Culinary Herbs for Direct Marketing

Final Report for FNC01-336

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2001: $4,996.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2002
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $33,180.00
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Summary:

PROJECT BACKGROUND
We operate as a partnership with my husband’s parents. The farm has been in our family for six generations and will pass to our children at the appropriate time. The farm now supports two families for a total four adults and four children. No off farm employment has been taken for the last five years. We both attended OSU-ATI for our higher education. Me in the Greenhouse management program and Jamey in the Beef Production Program.

We have a small feedlot (200 head), a 75 unit cow/calf herd and grow all of our own feedstuffs with the expectation of supplement. Our crops acres number approximately 500 acres with the balance in wooded area and pasturelands. We cooperate extensively with the local NRCS and FSA offices and have a longstanding relationship with both. Jamey will serve as a supervisor for the Soil and Water office in our County beginning January 1, 2003. Soil tests are conducted each year to assure the soil is being properly managed. We practice no till and minimum till as indicated by the contour of the land being worked.

Strict crop rotations are followed as a means of weed, disease, and pest control. One of the many benefits of this practice is reduced fertilizer and chemical use. As much animal nutrient by products as possible are composted for our gardens and raised beds in our effort to reduce contamination of our community watershed. This compost also increases soil fertility.

Soft red wheat is grown with up to 50% being contracted annually to a local processor. The resulting straw is then marketed to local landscapers and businesses. Our hay market has evolved into a group of repeat buyers whose needs and preferences we strive to meet each year.

By necessity, we have become more aggressive marketers and have developed a more accurate record keeping system to better evaluate our costs of production for each enterprise. As part of our continuing education, we attend various management and general informational meeting offered throughout our area. It is important to us to keep abreast of any new technology or technique that may benefit our operation in any way.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
The objective of this project was to develop a culinary business as an additional enterprise to support the future of our family farming operation.

People:
Eric Barrett OSU Extension Agent. Eric was an invaluable information resource, he turned media request into informational opportunities for us and was at our assistance whenever we needed him. Frequently whenever the local media needed or wanted to do local stories about Ag issues or human interest, Eric would contact us and then send out the media. When we told him that we would be interested in hosting the Farm Profitability Tour, Eric arranged it for us. Through that opportunity, we spoke to approximately thirty producers and neighbors about our business. Some of the attendees traveled two hours to learn about our enterprise. I have since spoken to some of them and learned that by attending that meeting they have taken our advice about business planning advisors, soil testing, and working with the local Soil and Water offices. Some have abandoned the ideas they came with and found new ideas. Since we are the only ones in the county growing cut culinary herbs, once the media found out about us we received good coverage.

Hal Kneen OSU Extension Agent in Meigs County. Hal was available to help us with technical assistance for the greenhouse. He has many greenhouse growers that he advises so he was our first critic after the greenhouse was built. Hal brought with him a photometer, pH meter and a constructively critical eye. When our Basil was dying of an unknown cause, Hal took one look at it and sent tissue samples to the main campus for us. Hal also helped introduce us to the greenhouse growers and supply companies that we should be acquainted with.

Glenna Hoff NRCS Washington CO. Education Coordinator. Glenna was involved with a water testing project at the Warren Local High School. She brought the students out to test our spring water. The results of this testing will be shared in the final report of a grant. We use this water exclusively for the greenhouse and our beef cattle operation.

Sidney Brackenridge local Rotarian and treasurer for Warren Local School District was involved with the information sharing portion of the project. He invited me to speak at a meeting of Rotary. During this speech, I was able to share our life as fulltime farmers, the project we are involved in and the effects it does and could have on our family business.

Small Business Development Center. Staff and students provided contact information and technical assistance with logo design and marketing possibilities. I received from this office a list, of potential buyers interested in fresh herbs, from which I made the initial cold calls.

Stoneking Nurseries. Lisa and Tim, the owners, were helpful in allowing me to piggyback orders with theirs when distributors had minimum order limits that excluded me. Technical assistance with greenhouse matters was always ready. They also were a supplier for some of the perennial herbs that I have. This year, I will contract grow herbs for them to sell in their business. They do not have the space or desire to propagate herbs but customer demand dictates that they sell them.

Results:
The outcome of this grant project was both success and failure. Our project achieved a dramatic increase in production on smaller tracts of land, proved that there is an active market for fresh culinary herbs and potential for increased income while remaining a functional family farm.

Let me address these in order. We began harvesting our herb crop for the fresh cut market in June of 2001. we had at that time approximately 6400 square feet in production. When speaking in acre terms we had .146 acres of production space. Our plant list included: Italian parsley, Curled parsley, Garlic and onion chives, Sweet and Lemon basil, Cilantro, Borage, German Chamomile, French Tarragon, French and Lemon Thyme, Rosemary, Greek Oregano and Mammoth Sage. The farmers market was the first outlet with the local restaurants soon to follow. The area adjacent to our garden was planted to corn in 2001. Average yields for the field were 165 Bu/ac. On the same amount of ground our gross income was $64.80. The herbs produced gross income in the amount of $1500 for the six month growing period.

With the addition of the greenhouse, our growing space increased by 2520 sq/ft. We had the ability to grow and sell year round. All of the plants that we had outside were grown inside so the availability list remained unchanged for the most part. There were some weeks not all were salable because of plant dormancy.

The outlet for these sales were River City Farmers Market and deliveries to area restaurants. We did not open the greenhouse for sales to the public.

The bookkeeping system that we use for the farm records is Quickbooks Pro. It allows for tracking of quantity, price and vendor. It is set up for specific crops so we know the sales and can figure break even price.

When comparing our project to conventional practices we will conclude that herbs are more profitable because of the reduced spatial requirements, increased production opportunities, and public perception. In our case the public perceives this to be an opportunity to use a fresher product when cooking and simply having something different in the house or garden that smells good.

We did expect to achieve the results that we got. Some of the things that we would do differently if starting over would be to listen more to the customer. There were times that they would ask for something and because it wasn’t what we wanted to do, were not receptive. We would have offered potted plants from the beginning. We had in our mind that fresh cut herbs were what we wanted to sell and were very reluctant to offer potted plants. It became clear at the start of July 2002 that the herb enterprise would not survive if we didn’t sell plants. We made plans to attend craft shows, swap meets and anything else we could to let the public know we were in the area and had plants to sell. We came up with a basket that is an instant herb garden as well as a smaller version. Marketed as a gift idea they began selling very well. We obtained a nursery license so we could ship plant baskets if that was requested. We would be more aggressive marketers from the beginning of the project. we had slowly realized that just because we produced a crop didn’t mean that everyone knew we had it. For the straw and beef operation, our customers knew what quality we produced. We had to start over with the herbs. There was now an entirely different clientele to deal with and we didn’t have any idea what they wanted. We became very good at cold calls and first impressions.

Discussion:
The most important things we learned were: successful marketing is something that really needs to be focused on if your business is going to survive the first year. You need to make people aware that you exist. It is possible for conventional agricultural producers to make the transition into unconventional production areas. We have the ability to weather the controversial storm associated with new production in our area.

At the present time we have not overcome the problem addressed in our proposal but we believe that income from the herbs will generate a profit this year. We have persevered for the startup and foresee an increase in sales due to the addition of potted plants and a sales area at the greenhouse.

The advantages of adding herbs to our operation were both personal and business related. On the business side of things, we have increased income, found an alternative to hauling animal wastes in the muddy weather and given the public a reason to come out to see the farm. The personal advantages are not having to seek off farm employment, having fresh herbs to cook with whenever we need them, flowering plants in the winter and the opportunity to educate people about what we do as full time farmers.

We would recommend that anyone interested in starting a culinary herb business for the fresh cut market:
– Be sure that the intended market uses fresh herbs instead of dried. We found that the chefs who use dried have no intention of converting to fresh when dried is much easier to use.
– Be sure that you can compete with the huge suppliers pricing or outsell the product based on another attribute of your product.
– Be ready to sell that first order. Know where the packaging will come from, what you will package with and how you will package it.
– Be aware of other producers in your area, try to learn from them. You are a competitor and it may be difficult to gain information but keep at it.
– Research the costs involved with starting your business. What do you have that can be converted for use? What will you have to purchase new? Used? Who has knowledge that you can benefit from and are they willing to help? Will they charge you for this?

Listen to others who have been there or are in a similar business. Not all the advice you will hear is going to help you, just like field trials cannot be compared to your fields. What you must do is listen to others, gather information, and then sort through it and decide what you think would work best for you. Trial and error will be a constant companion for awhile.

Project Impacts:
The economic impact for our family has to this point in time been unchanged. The herb business has broken even. Based on the number for the last 24 months, we are projecting growth a profit for the coming year.

The environmental impact for the farm has been improved fertility on the ground we use as the herb garden because of the use of compost. We have reduced the need to haul as much animal wastes on the fields because of the creation of compost piles. All plant wastes from the greenhouse go into the compost piles too. Our use of lady bugs, wasps and spiders in the greenhouse has reduced the need for pesticides. We do however use commercial fertilizers.

The social impacts have been so far, the biggest for us. We have had the opportunity to host a number of different groups at the farm. with each group that comes out or that we speak to, more people become aware of our responsibility as stewards of the land. Why and how we do what we do and that farming is more than just Cows and Plows. We participate in projects through the school districts, soil and water district and welcome inquiries from any group. If one person goes home thinking about the wheat we plant in the fall as a cover crop to help control erosion or the improved taste of fresh rosemary to dry, it was worth taking time from our day to host that group.

OUTREACH
We told other about our project through newspaper articles, farm tours, a web site and farmer’s market contact. There were four articles written for three different papers. All of which were feature stories. For the newspaper, a reporter came out to the house and interviewed us, took pictures, and toured the greenhouse and herb garden.

The farm tours were set up after the first news article. We hosted a women’s group from the Mid Ohio Valley Welcome Wagon. This group was made up of women who had just moved into the area and were unfamiliar with what was around. It turned out to be women who had never been on a farm. They were most interested to know how we got everything done, who did the chores and how manure turned into compost. We explained that we used spring water for the greenhouse and then had to get into where ground water comes from. In this group there were approximately 15.

The next group was rotary. We prepared a 20 minute presentation for 35 area businesspersons about the grant project, why we were growing herbs and the impact it would have on the rest of the business.

In June we hosted the first tour of the Farm Profitability tours sponsored in part by OSU extension. We had approximately 35 in attendance some from over two hours away. We spoke about having a business plan, using the area Ag agents as informational resources, and the herb aspect of our business.

Each Saturday Jody would go to the farmers market with cut herbs and use it as an educational opportunity. Whenever someone would ask about the herbs, she would talk about being a fulltime farmer, adding herbs to the operation and the flavorful benefits of using fresh herbs in the cooking. After plants were added, we talked about the fragrant benefits.

Copies of this report will be given to Washington and Meigs County Extension agents, Farm Business Planning and Analysis advisors and the local library. Jody will continue to speak to groups and we will host farm tours any group interested.

Research

Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.