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

1994 Annual Report for LNC94-066

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

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


Over the last ten years commodity prices of traditional midwest crops have been unable to keep up with rising land charges, input costs and machinery costs. Many farms are facing the need to increase in size to combat lower profit margins per acre of land. However, this may not be a viable option for many farmers already facing extended financial obligations. This project investigated an alternative option of growing herbs to stabilize farm income.

- Examine several herb crops to determine which are most conductive to reliable profits for Iowa farmers.
- Determine which cultural practices provide optimum production of each crop.
- Evaluate how herb production practices fit into current farm operations in two respects: a) time and labor requirements, and b) equipment needs and modifications.
- Explore various marketing alternatives in the retail and wholesale trades.

Based on requests from two primary marketers, the herbs chosen to be investigated include: Borage (Borago officinalis), Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum), Parsley (Petroselinum crispum), Dill (Anethum graveolens), Coriander (Coriandrum satuvum), Catnip (Nepeta cataria), and Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus). Each herb was treated as a separate experiment established as a randomized complete block design with three replications. Various cultural practices were employed to determine which would result in maximum yield of each crop. Rye and a rye-hairyvetch mixture were tested as possible cover crops, and hog manure was applied in strips and to entire plots. Weed control practices included cultivation, hand weeding, corn stalk mulch, corn cob mulch, as well as adjustment of row spacing. During the winter months, efforts were focused on development of sound processing methods and investigation of market expansion. This included visits to wholesale markets with samples of the finished product for review by the buyers. Economic analysis was conducted with the application of a Process budget, which helped to identify areas of weakness in specific crops and in determining which crops have the greatest potential for development.

The herbs showing the greatest promise for reliable profits 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. Cultural practices that were identified as most beneficial are: 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 promote optimum yield while reducing disease problems which occur with leaf development under the canopy. Successful weed control is achieved by use of tillage immediately before planting, giving the crop a competitive advantage early in the season.

Time and labor requirements will prove to be the largest obstacle in the development of large scale herbal production, with weed control being the area of greatest need during crucial times in crop development. However, effective crop management and mechanization of harvest can help immensely. Equipment needs that would be considered out of the ordinary are 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 farm to have its own line.

Through the work conducted on this project, a processing system has been established which provides a quality product with minimal losses. Two aspects that are essential for further development include processing quality products on a large scale and maintaining markets. This project has shown the production of herbs to be a definite option for farmers looking to diversity their farm operations. However, the farmer must be willing to go to extra lengths to maintain quality and a high level of management throughout the growing season.