Herbs: Is There an Opportunity?

By Conrad Richter

There is little doubt that consumer awareness of herbs and demand has increased in the last five to ten years. It is difficult to put numbers to the size and growth of the Canadian herb market, but going on U.S. figures and assuming that the Canadian market is one tenth the size, it was at a minimum $50 million in 1991, up from $22 million in 1985. These figures are conservative because they are based on incomplete data covering only a subset of all herb market segments. The 1991 figure ($50 million) only include herb sales reported in the Whole Food s Retailer Survey, covering mainly sales in health food stores. It doesn’t include sales to the pharmaceutical, food processor, fresh produce and conventional retail food markets.

Growth figures from other sources paint a picture of rapid growth. In the United States, the medicinal herb market segment grew about 25% in the past 5 years according to one analyst. In a 1992 survey, members of the International Herb Growers and Marketers Association reported growth of 10-20% in 1991 and were expecting 15-20% in 1992. Other research indicates that per capita herb consumption in the United States increased from 1.8 lbs. in 1983 to 2.3 lbs in 1990. polls showed that the percentage of Americans who visited a herbalist for medical treatment has increased from 3% in 1986 to 5% in 1991.

Some additional U.S. figures: In 1991, 7% of Americans polled bought fresh herbs at least once a month, and in 1987, 3% drank herbal tea on a daily basis. These figures are likely to be similar for Canada.

Why the growth, especially during recessionary times? I have yet to hear anyone come up with a good explantation, so let me propose one. The impact of the baby boom on the marketplace is increasing with each year. The crest of the boom is now passing through the 30-40 age bracket, a time of increasing personal income. The baby boom generation has a larger world view, has travelled much more than previous generations, and so has picked up gastronomical tastes that are more adventurous and more cosmopolitan. I think this is one reason why ethnic foods and ethnic restaurants are so much more popular today, compared to just twenty years ago. Early "boomers" are now reaching 50, an age when health concerns are more prominent and reliance on herbal remedies for minor complaints, and on herbal teas for preventative health is greater.

So what opportunities are there for Ontario farmers? To address this question, let me begin by stressing that the herb market has to be understood on a segment by segment basis. The major segments of direct interest to farmers are the fresh herb, dried herb, phytomedicinal and aromatic markets. Each segment involves different agronomic, marketability, economic and regulatory concerns. For example, the phytomedicinal market is highly sensitive to regulation by the Health Protection Branch of Health and Welfare Canada. When comfrey was banned for internal use by the HPB, demand and prices diminished (it is still considered safe for external use). The fresh culinary market for items such as fresh basil, coriander and thyme requires different agronomic practices compared to the dried herb market. The most obvious difference is in post harvest processing. In the culinary dried herb market, domination by vertically integrated companies, like McCormick’s and Spice Island, was once prohibitive, but is now weakening. There are now market openings for local growers, especially for differentiated products such as high quality "organically grown" herbs. Farmers tell me that if they can gross $1000 per acre they would be very happy. I believe that herbs can provide this kind of revenue level. It will require a lot of initiative and determination to achieve success. Some of the challenges new entrants to the herb industry will face are:

1) The lack of good agronomic data. There has been some government and university research field production of dill, monarda, evening primrose, garlic and a few others, but it doesn’t amount to much. Farmers will have to learn and experiment on their own. Two books I strongly recommend which will help farmers get started are the British government’s Culinary & Medicinal Herb, and Richard Alan Miller’s The Potential of Herbs as a Cash Crop. Farmers are advised to get both because they each provide essential information not found in the other.

2) Undeveloped markets. The markets for herbs are in their infancy, and this provides both opportunities and challenges. New entrants should count on spending a good deal of effort to develop a market for their herbs. It will take a year or two to get a contract or to establish a clientele.

Here are some opportunities. (Herbs are listed in no particular order.) Some of these are already under commercial cultivation in Canada.

Fresh Herbs: Field and greenhouse grown – chives, basil, dillweed, oregano, watercress, peppermint, spearmint, thyme, tarragon, sorrel, leaf coriander, garlic.

Dried Culinary herbs: Basil oregano, savoury, mint, thyme, marjoram, dill seed, coriander seed, caraway, poppy seed.

Phytomedicinals: Borage, evening primrose, American and Siberian ginseng, golden seal, echinacea, milk thistle, feverfew, catnip, ginkgo, burdock, sheep sorrel, slippery elm, Chinese rhubarb.

Herb seeds: Most of the above, and others.

Value added products: Frozen pesto, medicinal ointments, herb vinegars, spice mixes, dried flower and herb arrangements, herb soaps, essential oils.

Because Richters is one of the best known herb companies in Canada, we get a lot of inquiries from people wanting to get into the herb business – at least one or two a week. We can provide basic information, books, seeds and other propagative material, and for those interested in more in-depth technical and marketing help, we can provide consultations for a fee.

I always advise prospective herb farmers to go slow. Don’t invest a lot of eggs in herbs right off. Plant an acre or two at first to develop expertise and to grow some sample product to get orders and contracts.

Conrad Richter is Vice-President of Richters Herbs, Goodwood, Ontario, Canada.
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