[Note to online version: The report for this project includes tables, figures and appendices that could not be included here. The regional SARE office will mail a hard copy of the entire report at your request. Just contact North Central SARE at (402) 472-7081 or firstname.lastname@example.org.]
The development of herb production in Iowa is definitely an option for farmers looking to diversify their farm operations. While there are hindrances to success, if the farmer is willing to go to extra lengths to maintain quality and a high level of management throughout the growing season there are some definite financial rewards.
The use of the Process budget to evaluate alternative crops and their production practices is an integral part of the development process. Accurate recordkeeping provided vast amounts of information on the profitability of herbs in Iowa. After compilation of two years of information it appears that the herbs showing the greatest promise for reliable profits would include basil, cilantro, dill, and parsley. All four crops show the potential to provide profitable yields when planting is timely and water is available (irrigation if needed). Disease and insect problems are minimal for all four crops.
The cultural practices that were identified as most beneficial for all four crops would include the use of organic mulches (corn stalk or corn cob) to reduce weed pressure between rows and at the same time conserve moisture, reduce erosion, and maintain clean herbs at harvest. Also the use of 30 inch rows appears to maintain optimum production while reducing disease problems which occur with leaf development under the canopy of the crop.
Successful weed control in herb crops can be achieved by use of primary tillage periodically before planting to eliminate as many weed seedlings as possible. Also, a clean seedbed by use of tillage immediately before planting will give herb crops a competitive advantage early in the season.
Time and labor requirements will prove to be the largest obstacle in the development of large scale production in the area. While harvesting and processing can be mechanized to a large degree, there are several aspects in both areas that have significant labor needs. Weed control will be the area of greatest need for a reliable work force at crucial times in crop development. The number of labor hours needed to plant, maintain in the field and harvest, and process an acre of herbs can be as high as 240 hours. Effective management of the crop along with mechanization of harvest can drastically reduce this number however.
Equipment needs that would be considered out of the ordinary for Iowa farms would be minimal. This equipment would include a rotavator for weed control, harvest equipment (windrower), an irrigation system, and a dryer which may consist of a modified corn dryer or out building. Processing could be done in a cooperative manner, eliminating the need for each farmer to have his or her own line.
Two aspects that are essential for further development include processing quality products on a large scale and maintaining markets. Through the work conducted on this project, a processing system has been established which provides a quality product with minimal losses. This process will be expanded to handle larger quantities of herbs in the future.
Investigation of new markets is an ongoing process and will develop with time once the quality of the product has been established and circulated to the right buyers. Current markets that have accepted our products include: Frontier Cooperative Herbs, Norway, Iowa; Nature’s Cathedral, Blairstown, Iowa; and Ameraherb, Ames, Iowa. Other potential markets include Tones Spices, Ankeny, Iowa; and, for the fresh market, grocery stores such as Hy-Vee in Iowa.
The primary objectives of this project include the following:
1. Examine crop plans to determine which crops are most conducive to reliable profits for Iowa farmers.
2. Determine which cultural practices provide optimum production of each crop.
3. Evaluate how herb production practices fit into current farm operations in two respects:
a. time and labor requirements
b. equipment needs and modifications
4. Explore various marketing alternatives in the retail and wholesale trades.
Essentially work on this project could be split into two periods of time which were the growing season and the marketing season. During the growing season, field trials were conducted to evaluate some of the cultural practices that would be readily available to farmers in the Midwest which could potentially be used for production of herbs. In this case, the principle investigator is also a farmer on a diversified farm operation with livestock and row crops (corn and soybeans). This arrangement produced an invaluable opportunity to evaluate the labor and equipment needs in a real life situation.
During the marketing season (winter months) efforts focused on development of sound processing methods that would result in a product in which wholesale businesses would be interested. This led to visits with wholesale markets with samples of the finished product for review by the buyers.
The area of development is a diversified (livestock and cropping) farming community in eastern Iowa with productive soils (Tama-Muscatine, 0-3% slopes). The Benton Development Group (BDG) is interested in the diversification in farm operations in Benton County to maintain the population base and overall vitality of its rural communities. We (BDG) recognize that agriculture is the backbone of our economy, and if we can fortify this industry in any way through diversification then the residents of our communities will be the beneficiaries. Currently in Benton County, there is one wholesale market of culinary and medicinal herbs has expressed interest in developing herb production in the local area which has catalyzed this growing and marketing effort.
Evaluation of Cultural Practices
Cover crop experiment
Cover crop experiments were established September 10, 1994, and September 21, 1995, to evaluate the usefulness of cover crops as weed suppressing agents and erosion inhibitors. Two cover crop cultures were established using rye alone and a rye-hairy vetch mixture. Rye seed was seeded at a rate of 10 lbs./A and hairy vetch seed was seeded at a rate of 15 lbs./A in respective plots. Evaluation of plot area in December resulted in a good stand of hairy vetch and rye in the bi-culture treatment and a good stand of rye in the monoculture treatment in 1994, but in 1995 both treatments resulted in a poor stand of rye. In the spring of 1996, rye was reseeded but results were poor. Consequently, due to poor rye stands and poor growing conditions during May of 1996, we abandoned this experiment for 1996.
Due to wet cool conditions during the spring, 1995, conditions were favorable for cover crop growth. However, initial tillage of the cover crops could not be completed until May 27, resulting in one pass of a stalk chopper to condense excessive biomass. Several tillage passes were conducted periodically from May 27 to June 17 to eliminate regrowth. Plots were planted on June 17 with each of the seven herb crops to evaluate phytotoxic effects of the rye and hariyvetch on various herbs. Weed counts were conducted on July 3 for all plots. Numbers presented will be the sum of grasses and broadleaves.
Table 1 describes the results of the cover crop experiment. There was no significant change in weed populations when comparing a cover crop situation with no cover crop. Though there is the advantage of maintaining plant cover on the soil during erosion prone periods, the advantages for control of weeds was not evident. When highly erodable land will be used for herb production, it would be wise to consider using cover crops. If the farmer will be continually rotating with herbs, then erosion will be reduced significantly with cover crops since there generally is little crop residue left after the growing season exposing the soil to greater erosion risk. No phytotoxic effects of cover crops were observed throughout the 1995 growing season on any of the seven crops evaluated.
Liquid swine manure was applied in the field in strips of 0, 2000, 4000, and 6000 gallons per acre, and was treated as the whole plot of a randomized split block design in December of 1994 and 1995. On June 17, 1995, the entire area was mowed and then disked 3 times to provide a good seedbed for planting. Herb seed was planted on June 19 and 21. In 1996 the ground was prepared by discing twice with a tandem disc and then using a cultimulcher two passes to provide a firm and smooth seedbed. Due to wet conditions earlier in the season herb seed was planted on June 26.
During 1995 planting, problems occurred with windy, humid conditions. Strong winds blew seed away from the furrow and scattered it across plots resulting in erratic stands. Humidity also prevented normal flow of several seeds (coriander, dill) resulting in plugged seed tubes. Plots were maintained weed free throughout the season. In 1996 planting conditions were good resulting in excellent stands of four crops including parsley, basil, cilantro, and dill.
Leaf nutrient analysis was conducted for each of the fertility treatments applied to the following herbs: borage, parsley, basil, cilantro, and dill. Table 2 describes the results of leaf tissue analysis conducted in 1995 and 1996.
Leaf tissue analysis (Table 2) revealed that, while there are differences between crops in nutrient content, there are no signs that nutrient content increases with incremental increases of swine manure for 1995 and 1996. Visual observations during the growing season revealed no phytotoxic problems with the high rates of swine manure on all herbs. One possible reason for a poor response to high fertilizer rates may be the relatively high fertility level already present in the field.
Table 3 describes dry matter yields for dill, cilantro, basil, and parsley for 1995 and 1996. Again, there were no responses for any of the crops to increased fertility rates for 1995 and 1996 with the exception of parsley in 1996. One reason may include poor growing conditions for much of the season which masked the full potential of these crops in a “normal” growing season thus limiting the nutrient needs of the crop. Another reason may be attributed to the high fertility levels already present on this site which, as mentioned earlier, may have masked the fertility rates used.
Weed control experiment
In 1996 various cultural practices were evaluated to determine the most efficient and profitable method for controlling weeds while maintaining optimum growth. Four cultural practices were implemented on basil, cilantro, parsley, and dill as follows:
1. herbs planted by seed in 30 inch rows, followed by cultivation
2. herbs planted by seed in 15 inch rows, followed by hand weeding
3. herbs planted by seed in 30 inch rows, using corn stalk mulch for weed control
4. herbs planted by seed in 30 inch rows, using corn cob mulch for weed control
Seedbed preparation was the same for all treatments except for the addition of the mulches in treatments 3 and 4 with planting occurring on June 26, 1996. The mulches were applied using a manure spreader after seedbed preparation, followed by one pass with a traditional corn planter which was mounted with row cleaners used in no-till corn planting situations. The row cleaners removed the broadcasted mulch in approximately a 6 inch strip where the seed was planted later. The corn cob mulch was prepared by running cobs through a grinder/mixer used for grinding feed. The corn stalk mulch was prepared by grinding in a tub grinder. The corn stalk bales were made in the fall of 1995. The results are in Table 4.
In the case of dill, basil, and cilantro mulched treatments did well compared to the conventional methods of seedbed preparation. Yields for parsley were lower when looking at the corn stalk mulch, but the corn cob mulch did well in comparison to treatments 1 and 2. Other observations made included a slightly lighter coloration of cilantro, basil, and dill in the corn cob mulch treatments. This was attributed to slightly less nitrogen availability due to the higher C:N ratio that corn cobs have. This problem could probably be overcome by application of slightly higher nitrogen fertilizer applications. Also, it was quite obvious that crops grown in mulched treatments were cleaner at harvest time which can be a very important quality issue. Moisture retention in mulched soils also appeared to be greater in mulched conditions which is important under dry conditions or when irrigation is used extensively. Conditions were not excessively dry during the production period which resulted in little or no effect on treatments this season. Other advantages of mulches in an herb production system include reducing the need for hand labor on a per acre basis during the weed control period resulting in coverage of more area by the same work force. Hand weeding is time consuming and not to mention hard work, so anything that can be done to economically alleviate this problem can be of great benefit.
Equipment and Labor Needs
Equipment used for production of other cash crops on a typical Iowa farming operation can fit well into an herb production system. The only truly specialized equipment used for the 1995 growing season was a transplanter to plant plugs and a rotovator used to cultivate herbs. The rest of the equipment used was either already on my existing farm operation or was purchased at farm sales for “junk dealer” prices.
1. 6 row corn/soybean planter – This planter was originally used for planting corn and soybeans in 6 – 30 inch rows. The planter units are mounted on a 15 foot tool bar which is controlled hydraulically. The original seed boxes were removed to facilitate the renovation process. The insecticide boxes are used to meter the correct rate of herb seed through the delivery tube to the ‘in furrow’ placement location between the disc openers. The seed is allowed to fall from the tube into the opened furrow which is eventually closed by the press wheel mounted below the insecticide box. A PVC elbow was added to the bottom of the delivery tube to insure that the seed made it into the furrow under windy conditions or when soil conditions tended to be dry and loose resulting in furrow closure before the seed was dropped. The planter units can be moved on the toolbar to a wide variety of row spacings without a large amount of effort. To move units from a 30 inch row spacing to 18 inch row spacing requires approximately 30 minutes and 2 people. Based on emergence this year some adjustments will be made for next spring, but we fully intend to use this system next spring for planting all seed. Cost was $85.00.
2. 3-point mounted cultivator- This cultivator was also purchased at a farm sale for approximately $150.00. There is a great deal of flexibility in row spacing for this cultivator allowing us to use many different row spacing combinations. The cultivator was widened to place several more shanks on for a 10 foot swath depending on row spacing needed.
3. A rotavator was purchased several years ago with growing herbs in mind. This is a specialized roto-tiller that can be adjusted for use as a cultivator. Again, flexibility is the primary key for its use. There is a large number of row spacings that can be used for cultivation of herb crops. There are two tilling units mounted on a tool bar which are run by tractor PTO. These units can be moved to any position on the toolbar, and the tilling width of each unit can be changed by removing blades or entire gangs. Tilling can be conducted extremely close to small plants without burying them or digging them up. Cost was $2000.00.
Equipment on hand:
1. One tractor can be used for all field operations as long as tillage equipment doesn’t become too large. In our case we used a 140 h.p. tractor to do primary tillage operations with 20+ ft tillage equipment. A 70 h.p. tractor was used for all other operations. In most farm operations there will be several tractors on hand that will fit into both of these categories. There is no reason, however, for need of more than one 70 h.p. tractor to conduct all field operations as long as tillage equipment is small enough.
2. Primary tillage equipment included the use of a field cultivator and tandem disk. Both pieces of equipment are useful depending on soil conditions and previous crop residue present in the spring. Tillage equipment used for the primary tillage pass was 20+ ft. But tillage equipment of any size may be used as long as soil conditions are in good planting shape.
3. Secondary tillage equipment used for seed bed preparation included a harrow and cultipactor. Both pieces of equipment are relatively common for most farm operations.
4. A Sickle-bar mower was used to cut down herbs for harvest. This has been the most efficient method of harvest without moving into larger pieces of equipment such as a self-propelled hay mower which would cut and windrow your crop at the same time. The crop was picked up by hand after being mowed down.
5. A remodeled 20X10 feed shed was renovated to serve as a dryer. The building was split in half to maintain two separate drying areas with a walking alley between. Each half was divided into four bay areas corresponding with 4 sliding doors for access from the outside. Three of the bays were used for drying purposes while the fourth area (on the end) housed the heating furnace and large circulation fans. Each bay used for drying supported three drying racks made of 2X4s and wire mesh screen for the base. The wire mesh was used to allow air flow throughout the base of each drying rack. At the bottom of each drying bay is a slatted floor that allows air flow from the heating bay to circulate from bottom to top through the drying bays. The stainless steel slatted floor was originally used in farrowing crates but was removed when a hog farrowing facility was remodeled. Under the slatted floor of each bay there is a squirrel cage fan used to push air up through each bay. The fourth bay area housing the heater uses a 60,000 BTU L.B. White furnace for the heat source and two large greenhouse circulation fans to force the heated air under each of the drying bays. The regulation of heat is controlled by a mobile thermostat placed within the drying bays. Moist air is removed by an exhaust fan placed on the opposite end of the heating bay. The exhaust fan is regulated by a humidistat which is also placed within the drying bays during operation. Three drying bays will hold approximately 400 pounds of wet herbs.
Time and labor requirements
Time and labor requirements can be a problem for traditional crop-livestock farmers in Iowa. The key factor to keep in mind is when the opportunity is best for planting of the herb crop. Results from 1995 and 1996 have shown that planting after mid-May until mid-June would probably be the optimum time period. Corn and soybean planting historically is nearing completion by mid-May in Iowa. This fits well for equipment usage.
Weeding of crops may be a problem in the sense that a relatively large work force would be needed at crucial periods in crop development. This can be a problem in rural Iowa; the producer will have to do his best in procuring the work force before the season begins so that timely weed control can be conducted. The use of mulches becomes an important aspect of production in order to reduce the amount of hand weeding done on an area of land. Also primary tillage to eliminate initial weed growth before planting is crucial to reducing labor needs.
A working relationship has been established with Frontier Cooperative Herbs (FCH) of Norway, Iowa, and Tones in Ankeny, Iowa. FCH agreed to buy any herbs that met quality specifications before the 1995 growing season. The need to store herbs until FCH was willing to take them was one consideration for farmers’ resistance. Samples from the experimental plots have been sent to FCH and Tones in 1995 and 1996. In the case of FCH, herb quality met their specifications for dill, cilantro, basil, and Echinacea in both years, but quantities were not plentiful to make any sales. This is considered a success and plans will be made in December of 1996 for 1997, production. Tones has received samples in 1995 and 1996 and quality appears to be good, but there are problems with delivering sufficient enough quantities to meet their needs. We will continue to identify new markets as our production increases.
In 1995 and 1996, most farmers wanting to try growing herbs faced difficult growing seasons. Most farmers found it a challenge to complete their own planting schedules much less try a new crop. Nonetheless, farmers associated with this project grew Echinacea, dill, cilantro and basil with good success.
Conversations with produce managers of Hy-Vee stores in the Cedar Rapids area have been very positive. They believe that the fresh market will continue to grow with time. Growers interested in the fresh market were identified in early 1996 for the 1996 growing season, but the wet, cool growing season restricted progress in developing this market.
Development of processing methods has taken great strides during our course of experimentation. We were able to successfully dry all herbs produced and maintain excellent quality. In 1995, we identified the need to improve our dryer efficiency. In 1996, we were able to achieve this by doubling our capacity with approximately the same input costs. This will be elaborated on under the Process Budget heading.
Removal of the leaves from the stems of basil, dill, cilantro, and parsley was also successful during the course of this project. We will be using these methods next season to process herbs for FCH and other companies.
Crop Plans–The Process Budget
A process budget has been developed for each of the herbs grown by seed this year in experiments. The budget is based on average productivity for the year according to various yields taken during the growing season. A process budget was also developed for the use of transplants in catnip and basil for 1995 to compare results with seeding practices. Appendix A (Tables 1-15) provides the budget for each of the crops in 1995 and 1996.
The use of the Process budget is quite beneficial in the identification of various aspects of herb production that need improvement for optimum production and profits. In 1995 three areas were identified as needing improvements in order to maximize returns. These included the following:
1. use of irrigation to improve productivity of the herbs.
2. improve drying efficiencies to reduce processing costs.
3. reduce the costs of weed control.
More efficient drying practices were developed for 1996. The addition of more racks for each bay combined with a different air flow system doubled our dryer’s capacity with the same input costs (LP and electricity). While weed control costs were not significantly reduced in 1996, there was a significant move from use of labor to mulches. Any way that labor requirements can be reduced on an acre basis is beneficial. The inability to make several tillage passes periodically before planting increased the need to control weeds after planting for both seasons. Irrigation was not looked at in 1996 due to lateness of the season and complications in developing a transportable unit.
The benefits of these improved efficiencies and more detailed discussion of the Process budget will be in the Economic Analysis section.
Establishment of herb production in Iowa would be of benefit in two areas – economic and environmental. While the 1995 results were not conducive for profits, if production could be increased and efficiencies improved based on results from the Process budget, then profits could be significantly increased. With this in mind for the 1996 season we were able to focus in on and meet both objectives and, as a result, show profitable returns. This is especially true when farm families can use their ‘own labor’ to produce the crop. Profits as great as $3000.00 per acre or more can be realized. Also, to this point large capital investments have been eliminated from the picture. Large capital investment is becoming a significant problem for young farmers trying to start a farm operation. Using existing equipment already on the farm is extremely valuable in these situations.
The use of organic production practices has made the production of herbs an environmentally safe business venture. Pesticides are eliminated from the picture while at the same time finding a valuable use for livestock manure. Using livestock manure on high value crops improves the value of the manure versus use on corn and soybeans. The use of cover crops will be important in reducing potential problems in soil erosion during fallow periods. Also, the use of organic mulches (corn stalks and corn cobs) proved to be a valuable asset to herb production. Benefits from mulches include: reduced soil erosion, improved water retention, reduced hand labor needs, and crops clean from rain splash.
The use of the Process budget will be the focus of review in the economic analysis of production systems. This has been an integral part of the research process in identifying areas of weakness in specific crops and in determining which crops have the greatest potential for development. The Process budget has been used for basil, cilantro, dill, and parsley for 1995 and 1996. Budgets were also established for French tarragon, catnip, and borage in 1995 (Appendix A). Tables 1-9 were the results from 1995 and Tables 10-17 from 1996 in Appendix A. In 1996 two budgets were completed for the cultural practices of conventional tillage and mulching in 30 inch rows for all crops.
In 1995, profits were established for only one crop under one cultural practice which was planting basil by seed at a profit of $522.00 per acre. All other crops and various cultural practices proved ineffective in delivering profits for farmers. The primary cause of this problem was the weather conditions for 1995. A late spring due to wet, cool conditions followed by dry conditions at the end of the season proved disastrous for most crops. Nonetheless, a large amount of information was gleaned from the results.
Table 6 provides a summary of the total revenue, weeding costs, drying costs, and profits for each of the crops under various cultural practices for 1995 and 1996. In 1996, profits ranged from $490 per acre for parsley to $4789 per acre for cilantro planted in mulched conditions. Generally speaking, the use of organic mulches is just as profitable as conventional tillage methods for weed control. Increased profits in 1996 can be attributed to better planting methods, improved efficiencies in drying, but primarily to better weather conditions. In reality we should be able to increase production by two times the current rate if planting can occur in late May to early June followed by irrigation.
While drying costs for 1995 averaged 18.6% of total costs in 1996, the average was 17.4% while in many cases drying twice the amount of herbs. This is a significant breakthrough to improving efficiencies. Weeding costs went from 34.3% of overall costs in 1995 to 25.9% in 1996 which is also another significant improvement on production costs.
Based on the results of the last two seasons it would appear that basil, cilantro, dill, and parsley have the potential to provide reliable profits to farmers. Borage demand has decreased as of late and various factors in the development of the crop do not allow flexibility in production like other crops do. French tarragon requires a significant investment with no return in the first season followed by lower yields than expected. This would be an herb for advanced growers to begin working with but not very useful to beginning operations where mistakes can be costly. Catnip was another crop that can produce profits but probably not to the degree that the other four herbs do.
During the course of this project we have made presentations to or personally contacted over 200 farmers in Iowa. The awareness of the potential of herbs as alternative crops has never been greater. Currently, it is difficult to ascertain just how many farmers will begin to grow herbs. We have had approximately 20 growers in the Benton County area try growing herbs with only a handful to date considered serious producers. Herb production requires much greater management skills than what most farmers are accustomed to in our area, proving a major hindrance for farmer acceptance. Leroy Ballard has said many times that he has received many phone calls throughout the last two years and he estimates that only 10% of those callers actually produce a crop at the end of the season that can be sold. While this is most certainly true it does create some outstanding opportunities for producers who will go to those extra lengths to become an alternative crop success story.
Educational & Outreach Activities
After the first of the year a series of 3 meetings were held with interested growers of the Iowa Producers Cooperative and other interested farmers. Attendance ranged from 15 to 25 growers for each meeting. Discussion primarily focused on working with Frontier Cooperative Herbs (FCH) of Norway, Iowa, to establish a working relationship and possibly develop some grower contracts for 1995. In consultation with FCH the growers developed a list of herbs that would be easy to grow and are in relatively high demand. For the initial season, FCH was reluctant to develop contracts for 1995 but were interested in purchasing any product that was produced and met their quality standards. Leroy Ballard of Nature’s Cathedral also agreed to buy any product that was of good quality for sale through his business. Several aspects of herb production were of concern for growers including how to remove the leaves from stems of various crops and the need of facilities to store processed herb until FCH was in need of the product. Herbs might need to be stored for as long as a year past harvest. Another concern was the availability of drying facilities for their product. Farmers were encouraged to experiment with grain drying bins as one possible drying method.
A field day was held on August 26, 1995, to share firsthand the experiences with interested growers. Leroy Ballard, a speaker at the 1995 field day, discussed what herbs are in demand from the medicinal market and various production practices used on his farm. I discussed the production practices used for the experiments established in 1995, and we then toured the plots and reviewed the equipment used for production of the crop. Twelve growers from around the state attended the field day participating in lively discussion between interested producers.
Approximately 15 growers attended an informational meeting in February of 1996 to learn more about the results of the 1995 growing season. Another field day was held on September 7, 1996, with approximately 55 growers from all over eastern Iowa in attendance. Dr. Jim Simon and Leroy Ballard were in attendance to provide additional comments on production practices along with a tour of the various production plots, equipment used, and dryer setup.
Various aspects of the herb program have been covered by local newspapers over the last two years, including a featured article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, on September 1, 1996. Copies of the articles are provided in the Appendix B.
Areas needing additional study
Two areas of further study that would be of benefit in herb production is a further look into the use of other organic mulches for specialty crops such as herbs. More specifically, using soybean residue as an organic mulch in the Midwest. The other area of focus would include the development of efficient harvest practices to optimize regrowth after herb harvesting. This would probably include the use of irrigation.