Sorrel Pesto: The Positive Implications of Sorrel as a Substitute for Basil in Pesto Production

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2016: $19,710.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2019
Grant Recipient: Green Skies Vertical Farm
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
David Ceaser
Green Skies Vertical Farm

Annual Reports

Information Products

Grow Sorrel on your farm! (Book/Handbook)


  • Additional Plants: herbs


  • Education and Training: extension, farmer to farmer
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, market study
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, urban agriculture

    Proposal summary:

    Sorrel is a perennial green with a lemony taste that is used commonly in many parts of the world. It has an appearance similar to spinach and is used for dishes as varied as green borscht soups, quiche and salad. Sorrel is used to a small degree in the U.S. but its use has not been widely adopted. Green Skies Vertical Farm, operated by the PI, grows and sells sorrel through several channels. Mostly marketed as a salad green, sales of this product have been much higher than originally expected, and it is believed that sorrel could become a more mainstream crop if more markets were found. One potential, high volume use of sorrel is in pesto. This project explores the use of sorrel in place of, or in addition to basil, in pesto production. Basil is a high value crop. The U.S. imports a large amount of basil each year from countries such as Mexico and Egypt. One of the major uses for basil is to make pesto. Pesto is traditionally used as a sauce for pasta but in recent years has gained popularity as a spread on sandwiches and in other dressings. Sorrel can be used in place of, or in addition to basil in pesto production. Using sorrel instead of basil can serve as a valuable asset to local business and local farmers for numerous reasons, described below. This grant will work with local pesto producers to explore the idea and promote the use of sorrel as a substitute for basil in pesto. The grant funding will also be used to work with local farmers to encourage cultivation of sorrel, teach about the market opportunity of using it for pesto production and measure impacts that sorrel production actually has on the farmers.  Information regarding basil production and imports is not easily found. Research online found a couple of documents that mentioned this subject, but not extensively. One document (undated) states that the U.S. imports approximately 2000 tons annually. ( Another document reported that in 2000, imports of basil to the US were valued at $5.6 million and in 2008, the USDA hinted that Mississippi farms might be an ideal place to grow this high value crop. ( Basil is produced and imported from Mexico and a number of other countries. Basil is a warm climate crop and can only be produced during the summer months. Even so, fresh pesto is produced and consumed year round. This requires a supply of fresh basil year round for those pesto producers. In California during the cooler months, this fresh supply likely comes from Mexico. But, pesto can be made from other crops. Sorrel is a perennial crop that can be used to make pesto. ( Sorrel has many advantages over basil for both farmers and pesto producers. For farmers, the most important advantage is that sorrel is a perennial crop, while basil can only be grown during the summer months. Second, sorrel provides a much greater yield per area basis. Third, sorrel is incredibly easy to harvest. Finally, it regrows very quickly after harvest. For pesto producers, the advantages are numerous as well. First, using sorrel instead of basil would guarantee a continuous, year round, local supply of the main ingredient. Second, basil can require a high amount of processing to separate leaves from stems, which can be very time consuming and expensive. Sorrel, when harvested, is almost all leaf. There is a small petiole but is very soft and not fibrous and can be processed with the leaf. Third, since it is a much heavier producer, it can be acquired at a cheaper price per pound than basil. This initial lower cost, plus the reduced labor to process, mean higher profit margins for pesto producers. Finally, and most importantly, the taste. I have made both basil and sorrel pesto for my family (kids and adults) and they all preferred the sorrel pesto. This is not any sort of scientific study or official declaration of culinary greatness but it does suggest that the flavor is appealing.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    List of objectives

     1. PI will design informational materials about sorrel for local pesto producers consisting of nutritional information and benefits of using sorrel instead of or in conjunction with basil. Benefits for the pesto producer including reduced labor (less processing work), year round availability, and reduced costs. An initial survey would also be designed to understand pesto producers' level of experience with sorrel prior to participation in this project. Technical advisor will help with design of survey (May 2016- July 2016).

    2. PI will set up meetings with 5 local pesto producers to discuss using sorrel for their pesto, provide them with promotional materials and free samples of sorrel to try in their facility. PI will listen to their priorities and concerns regarding their pesto operation and with help of technical advisor, will design an exit survey to be implemented at the next stage. (August – November 2016).

    3. PI will implement exit survey with 5 pesto producers to obtain as much information as possible regarding the use of sorrel in their business. Based on this feedback, PI will refine informational materials and in preparation to contact a second set of pesto producers. (December 2016- January 2017)

    4. Using the refined promotional materials, PI will meet with an additional 10 pesto producers. (February - June 2017).

    5. Conduct exit surveys/ get feedback from second set of pesto producers. (July-August 2017)

    6. Pesto producer documentation summary- PI will create a report that documents all information gathered and analyze data collected to date. It will also outline the perceived opportunity for farmers cultivating sorrel in the scope of pesto production. Technical advisor will assist with data analysis. (August 2017 – November 2017)

    7. Farmer Survey Design: PI, with help of technical advisor, will design a pre and post survey regarding farmer history with sorrel, cultivation and sales history, problems experienced, knowledge about, etc. (December 2017- January 2018)

    8. Educational Outreach- Farmers (February- June 2018): PI will meet with area farmers at local/ regional farmer's markets or by visiting their farms. Initial survey will be conducted with farmers and the opportunity for sorrel production will be shared with farmers. Contact information will be gathered for a follow-up survey 6 months later.

    9. Farmer Follow-up (September – December 2018) Conduct exit survey with farmers to see if they have implemented sorrel production and why or why not. Survey will also look at economic, social and environmental impacts for those producers who did cultivate sorrel.

    10. Final project report (January – June 2019) PI and advisor will analyze data. PI will create a final report and short YouTube video documenting all information from project. Advisor will publicly report study results through UC Cooperative Extension.

    Relevance to sustainable agriculture

     Economic viability: Basil is currently cultivated for pesto production and is considered a high value crop. Sorrel is easier to produce than basil, can be produced year round and is a much heavier yielder than basil per area. So, if basil is already economically viable, sorrel should be even more so as a pesto ingredient.  Year round sorrel production can also provide a continuous income stream for farmers whereas that from basil is seasonal.

    it is also more economically viable for pesto producers as it allows them to produce fresh pesto year round,  from local suppliers, strengthening two aspects of the local economy.

    Environmentally Sound: Sorrel is easy to produce using organic methods and does not require a lot of water. Additionally, because it grows so densely, it creates a cover on the soil, reducing water loss to evaporation. The only issue with sorrel can be damage from snails and slugs but for use in pesto, leaves do not have to be perfect so small amounts of snail damage would be permitted.

    Some Pesto producers make only fresh pesto.  This means that during the winter months they must import fresh basil from Mexico or purchase from basil that is farmed indoors.  Using local sorrel would be much more environmentally friendly than using basil imported from other countries or purchasing from indoor basil operations which use energy intensive lights and dehumidifiers to control the climate.  Pesto producers that use a frozen product would also have a smaller carbon footprint by using local sorrel as it takes a lot of energy to keep produce frozen and for travel over long distances. Using locally grown sorrel is a much healthier choice for the environment.

    Socially responsible: Creating potential revenue streams for local producers is socially responsible. Using local produce for local production of pesto is also socially responsible.  Sorrel can be cultivated in the ground or in raised beds.  Sorrel cultivation could be done in cities, in raised beds on vacant lots, providing jobs for inner city residents.  


    Benefits and Impacts to Agriculture

    Growing sorrel could be beneficial in numerous ways to agriculture. It is a perennial crop and thus could provide income to basil producers in the winter months when basil is not produced. It could also be a much cheaper alternative for winter production in cases where basil is being produced in greenhouse settings. It can provide jobs, increased revenue and other benefits for both rural and urban farmers. It also provides a large amount of soil cover wherever it grows, which will protect against erosion.

    Basil is also a delicate crop.  It's leaves, especially in greenhouse production, are easily susceptible to pests like downy mildew and fusarium, often requiring sprays or resulting in greatly reduced yield or even total crop loss.   Sorrel is a much hardier crop, needs much less maintenance than basil and will result in greatly reduced costs for the farmer.

    Educational Outreach Plan

     Educational outreach regarding sorrel use for pesto will take place from February- December 2018. It will consist of outreach to other farmers via farmer's markets and direct visits to local farms.  The outreach will consist of an initial survey about any history the farmer has growing sorrel and then will discuss the opportunities for growing sorrel to market for pesto production.  PI will visit 10 farmer's markets and local farms.  PI will have documented meetings with 50 farmers.  PI will act as a resource to answer any questions regarding sorrel cultivation.  PI will follow up with farmers 6 months after initial contact to see if producer has adopted sorrrel cultivation and what impacts it has had on their operation.  

    All educational materials will also be available through PI website and through the University of California Cooperative Extension website.  When the final project is competed (June 2019), all information will be available through the two previously mentioned websites and a short YouTube video will be created documenting the project and results.

    Education Materials List

    • A brochure explaining the opportunities of growing sorrel and the sales opportunities as a pesto input and also as a salad green.

    • A comprehensive report on the studies conducted including pesto producer reaction to using sorrel, farmer reaction to cultivating sorrel and impacts on producer's farm and business.

    • A brief YouTube video documenting summary information from the project.  


     Producer Adoption

    Initial survey will be conducted with farmers and the opportunity for sorrel production will be shared with farmers. Contact information will be gathered for a follow-up survey 6 months later.  This exit survey with farmers will see if they have implemented sorrel production and why or why not. Survey will also look at economic, social and environmental impacts for those producers who did cultivate sorrel.


    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.