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Herbs: A Small-Scale Agriculture Alternative

USDA Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research Service
Office for Small-Scale Agriculture

The term "herbs" has many meanings. The most accepted one is "plants that are not used solely as vegetables or ornaments." Herbs are multiple use plants useful for culinary, cosmetic, industrial, medicinal, landscaping, decorative, and fragrance purposes.

They include vegetables such as garlic, flavoring items such as red peppers or mint, decorative flowers such as roses, various oilseed shrubs, ground-cover plants such as lemon thyme or perennial chamomile, edible flowers such as nasturtiums, trees such as the linden or bay, and plants such as chrysanthemums that may be intercropped and used as an alternative to pesticides.

Herbal processed products include fresh and dried flowers; leaves, barks, roots, and seeds-dried, ground, or dissolved powders; essential oils (as distinguished from petroleum or synthetic oils); and oleoresins, naturally occurring mixtures of oil and resin. Some other products are condiments, spices, or food seasonings; teas; dyes; cosmetic products; and so-called health foods.

The competition is intense in producing and marketing herbs, and producers range from giant corporations to small-scale entrepreneurs and hobbyists. Regardless, there are opportunities for new herb producers as the market expands.

The world market is extremely volatile, with prices ranging from less than $1 a pound for some herbs to more than $100 a pound for others. Political situations in third world countries (where much of the world production is found) causes shortages, and prices fluctuate widely. Increasing commercial herb production in the United States will help maintain some equilibrium in supplies and the stability of sellers' prices.

Consumer and producer interest in herbs is increasing. A decade ago it was difficult to find books on herbs. Today there are dozens of books published on all aspects of the subject. Increasing consumer interest has created more competition in herb production by growers.

National and regional herb trade associations provide information and support to their members. The Herb Growing and Marketing Network (P.O. Box 245, Silver Spring, PA 17575; 717-393-3295) publishes The Herbal Connection, a bimonthly trade journal, and The Herbal Green Pages, an annual resource guide with more than 5,000 herb-related listings; the International Herb Association (1202 Allanson Rd., Mundelein, IL 60060; 708-949-4372) holds an annual conference in various parts of the United States, and the American Herbal Products Association (P.O. Box 2410, Austin, TX 78768; 512-320-8555) represents manufacturers of herbal health food and over-the-counter products.

Regional groups are represented by herb organizations in several States. Often these groups are organized by the State Departments of Agriculture. States that have existing support groups are: North Carolina (North Carolina Herb Association, c/o Jeanine Davis, 2016 Fanning Bridge Rd., Fletcher, NC 28732), Delaware (DHGMA, c/o Dr. Art Tucker, Delaware State Univ., Dept. of Ag & Natural Resources, Dover, DE 19901-2275), Pennsylvania (PHBN, c/o Barb Will, RD 7, Box 1, Somerset, PA 15501), the Ozarks (OHGMA, c/o Pam Robinson, 3249 5. Erie, Tulsa, OK 74135), Texas (THGMA, c/o Deborah Cox, Rt. 8, Box 567, Brownsville, TX 87520), Illinois (IHA, c/o Lowell Lenschow, 1701 Towanda Ave., Bloomington, IN 61701), Michigan (MHBA, c/o Judy Larison, 135 E. 120th St., Grant, Ml 49327), Kentucky (KHGMA, P.O. Box 123, Washington, KY 41096), West Virginia (WVHA, Rt. 1, Box 263-SS, Weston, WV 26452), Virginia (VHGMA, P.O. Box 1176, Chesterfield, VA 23832), Hawaii (HHA, P.O. Box 62150, Honolulu, HI 96839), Montana and the surrounding region (Great Northern Botanicals Association, P.O. Box 362, Helena, MT 59624).

A number of groups serve specific interests within the industry: medicinal (American Botanical Council, P.O. Box 201660, Austin, TX 78720; Northeast Herbal Association, P.O. Box 146, Marshfield, VT 05658-0146; American Herbalists Guild, Box 1683, Soquel, CA 95073), and ornamental (Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, MPO 268, Oberlin, OH 44074).

For the small-scale entrepreneur, the best chance of competing may be in plant sales. With interest in gardening at an all-time high and no diminishing of interest in sight, gardeners are searching for a wide variety of herbs for cooking, landscaping, and alternative health needs. A prospective producer might consider starting a mail order business. Many home gardeners and others market herbs that way. Herb plant sales are increasing every year, and the enterprising grower who combines knowledge and service along with plant sales is doing well.

Fresh-Cut Herbs

Culinary herbs are well suited to small-scale production because of unique growing conditions and intensive labor needs. Production can be on small acreage, marginal land, and without heavy machinery or with modified equipment. Potential markets are in selling fresh-cut herbs to restaurants, at local farmers' markets, and through some specialty grocers. Much about pricing and marketing fresh-cut herbs can be learned from the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

AMS provides reports on prices and supplies of "miscellaneous herbs," which are fresh-cut and whose leaves are usually used for flavoring, such as arugula ("rocket salad"), basil, chives, cilantro (also known as coriander, parsley, and Spanish or Chinese parsley), chervil, dill, marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, sorrel, tarragon, thyme, lemon thyme, and watercress. Also listed as an herb is the confusingly named anise, which is a close relative of fennel, bulbous fennel, Florence fennel, or finocchio. Its bulbous lower section is generally boiled like a vegetable; its leaves are not used for flavoring, as is the case with anise hyssop, a kind of mint. (A third anise, sometimes classed as an umbelifera because of its relationship to dill, angelica, and celery, is Pimpinella anisum, a flavoring seed producer.) Some herbs used for their roots, such as ginger, are listed by AMS as oriental vegetables, but the horseradish (root) is sometimes listed as an herb. Herbs such as garlic, onions, parsley, and hot peppers also are priced but are listed as plain vegetables. The weekly National Wholesale Herb Market News Report is available from the Fruit and Vegetable Market News, Attn: Jacquelline Davis, Market Reporter for Herbs, USDA-AMS, 230 South Dearborn St., Rm. 512, Chicago, IL 60804; 312-353-0111. The annual price for the weekly report is $120, but a monthly update at $10 is also available. The report covers 18 terminal markets around the country and provides prices and shipment sizes of 20 or more different culinary herbs. Most of the commercial fresh-cut herbs in this country currently come from California, Texas, or Florida. Some items come from other States, and some are imported at very competitive prices.

A lack of knowledge of particular herb cultivation systems, difficulties with correct seed labeling, and lack of regulations concerning pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are major production problems.

Seeds are another concern for herb growers. Although imported seeds and seeds supplied by bulk suppliers are the main sources for the industry, there is an urgent need for the production of high-quality, reliably identified seed sources.

Processed Herbs

Non-food herbs are another potential market. Outlets include pharmaceutical and industrial uses, the fragrance industry, and dried herbs/flowers for arrangements and craftwork. Marketing for the pharmaceutical/industrial segment is specialized, competitive, and can require a substantial investment. Considerable specialized knowledge of dehydrating, processing, and extracting, is often required. and specialized machinery may be needed. Keen foreign competition exists, as import prices are often low. Because of the instability of the world market, however, many companies are looking for reliable U.S. suppliers. Growers must establish close working relationships with buyers. Information on U.S. trade and the world situation for many processed products from herbs and spices may be obtained from circulars sold by USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS). For information on subscription prices, contact FAS, Information Division, Room 5074-S, Washington DC 20250-1000. Telephone 202-720-7115; Fax 202-720-3229. Dr. James A. (Jim) Duke, a botanist at USDA's Agricultural Research Service Germplasm Introduction and Evaluation Laboratory, Beltsville, MD 20705, suggests study of the Chemical Marketing Reporter (Schnell Publishing Company, 100 Church St., New York, NY 10007) for the latest continuing data on processed herb prices and dealers. Copies of the annual Oil, Paint and Drug Chemical Buyers Directory, which lists dealers, is also for sale from the publisher.

Varietal Selection

Among many challenges in the herb business is varietal selection. Some seeds do not produce the crop desired. For example, "oregano" seeds sold by some companies may not produce plants of culinary use quality. While many kinds of lavender may be grown from seeds, they will not produce quality oil. Dr. Duke and Thomas DeBaggio, an herb grower in Arlington, VA, and author of Growing Herbs, advise that many herbs should be started from cuttings.

Growing Methods

There is a limited amount of commercial growing information in print. The quarterly Journal of Herbs, Spices & Medicinal Plants emphasizes the latest research in production and quality control. Dr. Lyle F. Craker, a plant physiologist at the University of Massachusetts, is the editor. Individual annual subscriptions are $28 per volume ordered from The Haworth Press, Inc., 10 Alice St., Binghamton, NY 13904-1580 Other sources for information on production, marketing, and manufacturing are the proceedings from the National Herb Growing and Marketing Conferences. Copies of the proceedings from 1986-1988 are available from the Extension Office, Center for New Crops, 1165 Horticulture Building, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907. The 1989-1994 proceedings are available from the International Herb Association. Information on Purdue's International Training Program in Medicinal and Aromatic Plants is also available.

Although many herbs flourish outdoors, prospective producers should seriously consider a greenhouse for year-round production as well as early season propagation. Construction costs will vary depending on location and equipment. Seeking expert advice before construction is essential.

Other Information Sources

Other sources of herbal information include the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center at USDA's National Agricultural Library (NAL), Room 304, 10301 Baltimore Blvd., Beltsville, MD 20705-2351 (301-504-6559); the Cooperative Extension Service office in your county; and your State university horticulture specialists.

Persons wishing to view more than 100 varieties of living herbs should visit the USDA's National Arboretum at 3501 New York Avenue NE, Washington D.C. (202-245-2726). Janet Walker is curator of the Arboretum's National Herb Garden. It is one of the largest such formal gardens in the world and has been sponsored by the Herb Society of America's Potomack Unit since 1965.

There are hundreds of books on herbs, but most deal with growing herbs on a gardener's level. Selections that include more detailed material for both the growing and business aspects are: Growing Herbs by Thomas DeBaggio from Interweave Press; Herbal Renaissance by Steven Foster from Gibbs-Smith; Park's Success with Herbs by Gertrude Foster and Rosemary Louden from Park Seed Company; Growing Your Herb Businessby Bertha Reppert from Storey Communications; Herbs for Sale and Profits from Your Backyard Herb Gardenby Lee Sturdivant from San Juan Naturals (Box 642S, Friday Harbor, WA 98250). Two trade journals that deal with commercial enterprises are The Business of Herbs (Rt. 2, Box 245, Shevlin, MN 56676) and The Herbal Connection.

By Maureen A. Rogers, P.O. Box 245, Silver Spring, PA 17575, for USDA's Office for Small-Scale Agriculture (OSSA), Howard W. "Bud" Kerr, Jr, Program Director, Ag Box 2244, Washington, DC 20250-2244. Telephone 202-401-1805; Fax 202-401-1804.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in its programs on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, and marital or familial status. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program information (braille, large print, audiotape, etc.) should contact the USDA Office of Communications at 202-720-5881 (voice) or 202-720-7808 TDD).

To file a complaint, write the Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. 20250, or call 202-720-7327 (voice) or 202-720-1127 (TDD). USDA is an equal employment opportunity employer.

Mention of commercial enterprises or brand names does not constitute endorsement or imply preference by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

January 1995

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