Culinary and Ornamental Herbs- Adding to a Grain and Livestock Family Farming Operation

Project Overview

FNC03-456
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2003: $5,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $17,105.00
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:

Commodities

  • Additional Plants: herbs
  • Animals: bees, bovine

Practices

  • Crop Production: multiple cropping, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: decision support system, demonstration, extension, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, cooperatives, marketing management, agricultural finance, market study, risk management, value added
  • Pest Management: biological control, chemical control, economic threshold, physical control, prevention, sanitation
  • Production Systems: transitioning to organic
  • Soil Management: organic matter, nutrient mineralization, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, partnerships, public participation, urban/rural integration, analysis of personal/family life, sustainability measures

    Summary:

    Culinary and Ornamental Herbs- Adding to a Grain and Livestock Family Farming Operation

    PROJECT BACKGROUND AND DESCRIPTION
    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 of four adults and four children. No off-farm employment has been taken for the last six years. We both attended OSU-ATI for our higher education — myself in the greenhouse management program and Jamey in the beef production program.

    We have a small feedlot (300 head), a 70 unit cow/calf herd and grow all of our own foodstuffs with the exception of supplement. Our crop acres number approximately 500 acres with the balance in wooded area and pasturelands. We cooperated extensively with the local NRCS and FSA offices and have a long standing relationship with both. Soil tests are conducted each year to assure the soil is being properly managed. We employ conservation tillage practices. Jamey serves as a county supervisor for the soil conservation district.

    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 potted material for the greenhouse in our effort to reduce possible contamination of our community watershed.

    Soft red wheat is grown with up to 50 percent being contracted annually to a local processor. The resulting straw is then marketed to local landscapers and businesses. Our 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 meetings 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.

    Jamey and I have been producing fresh cut herbs in ground beds for the local food service industry for two years prior to obtaining this grant. I had a wildly fluctuating customer base within the local area because the chefs I dealt with did not stay at the restaurant very long. It soon became clear that we could not survive without adding something to the business. We had many customers at the farmers market that asked for potted plants. If multiple customers are asking for the same thing, it is time to give serious consideration to the request.

    PROJECT GOALS
    • Increase net income for better cash flow
    • Make smaller areas of marginal ground more productive
    • Provide our community quality products not currently available

    PROJECT/PROCESS DESCRIPTION
    We did some test marketing with plants potted in 4 inch pots. I chose this size because I thought it would have a better chance of over wintering here. It was different than what anyone else offered too. We were heading into the fall of the year 2003 and thought that the local craft shows and a very large flea market would be good place to let local people know that we now carried potted plants. From the grower’s point of view, fall is a great time to plant and most herbs we had at the time were perennial. I also took into consideration the marketing aspect and had florist arrangement cards available to give to the customer. I made up a few planters as gift ideas for new homes, the gourmet cook and the gardener. As Christmas got closer, I decorated some of the rosemary plants like miniature Christmas trees and watched them fly out the door.

    We had to think about signage, business cards and a logo. I went to the local printer with an idea for a logo to be put on the business cards that I was sure I needed. He helped me refine the idea, design the cards and we were official. With this done, I needed signs to let people know where we could be found. A friend of mine is very handy and agreed to paint signs for me. I took the business card to him and he replicated the logo in oil paints on a 8×10’ ¾” plywood. It also had directions and telephone. We placed one sign along a very busy highway and another at the intersection of our road and the State Route. Within three days of sign placement, we had customers say they had seen them.

    I took cuttings from the stock plants that I had been using to fill fresh cut orders and used the direct stick method to root them. Since I wasn’t sure if herbs needed rooting compound or not, I use one on some and not on others. This allowed me to see which herbs responded better to each method. About 50 pots of each variety (Sage, Rosemary, French thyme, Garlic and Onion Chives) were started. This allowed a choice of the most common herbs. Within three weeks we had plants that were saleable and took them to our local farmers market. I sold about half of the plants in four hours. I thought that if I had sold so many in the fall, the spring possibilities were fantastic. I planted like a madman. This turned out to be a bad idea because there were no sales after Christmas. I was forced to hold the plants in the small pots until we picked up sales in the spring. They didn’t look as nice as the newer cuttings and didn’t sell very well. Instead of dumping them and losing the income potential, I transplanted them into larger pots for the customer who can’t wait for a mature plant. It worked and soon they moved right out the door. From this trial and error we decided to close the greenhouse for sales during the months of January and February.

    We were using Miracle Grow Triple 20 as the supplemental fertilizer for the stock plants so we just used this for the seedlings too. It worked fine for a short time. As the days grew shorter and the sky was overcast, the plants just didn’t look very good. After a few calls to our supplier, local extension agents and our plant pathology team we discovered that the fertilizer combined with the lower light of the season had caused trouble. We were advised to use a non-ammoniated fertilizer during periods of lower light. In our area this was November first to March fifteenth. The change in plant health after the switch was dramatic.

    In our area there is an annual event called “Herb Day at the Castle.” I knew that the plant supplier was no longer in business, so in January 2004, I called the organizer and let it be known that I was producing herbs and was available to supply them with anything they might need. At this time I didn’t have any idea what they usually sold. I was able to set an appointment with the organizer to go over the plant list. I could produce the majority of the plants for the price range they desired so I got the job. I produced both 4” pots and cell packs called 1802s. The order totaled approximately 675 plants and I was able to advertise that Everyday Herbs had supplied the plant material. This way if the stock ran out, the interested party knew where to go to purchase the plant they wanted. I have the supplier job for the 2005 Herb Day as well.

    I had a request to create a custom planter and ship it to North Carolina, I did not say no but let the customer know that I would have to see about shipping across state lines. The next step was to call ODA to find out what I had to do to get a nursery license. This is what would allow me to ship this order. The next stage was to figure out how to package it to arrive in great condition. I sent plants to my family around the state to get this right. I used bubble wrap and packing foam to keep the pots from moving around inside the box. I only ship Monday to Wednesday because I don’t want the plants to sit in a shipper warehouse over the weekend. Some of the plants are shipped bare root because of the destination state regulations. Since we are in an area that gets a lot of tourists to the market in the spring and summer, being able to ship planters has been very helpful. I have watched other vendors who have been asked if they ship lose a sale because they are not willing to take the extra step. I have shipped to many different states because someone saw my planters or fairy gardens and sent them as a gift.

    Now that my company was visible to the general population, I really began to evaluate just what I wanted to do for the customer who looked to me for advice on the purchase that they were making. I grew various sizes of the same plant; I stocked at least two varieties of each plant I grew. I began to offer garden design, custom planters, and group seminars as a way to convince people that herbs were nothing to be afraid of. .I wanted to show them that herbs in the home landscape were a great way to set their property apart from their neighbor. I planted a show garden. Jamey helped build a fishpond around which I designed an “Herbscape.” I planted things from the greenhouse in the area to accomplish two things. First to show people that herbs are very beautiful and belong in everyone’s garden. The second was to increase sales. It is easier to sell a plant when those buying it can see a mature specimen. It worked like a charm. I had one particular variety of basil that would not sell in the greenhouse no matter how hard I tried. As soon as I could show the mature plant, I couldn’t keep it in stock.

    I began planting in mid-February and by early April I had the greenhouse full of 4”, 6” and 8” potted material as well as numerous 1802s. It took me at least four hours to water all of it with a hose. I was falling behind in the other farm work that I was responsible for and Jamey suggested automation. I thought it was a great idea. Our benches on the sides of the house were tiered and held more than 1000 larger pots. Jamey installed automatic drip irrigation on the upper level of the tier in order to reach both levels with the flexible plastic drips. I could now turn on the drippers and go to the barn to do my chores. By the time I had finished them, half of the watering was done. This cut my watering time in half but did not benefit the quality of the plants. I found that when I didn’t hand water and really look at the plants, I missed the early signs of trouble. I had to retrain myself to inspect the plants on drippers. I also realized that by planting in mid-February, I had too much material ready to be planted too early. Here we do not plant tender things till May first or after. I will not begin planting until early March for the 2005 season.

    Jamey thought that since the public was coming to the farm to purchase plants we could use this as an opportunity to educate them about the farm as well. We made ourselves available as tour hosts to anyone who was interested. Our local soil and water conservation district (SWCD) hosts a fall foliage tour each year in different areas of the county. We participated. Innovative Farmers of Ohio hosts a farm tour series, we participated. We were also featured in the local press, state farm publication and through the public speaking that I did. By doing this, we reached areas of the population that would otherwise never know we existed. We had the privilege of showing hundreds of people that farmers are aware of the concerns consumers have about agricultural production and what we have done to educate them. At the same time we could share with other producers in the area the struggle and success that we were having with our new venture.

    Some of the areas that have given us pause are containers, media, insect pests, shade cloth, and as I said fertilizer. I will address the container issue first. For the 4” pots we didn’t have much trouble. I called my industry supplier and told him what I wanted. Since fall is the off season for most greenhouse growers, I didn’t have to wait on the order to be shipped. It was in stock so I went to pick it up. The custom planters however, were another story. Each person had their own ideas about the container and I was unprepared for orders like this. I really wasn’t sure how they would sell so I didn’t want to carry container inventory. I ended up going to local retailers and finding containers that they had marked down for the end of season inventory reduction. I got great deals on these. I found some very expensive items for $2.00 and $5.00. I had very little overhead in them and was able to price the finished product well so it was more appealing to the customer. I quickly realized that if the customer were given two or three choices it would be enough to make a decision.

    The media was a consideration that we didn’t have with the original venture because we mixed our own for the ground beds. It consisted of composted cattle manure, coarse sand, lime and top soil. It proved too heavy for the pots. I again called the supplier for advice and soilless media samples. Some of the samples were primarily bark while others were peat based. How in the world do you decide which one will work best for what you are doing? Try them. We had about 20 different potted plants growing in the various media samples. We also tried mixing our composted manure with the peat base. In the end we opted for a peat based mix called ProMix Bx. It has a peat base with perlite and vermiculite added in. It is also charged with a wetting solution and starter fertilizer. To this we add our own compost at a 1:1 ratio. It has proven to be a great mix for us because we are still utilizing the animal by product produced at the farm and the commercial fertilizer requirements are diminished. We need to be very diligent about taking soil samples when we mix the batches because the compost is not always the same. Weed seeds are a common side effect of this practice too. I constantly check the pots for weed sprouts. This is a minor irritation right now because of the small size of the business. I can see that in the future we will need to use some sort of sterilization if we continue this practice.

    Insect pests have plagued us for the past six months. I can effectively use Asian lady beetles from the house to eat aphids but the mealy bugs are something else. I cannot find a way to rid the greenhouse of them. We cannot spray the plants that we have for sale because of the fact that someone might eat them and I cannot in a good conscience do that. I have tried segregating the infected plants and spraying them with Sun Spray crop oil. It seems to help but doesn’t seem to solve the problem. I use a dilute bleach spray on the surfaces that are infected. This kills the existing bug but does nothing to guard against the re-infection of the area when plants are moved back.

    I received a shipment of plants from a supplier only to discover it was infected with tiny little grasshoppers. They decimated the Sage, Basil, and Nasturtium plants in a matter of days. I knew something was eating my plants but they were so small it was hard to locate them. When I finally discovered the little devils, I used Azatin to kill them. Safer insecticide soap and SunSpray oil wouldn’t work because of the hard body the grasshopper has. Azatin can be used as a drench or direct spray. I used both because I thought if they are eating the plant and under the canopy, the drench will kill what the spray doesn’t. It worked and I was rid of them in a short time. I think the drench also killed what would have been the next generation.

    In April when the sun really started to shine again the greenhouse began to heat up. I realized that the plants would need to be shaded. In the ground beds there was soil to cool the roots but in a pot or container there was nothing. The plants were also up off the ground so the air circulated all around them.

    In May, I was still considering the issue but the plants began to suffer. I purchased three ready made shade cloths that were 55 percent shade. My daughters and I hauled it over one end of the greenhouse and pulled it into place. The results were so dramatic that I was ashamed not to have done this sooner. It instantly cooled the house by 15 degrees. I left the cloth on until October 1 because our weather was sunny and warm. I will cover the house by May first next year.

    Our original greenhouse is a 20’ by 120’ retail house. By retail house I mean that it was never intended to be propagation or overwinter house. I used the northern most half of it as propagation and holding area. This meant that the only retail space available was the side benches and half of the middle. My customers were always trying to buy special orders and plants that were not ready to sell. I had to be careful not to take too many wholesale orders because of the limited space to propagate. The greenhouse is 15’ tall and has 4’ high slide sides for natural ventilation. In order to winterize this house for the 2003 season, I attached poly sheeting at the top of the slide side and dropped it to the ground. At the ground level I used pea gravel to secure it and keep the wind from whipping it. While this worked very well to keep the wind and weather out of the greenhouse it caused an air circulation nightmare inside. I would have to open the north and south door everyday for about one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon to exchange the air. This had to be done regardless of the temperature outside. The new house is 15’x48’x7’ and will be used to overwinter the stock plants and for plant propagation in the spring. The logic behind the decision is that the smaller house will require less gas to heat. We could properly vent it and allow more retail space in the large house. It will be a place where special orders can be kept without fear that some curious customer will pick up the plant material and take it home with them.

    PEOPLE
    Eric Barrett, Agriculture Agent, OSU Extension Washington County. Eric has been one of our major supporters for many reasons. He has used his position to obtain information for problems that we had. Eric has been a clearinghouse for the information that we have amassed in our venture. Eric made it possible for us to meet with our federal representative, at our farm. We had the opportunity to discuss our concerns about suburban migration and how the agriculture producer has been forced to adapt to this. With his guidance and work at letting people know about the availability of the SARE grant, Eric has been instrumental in the funding of our counties three grant projects this year. Eric made sure that he plugged the business anywhere he could from requests for articles by local reporters, to the local Master Gardener classes. Eric also owns an entertainment/destination farm. He has allowed me to plant Herbscapes, sell plants and hold seminars about how to use herbs as ornamentals at his farm.

    Hal Kneen, Agriculture Agent, OSU Extension Meigs County. Hal has concentrated his work in the greenhouse production area. This is because of the large number of operations in his county. He makes periodic visits to the farm to both encourage and critique our operation. When we made the decision to open the greenhouse to the public, Hal came and creatively criticized our aisles, plant placement, access, and base material for the floor. He made us aware that the aisles needed to be accessible to all. Could those with canes and walkers move freely? Were the plants grouped in any order? Was it easy to locate what customers were looking for? Was our base material packed well or would people have a hard time walking in it? When we watered the house did it drain away from walkways quickly? These were things we didn’t worry about when we were alone in the greenhouse. Hal also brought up the insurance liability issue. What did the policy say about customer on the farm?

    Michael Mcbride, Shade River Agriculture Service, Chester, Ohio. Mike did not get involved with the greenhouse part of our farm at all. The help that he provided was through chemical use advice for the field crops that bordered the greenhouse. He knew that we were using Asian Lady Beetles for aphid control and helped Jamey factor that in when choosing the chemical application for insect control. When we had herbicide questions, Mike knew that I was very afraid of 2,4-D being used anywhere that the breeze might carry it to the greenhouse. He listened to the description of draft patterns I gave him and then advised Jim accordingly. With his expert advice, we had no adverse effects from the farm chemicals.

    Marty Clark, Farm Business Planning and Analysis, Washington County Career Center; Adult Education. Marty has been one of our advisors for a long time. He helps us conduct a farm analysis for each enterprise on the farm each year. With his assistance, we know exactly what it costs to produce one pound of beef, bushel of grain, or bale of forage. It was only natural that we analyze the greenhouse crops the same way. When it was time for the spring season to start, I knew the cost of production for each pot or cell pack I would sell based on a 3,000-plant production number. It was then easy to set wholesale and retail prices.

    Pat Lane, Lane’s Perennials, Barlow, Ohio. Pat assisted the project by simply telling her clients that we were open for business. Lane’s Perennials does not grow very many herbs so if she had a client who was interested, she gave them our telephone number and directions to the farm. Pat has also sent people to me who were interested in a speaker for their group.

    Sandy Wilson, The Old Milkhouse, Marietta, Ohio. Sandy owned The Old MilkHouse, an herb production facility. When she went out of business, she directed people to our bushiness and also told them we could be found at the River Cities Farmers Market every Saturday morning.

    RESULTS
    The bank statements and comparison of the previous year’s business assessed our increase in cash flow. Sales of fresh cut herbs for the year 2003 were $2077. Sales of the potted plants and custom planters for the year 2004 were $3943. This shows an increase of $1866. We did not take regular payroll from the greenhouse but if we needed grocery money and the farm could not support it, the greenhouse could. The comparison of income for the greenhouse against the soybean field it used to be can be measured this way. The greenhouse occupies 2520 sq ft or 0.058 acres. Our average yield for the year is 43 bu/acre, and today the market says that they are worth $5.33 for a total $229.19 per acre. It doesn’t take a lot of calculating to see that the greenhouse is more profitable.

    The community recognizes our logo and me because of all the speaking and tours we host. I am known as “The Herb Lady.” When I am going about my business in town and someone has a question about herbs, they don’t hesitate to ask me. I don’t mind because everyone I meet is a potential customer. I know that the quality of my product is good because I hear it from the people who buy from me. I will not sell quantity — they can get that at Wal-Mart. They get quality and advice from someone who takes time to listen to what they want.

    These are certainly the results that we expected because we did some research before we began the change from fresh cut herbs to potted herbs. I also knew that virtually no new business generates a profit in the first year. I am fully prepared to work for at least two years before I can draw a regular paycheck or hire help.

    DISCUSSION
    From this grant, I learned that the people in my area are eager to have a reliable source of high quality herb plants. I know that they will buy what I offer, not because my product is cheap but because they value the quality and knowledge of the product that I can offer them. I never thought I was a salesman but this project has shown just how much of a salesman I really can be.

    The effect of the project on the farm overall has not been that significant. We took a very small space out of production, the greenhouse supports itself and my time commitment has not caused my other responsibilities to suffer. I make time to get everything done. I will say that it has caused some jealousy within the family that actively operates the farm. It is because I am doing my own thing and make decisions for the greenhouse that does not include anyone but my immediate family.

    Our barrier is urban sprawl and yes, I think this will overcome that. We are providing something for the improvement of the homeowners’ landscape and lifestyle. With the rising trend for outdoor living space, herbs will provide enjoyment with their smell and habit. For us it will generate a greater income in a much smaller production area. I expect that we will always have cattle, but not the number that we do now. Neighbors from the city don’t always appreciate the rural “smell of money.”

    The advantages, I learned that the work is easier than the backbreaking work of the rest of our operation. I hope that someday with the success of the greenhouse, we don’t always have to work so hard. I have been able to remain a full time farmer. I have my own sense of accomplishment in knowing what some thought was a “hair-brained” idea really can work. I know that if I continue to work at growing my business, my family’s financial future will be more secure.

    The disadvantage to this is my geographic location. I am five miles from the largest road and ten miles from the nearest town. I have to continually speak out to let people know that we are open for business and give them a reason to drive out to buy. Once the buy, will they come back? Did I give them a reason to tell friends about us?

    If someone asked me about my project, I would try to answer all of the questions directly. I would caution them to do research on their own because what I have done may not apply to them. Don’t follow in my footsteps, walk beside them. Take what I learned and use only what you need or nothing at all. Know exactly what you expect from the venture and what you are able to devote to the venture before investing any time or capital. Start small if possible and work with what you have. Use every source of information you can get your hands on. Learn something from everyone and don’t pretend you have all the answers. Set yourself apart from the masses and don’t let fear of the unknown stop you. If you never try, how will you ever grow? I would also tell them not to lose sleep over the decisions that are made. There is nothing to do about a bad one but learn, and a good one will cause you to lessen the importance of a bad one.

    OUTREACH
    We began telling people about our project as soon as we found out that we were funded. We were very excited to participate again. I spoke to the Kiwanas in Parkersburg, WV. Here I was able to share information about our current farm production and how we were adapting to the urban sprawl with area businessmen and women.

    The assistant editor of Ohio Country Journal approached us because of our unique alternative corp. This was the best article that was written about us because he also went on to write another one about the SARE grant opportunity, in the same paper. We hosted two very large tours, one through the SWCD, the other through Innovative Farmers of Ohio (IFO). The SWCD tour was very well attended with approximately 150 people over 3 hours. The IFO tour was a statewide event solely coordinated by the group. The advertising was poorly done because the contact person left her position 3 weeks before the tour and no one else seemed to know we were to have the tour. There were 5 people who attended this tour over a 3-hour period. I was very discouraged.

    We host tours of the local kindergarten and first grade classes. We realize that the children take in very little information but they always bring parent chaperones. These are a very captive audience. They also see first hand how their desire to live in the country affects us.

    Many garden groups come out to the farm and since the greenhouse is small, I take that opportunity to lead them through the garden on a plant walk. They all ask questions and see first hand how well the plants do in that particular setting. We very often learn from one another by sharing thoughts and ideas.

    The project results will be sent to all that helped with this as well as to various pubic agencies. I will bind a copy for our local library and all of the Agriculture teachers in the county.

    PROGRAM EVALUATION
    The only thing I would say is keep funding these projects. For some of us it makes the difference of whether we are going to continue in the field of agriculture or not. I can’t think of anything that would need to be changed. The application is simple and self-explanatory. Your expectations are clear. What we reap from the opportunity is up to us. Thank you for my opportunity.

    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.