Investigation of the Viability of Growing Herbs as Alternative Crops for Iowa Farmers

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1994: $50,260.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1996
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $10,500.00
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Eric Franzenburg
Benton Development Group

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, cotton, potatoes, soybeans, wheat


  • Crop Production: windbreaks
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, agricultural finance, value added
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, wildlife
  • Pest Management: weed ecology
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures


    [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]

    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.

    Project objectives:

    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.

    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.