herb texts

    by Richard Alan Miller, Northwest Botanicals, Inc.
[The  following article is so important that I have chosen to reprint  it from   
HMR-2-3 (March,  1986).  It has been updated with some further points added, and 
your feedback would be most appreciated.]

Spring is just around the corner, and buds are already beginning to show on 
trees in most  regions of the country.   For those of you who plan a project 
with alternative crops like  herbs and spices for the first time,  an overview 
and Farm Plan on what you need to do is critical. Questions  like "what should I 
plant?"  and "how much money do I need?"  must have answers  before April.   
Before you can even begin to approach answers to these types of questions,  
however, a bigger need exists for an overview toward your approach.   This is 
especially true when attempting to develop specific herbs as cash crops.

The following suggestions are recommended for consideration when developing your
Farm Plan:

(1)   All new crops should be cultivated in 2-acre feasibility studies for at 
least two years  before expansion.   Smaller acreages will not give a close 
cost-of-goods  production figure,  data critically important for any successful 
expansion program.  Each crop has its own  idiosyncrasies.   You  must become 
familiar with the plant before you put  further money and labor into it for 

(2)   Most successful small herb farm ventures use what is known as a  
polyculture situation.   This  is  where more than six crops are grown,  rather 
than  a  monoculture program.   What  this  gives to the small farmer is 
protection against saturated  markets, giving  him better stability in both 
marketing and cash flow.   If a crop market saturates, that  crop  can be easily 
rotated out of the Farm Plan without affecting his other  crops. The beginning 
herb farm should start with about 12 acres; 6 crops, each on a 2-acre parcel.

(3)   Often  the land you own is not appropriate for the desired crops you wish  
to grow.  An example would be that your land lack irrigation.  When working 
small ventures, appropriate land is rentable for simply the taxes,  water ditch 
costs,  and often 10 percent of any gross sales.  This is known as 
sharecropping, and is an excellent way to invest your nestegg  into crop 
development (rather than land payments and earnest moneys).   With  a 
lease-option,  you might even be able to buy the land from profits off the 
crops.   That is the "old fashioned" way most farmers acquired land.

(4)  The need for farm equipment is similar.   There are plenty of small farms 
in a given  community who are already well-equipped.   Often they will be 
willing to  "custom farm" you fields at rates about $25 per acre for each pass.  
With established marketing for a given crop, a "custom" farmer will take his 
payment in crops, the standard rate is 40 per- cent with hay.   Crop selection 
is often made on the availability of specific tools.  There is no sense in 
growing chamomile if a flowerhead harvester is not available.

(5)   All new crops must be grown with so-called "organic"  techniques.   Very 
few herbs  and spice have been "labeled for use"  with most pesticides and 
herbicides via EPA. While  some  small farms have used sinbar to control grasses 
in mints without  inspection, that will not be true in the near future.  It is 
especially true when attempting to export to such countries as Germany and 
Japan, who have much tougher laws than FDA.

(6)   Your  crop selections should be designed for export.   Direct marketing  
only moves money from one part of a community to another.  Exporting, however, 
whether it is out of the county,  state,  or country,  brings new revenues into 
the community.   It also restores the identity of that community.   When you 
produce a product that was previously imported,  now  you are also helping to 
balance trade deficits.   This is where small farm agriculture will find its 

(7)   If  you export,  transportation becomes the single largest expense other  
than labor.   This is why most herbs and spices are sold in a dehydrated form, 
the "cube"  in a truck is worth more money.   While most produce trucks are 
worth $2,000, most filled with a  dehydrated herb or spice is worth more than 
$10,000.   This variation in transportation (cost/pound) often makes the 
difference between closing a sale with a distant port, or not. The bottom line 
is landed costs, even though most herbs are sold FOB/freight-collect.

(8)   The  value of a crop is often predicated on the processing done to it 
prior  to shipping.  This is why many traditional spice crops are harvested for 
distillation as an oil. Often  the best way to enter the marketing of a new crop 
is as a cottage industry,  where smaller acreages can have greater net incomes.  
Marketing options are also broadened.

(9)   Many  current farms have too many acres in cultivation.   This was  how  a
number  of  them got into trouble in the first place.   The first question a  
farmer  with traditional  crops  should  ask is "what is my annual income  
needs?"   Since  most  crop alternatives can net as much as $3,000 per acre,  
this will indicate how many acres will be needed  after expansion to full 
production.   This will leave some large parcels available, and free the small 
farmer for more important things to do, like marketing and value-added projects.

         (10)   What  should be done with these larger parcels,  not needed to 
pFroduce  net incomes?   The  farmer might consider putting them into timber or  
grasslands,  creating topsoils  for his great grandchildren.   Topsoil is not a 
"renewable"  resource,  and is only created,  by  and large,  from forests and 
grasslands.   There is a need for us to assume a form of "Soil Stewardship" 
toward our children' future with agriculture.

GETTING STARTED: Since  most of you would like to begin a project this spring,  
certain options are no longer available.  First, one rarely begins a perennial 
from seed in the field.  The problems with  it  growing faster than the weeds 
becomes a  serious  problem.   Therefore,  most perennials  are developed in 
nurseries in the winter for a spring planting.   This is  often quite expensive,  
averaging more than $0.85 per plant.  The average need for perennials is 10,000 
per acre, or more than $900 per acre just for nurserystock. There are numerous 
sources for greenhouse and garden supplies.   A typical one for the  home 
gardener with limited greenhouse facilities is the Gardener's Supply  Company 
(128 Intervale Road, Burlington, VT 05401).  While their prices are high, their 
quality and diverse offerings make them a viable resource. E.G.  Geiger offers 
similar tools for the beginning farmer, only their prices are ori- ented toward 
larger needs.  They can be reached at 1-800-4GEIGER.  "Greenhouse Manager," a 
monthly periodical,  offers a semiannual ALL-INDUSTRY BUYERS' GUIDE.   You can 
find any supply needed with this directory.   Write Branch-Smith Publishing (120 
St. Louis Ave., Fort Worth, TX  76104). Most farmers begin their perennials in 
beds outdoors in the spring, set for easy hand cultivation  during  the summer.   
The plants are then moved in the fall into rows for  a following spring 
cultivation.   The new rows are often mulched heavily to protect the new 
rootlets from hard frosts.   In cases of fast-growing perennials, like oregano 
or parsley,  a late-summer move into rows allows some layering before the 
dormant season. Seed  for  annuals  should be ordered now.   The main problem 
with  most  seed companies is their lack of attention to specific cultivars and 
contaminated seeds.   It is of- ten  worth paying a little more from a smaller 
seed source,  knowing that the  seedman's reputation  is on the line.   
Perennial seed can be ordered next month.   Both should have detailed plans on 
how you plan to get them started, and where. Deciding where to put specific 
crops is an artform.   Like reading the racing forms, soil  survey maps can give 
you a lot of tips on your land.   I have found that plugs taken for chemical 
surveys are often useless.   The noxious weeds growing on your field will of- 
ten  tell  you more about soil deficiencies and what additives are needed than 
most  any other form of soil survey.   Their history and regions of control 
become important factors on techniques used to begin an "organic" cultivation. 
Most beginning farms start with 2 or 3 annuals, and four or five perennials.  
Annu- als  give experience in cultivation problems,  while the perennials are 
still set in beds for hand cultivation.   One should not expect to show a profit 
off first-year productions, even from annuals.   You will find more success if 
the annuals are put up as a cottage industry the first year, helping add to net 
profits.  2-acre productions are usually too small for bulk marketing interests.   
2-acres of dill, however,  put up in 1-pound sacks is quite profitable during 
canning season. Sometime before spring, you should go visit the County Extension 
Office and obtain a copy of their noxious weeds and native plants lists.   As 
you become more familiar with local weeds, it may be that some of them can be 
developed as supplemental forms of rural farm income.   In the desert,  for 
example, there is chaparral and Mormon tea.   Both are currently  of  some  
commercial importance,  and both are  currently  being  imported. Recognizing  a  
natural resource from a noxious weed can often be used to underwrite  a small 
farm venture. There  are other examples of how noxious weeds can become more 
important  than the crop in cultivation.   In Iowa,  for example, burdock often 
infestates with corn.   The farmer  is constantly struggling to eliminate the 
burdock,  usually at a loss on production. Burdock, however, is a major Asian 
produce, various countries eating it like we eat carrots. In other words,  
burdock is worth 4X the money as a root crop than the corn off the same acreage.
The  most  important  thing to remember is that the first year is suppose to  be  
a "learning  year,"  not one to show big profits and solve your financial 
problems.   It takes time  to learn a new crop.   Often the soil will actually 
show you which crops should  be grown,  like the burdock example.  There will be 
a lot of handwork at first.  The key is to learn how to cut time, using tools 
and techniques.

The  most common problem with beginning farmers is their security in the sale of 
a new crop.   As a result, many go out to prospective markets and ask what they 
are willing to  buy.   Most large buyers do not like to be bothered,  with less 
than 10 percent of  the inquiries even attempting to grow something that year.  
It is recommended that you do not bother  a  buyer until you have something to 
show him from you first year's  production. There is no substitute for proof of 
production. If  the buyer likes what he sees,  he will usually want to buy it on 
the spot.   Most wholesale buyers purchase their needs on the spot basis, like 
most other commodities.  The buyer  does not need to know that you have only 
limited production (2 acres),  just  show him  what is available.   The key is 
to secure a contract each year to meet your cash-flow requirements for the 
projected expansion program.  Whatever else you do, please remember not to 
attempt rapid growth.   That is how agriculture got into this current problem in 
the first place. There  is always lead-time in closing a sale.   Most of the 
larger buyers must secure more than 200 products,  each from at least five to 
ten sources.  My approach is to send a one-page description of my crop, 
including terms-of-sale, with a small sample attached.  If they like the price, 
terms, and small sample, they will then ask for a larger sample, usually 2  
pounds  or more.   Some crops may take as long as six month before a  sale.   
This  is normal, for a number of reasons. There  are  situations where even 
though your product is better and  cheaper,  the buyer will not commit to a 
purchase.   Why?  One reason might be trade.   There are some companies  that 
sell products to a foreign country.   Since they do not want to be paid in the 
currency of the country,  they take a trade in on their commodities, usually a 
spice or drug  plant.   The actual spices and drugs traded for another 
interesting story for another time. Chapter  9  on Bulk Marketing from THE 
POTENTIAL OF HERBS AS  A  CASH CROP  should  be thoroughly reviewed,  especially 
the graph on page  159.   What  this indicates is that often crops are harvested 
at the very time most buyers are at their lowest cash-flow period.   This means 
that they are not in a position to buy crops when they first become available.  
The small farmer should attempt contracts for future productions.  This gives 
both the farmer and buyer security. All  first attempts on herb and spice 
farming should be seem as speculation.   With this  perspective and approach,  
there should be no expectations,  either on production or marketing.   Your  
primary purpose is a s feasibility study toward more lucrative  crops. The key 
is to enter marketing slowly.   Most expansion programs show a 2-acre production
on a given crop for three years,  expanding into 10 or 20 acres within six 
years.  With 6 to 8 crops in a similar production, market securities are