handle, is sterile, and has excellent drainage. But it has no nutrition value, requiring a good liquid feeding program. Some growers claim to have worked out a way to grow organically on this sort of set up, but we are skeptical because available liquid organic fertilizers either do not have the nutrient levels required for good growth, or have grit that destroys injection systems (injectors of fertilizer into the water supply), or are not truly organic. But because perlite has so many compelling properties I suggest that you experiment with it. You may want to start your operation with a tried-and-true conventional inorganic liquid fertilizer meanwhile experimenting with available organic fertilizer options until you find something that works for you.

At first we wanted to grow herbs organically because we have a small apple orchard that is certified organic. Since in Croatia organic agriculture is at its beginnings, the soil, fertilizers, crop protection supplies are very expensive if not non-existent and right now I am not certain.

Organic fresh herbs have appeal in the marketplace provided the price is not too high and the quality is similar. We have noticed over the years that organic product tends to fetch a premium of about 10-20% over conventional product. Higher premiums are certainly possible, but it is difficult to sustain them when more competitors enter the market. We have noticed also that consumers already buying conventional products are not willing to accept noticeably inferior product even if it is certified organic: the quality has to be close, equal or better.

Because of the uncertain supply of suitable organic pest controls and fertilizers in your country you would be well advised to proceed with organic production cautiously for now.

I was wondering if you maybe have some production plans for certain herbs? We are planning to grow basil, chives, dill, oregano, thyme and curly parsley.

Do you maybe have some pictures of raised beds, because no one here is familiar with raised beds and how should they look like, materials to build them, how high should they be, etc., connected with a growing herbs in greenouses?

Sandie Shores’ book has much of this information. The last I heard the book is out-of-print, though we still have copies (as of May 2006). It is an excellent source of information for the beginning fresh herbs producer. But as you read Shores’ book keep in mind that the greenhouse fresh herbs industry is very much at an early stage of development and growers are continually refining their techniques for increasing yields, reducing labour, heating and other input costs, and processing and packing fresh herbs.

The following question is about yields. On your web page I saw yields for field production, but I can not find yields for these herbs in a heated greenhouse. I tried to convert those yields per hectar into yields per sqare meter, but I am not quite sure that they can be compared. I see you have very big experience in growing herbs in greenhouses so I assumed you could tell me this information. I would greatly appreciate it.

It would be reckless to extrpolate from outdoor field production data to estimate yields in greenhouses. There are too many variables that come into play. Generally, you get bigger yields per square meter in greenhouses, but that would depend on the crop, and on such things as the season and the growing conditions. For example, some herbs do not grow well in the winter, even in greenhouses with supplementary lighting and heating, so to multiply monthly outdoor harvests twelve times would seriously overestimate yields. Ultimately, you need to collect your own yield data, so I strongly recommend that you include in your plans the building of a database of your own yield and other data. This data collection should be built right into your processes from the start so that you are always aware of your costs and profits per square meter per day. Margins in the fresh herbs industry are slim, as they are in much of agriculture, so attention to numbers is essential.

We are at our beginnings and are investing a lot of money in this venture, so it is important to me to know as much as possible about it. I would appreciate it if you could advise me of most economic way to start considering information given in this mail!

We plan to start in August in our greenhouse so we could purchase herbs when outdoor growing season will be finished. Next year we are planning to grow herbs on fields also.

One of the marketing issues you may face is continuity of supply. If you are selling directly to commercial end users such as restaurants or food processors or if you are selling to resellers such as produce wholesalers, you will be pressured to have the same products available year round. This may mean that you will not only be in the business of growing herbs but you will also be in the business of repackaging imported herbs during the times when you cannot grow them profitably yourself.

One thing to consider in your business plan is the postharvest handling and packaging of your herbs. Successful growers I have talked to tell me that postharvest handling and packaging makes a huge difference in quality. One grower told me he is using Israeli technology to give him a decided advantage over cheaper imported herbs. For example, he first heats freshly harvested basil, then cools it in two stages before packaging. Handled this way he avoids the common problem of basil going limp and turning black in storage and during transport.

I would be very grateful if you answered my questions and wanted to stay in contact with me.

We have helped thousands of people get started in the herb industry over the past 37 years. We are always thrilled to help more.

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