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Economic outlook for culinary herbs

By Lynn Byczynski

For a time in the 1990s, culinary herbs seemed to offer unlimited potential for local growers. There was an ever-increasing demand for fresh and dried herbs by consumers and restaurants. Fresh herbs commanded a higher price per pound than any other edible crop. Herb farming actually looked like a get-rich-quick scheme.

But, as with so many trends, the entrance of a few large-scale growers glutted the wholesale market. Internet ordering and next-day delivery services gave chefs access to a huge selection of fresh herbs from distant farms. The herb farming bubble popped.

That's not to say that culinary herbs can't be profitable. For many vegetable growers, they are still a top-grossing crop. But the most successful approach to herbs today is to consider them a valuable addition to a vegetable farm, rather than trying to make herbs the only crop.

Culinary herbs are a natural add-on that helps sell other veggies and raise the average purchase amount. Tomatoes cry out for basil, potatoes for dill, and winter squash for rosemary and thyme. By providing recipes, savvy growers are able to cross-sell many kinds of herbs. Growers who have existing relationships with chefs can explore the possibility of custom growing herbs for specific seasonal menus. Some growers do a good business selling potted herbs to restaurants for use in the kitchen or on tables. Supermarkets interesting in developing local food credibility may be open to selling herb bunches in water.

Herbs still have great potential for the mixed vegetable grower, but it's smart to study the market and look for niches before planting on a large scale. For a detailed discussion of the current state of culinary herb production in the U.S., see this report from ATTRA, the national sustainable agriculture information service.

Lynn Byczynski is the editor of Growing for Market and the publisher of The Hoophouse Handbook.

Articles by

the author:
Lynn Byczynski was growing organic vegetables and cut flowers for market when she decided to create a magazine that would help market gardeners nationwide share experiences and information. Her first issue of Growing for Market appeared in January 1992 and it has been published continuously since then. GFM is renowned in the market gardening world for realistic articles that give growers practical, how-to information about growing and selling produce and flowers. Lynn is now partnering with Johnny's to provide similarly useful information for the website and other publications.

Lynn, her husband Dan Nagengast, and their two children have grown vegetables and cut flowers since 1988, selling through a CSA, at farmers markets, to chefs, grocery stores, and florists. They currently grow cut flowers and hoophouse tomatoes on about 2 acres of their 20-acre farm near Lawrence, Kansas.

Lynn is also the author of several books about market farming:
The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower's Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers; The Hoophouse Handbook; Market Farming Success

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