Mixed vegetable and herb beds

Mixed vegetable and herb beds

…and Why It’s Worth It

For the last two years, I’ve been growing herbs such as mint, lemongrass, and dill to sell to local health food stores.  It has worked out very well as a small-scale, low-risk way to learn about producing a reliable crop, pricing it, selling it, and seeing if I can make a profit.  You notice I said “to learn about.”   I didn’t say that I have succeeded in growing a reliable crop and making money.  But I like to focus on success, and the herb biz has been very successful in providing an education! 

It started with a simple conversation with a produce manager at a major health food store in Hilo, where we are regulars.  We were chatting while she was stocking vegetables, and I mentioned we had a small organic farm.  She asked what we grew. 

“All sorts of things, bananas, papayas, sugarcane.  We have a big garden with veggies and herbs…”

Dill

Happy dill

“Do you have any mint?” she broke in.  “We really need mint.”

We had plenty of mint, and lemongrass, and Thai basil, and several other herbs she could use right away, so we started to bring them in.  All she needed was a copy of our Excise Tax form showing we were registered as a farm.  

What about our organic status?  We aren’t USDA certified organic.  I was concerned that produce sellers would require this, but for one thing, as a farm that sells less than $5000 a year, we can legally say we are organic without being certified.  But even if we were bigger, it’s not a requirement.  This store labels produce either “organic” (based on trust) vs. “USDA certified organic” (based on a third-party certification system).  Do consumers know the difference?  Nah.  I think most people assume any label saying “organic” means the same thing, i.e., the vegetables were grown without pesticides and that there is some system that is verifying this.  

IMG_1303

Tulsi basil (Holy basil) and garlic chives

Another surprise was that this particular health food store pays farmers the same amount for certified organic and for trust-your-local-farmer organic.  A produce manager at another local health food store that I started to sell to (let’s call it store #2) said he would pay more for certified, but after we were selling them our lovely, quality herbs for a few months and I told him I needed to raise prices to match store #1, he did.   Actually, he said, “Let’s try the price increase, and if the herbs keep selling, we’ll keep the increase.”  A very reasonable approach, and great for us that it worked out.

Store #2 puts the tag “organically managed” on our produce.  I like that, because it subtly enlightens at least the alert customer that the greens they are selecting ARE somehow different from “USDA certified organic.”  It would be pretty interesting to do a survey of health-food store shoppers to see how well they understand what they are buying.  Probably plenty think that everything in the store is 100% certified USDA organic.

Both stores try to help local farmers by taking a smaller profit from locals than from the big Californian or Mexican importers.  The policies favoring small and local are a bonus for us and for the customer.  They help ensure that if imports stop, we have food growing right here.

I had started planting herbs because I like to cook with them and because they are part of a healthy organic garden.  The flowers of many herbs attract pollinators – basil is loved by bees; dill, parsley, and cilantro attract small predatory wasps.  The scent of herbs deters and confuses pests, so mixing them in with other garden vegetables cuts down on the cabbage moths and aphids.  Importantly, slugs are not interested in the strong flavors of herbs.

It amazes me that our small farm – really just a big garden – produces several staple herbs now for these two stores, plus a thriving kombucha cafe, plus an amazing local Thai chef (she’s behind the curry pot with the longest line at the local farmer’s market).  It doesn’t take that much work. Several of the herbs are perennials and just require compost, and they love to be trimmed. I harvest, trim, and deliver one morning a week.  The stores put them in small zip-lock bags and add a label.  At store #1, we receive $1.50 per bag, and the customer pays $2.99 a bag, whether it’s dill, sage, garlic chives, mint, basil, or lemongrass. At store #2, we have a price per pound and I make out an invoice. 

It’s not a huge income, but it helps pay for the rest of the garden.  One of the biggest benefits  is just having the connections for when we have other surplus vegetables or fruits to sell.  It’s great to have an outlet for the bumper crop of Meyer lemons that we get for several months, just from one incredibly fruitful tree.  I’ve learned to focus on the herbs that take the least effort, thrive here, and get the best price.  I’ve learned how to keep the annuals going – mostly. There are seed failures and weather conspiracies.   Unquestionably though, it’s worth it for the satisfaction of being part of the local food supply.  I love hearing things like “Mmm that mint smells wonderful” or “Oh goodie, they have lemongrass!”  That just makes my day.

Tulsi basil

Tulsi Basil

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