Beginner's Guide to the Herb and Spice Business

Grow, process (if necessary) and sell fresh, preserved and dried herbs (seeds, parts, plants). Examples are dill, basil, cumin, celery seed and cilantro (coriander).

It is surprising that with so many gardeners and the high prices of herbs on the shelves of the supermarkets, that many more haven't gotten into the lucrative field of herb growing and processing.

When you in the store for herbs and spices, they are usually expensive -- $2.00 per ounce and up. Still many still grow wild! Bay leaves for example are available free by the bushel on bay trees that grow all over the south.

Herbs and spices have been around for centuries -- they were used in ancient times to mask "funny" tastes in meats that could not be refrigerated, "people odor" before deodorants were invented and of course, to add a little variety to the same foods eaten day after day, because all that was available was what was in season.

Spices were discovered and brought in by caravans to liven up otherwise drab diets and making living "up close" more tolerable. Winters in the European areas were limited to foods that wood keep; potatoes, salted meats, turnips -- but nothing green or fresh! When spring came, everyone welcomed the new vigor they found in such "magic" plants as spinach, celery, and various "greens."

We now know they were replenishing their supplies of vitamins (especially) and minerals that were missing from their winter diets -- but they only knew that by eating certain plants, or drinking their juices or "wonder elixirs" they felt better!

We also know a healthy patient recovers from most any aliment better than a frail one -- but in those days, "magic" plants were sometimes given credit for healing all sorts of things: even broken bones (boneset)!

In the 18th and 19th centuries (before refrigeration), there was a thriving trade in HERBS to rejuvenate, cleanse the blood and cure just about anything.. To this day, the difference between herbs and species is mainly that spices can be dried for long, overland camel caravan trips; while herbs are fresh and ready use!

To be successful in the herb and spice business, grow things that do well in your area -- that you adequate facilities and room for. Of course, you can expand the list of possibilities with a greenhouse and various climate control devices, plus soil manipulation. At the least you will probably need a small greenhouse (or hot frame) to start your plants and perhaps a screened area for growing and/or drying that is secure from insects and other pests.

Not only can you market plants and seeds as individual items, but there is also a lucrative market in blends of herbs and spices. Fortunes have been made with these!

Once you establish a market,make agreements to buy from other growers (even out of state) at wholesale rates of course to enable you to offer a well rounded selection to your customers.

You can also buy or compile booklets on herbs and spices (their history, uses, reputed therapeutic properties and folk lore) that can enhance your sales and profits.

To get started, the first thing to do is some HOMEWORK.

Get several books from the library,local (new, used, half price) bookstores, and mail order (see Business Sources). Find out which plants will do well in your situation by studying their climate, soil and sunlight needs and estimate the market that might be created.

When you decide which ones you would like to try, Learn something of their background (history, medicinal value, folklore, etc.). This is very important in herb farming - people may not be interested in the history of a turnip,,, but mints once used to "clean" eating boards (no dishes) for royalty might catch the fancy of a customer or two.

Make arrangements with a local printer or desk publisher to make nice (and unique) labels for your jars, bundles and packets. Have little folders of information on the more interesting ones -- this will help raise the price. When you ship packages of herbs or species, always include some of this type of literature -- these are some of your more profitable sales, and you want them to order again!

Some indoor herbs, such as basil are notorious for attracting while flies, a perennial greenhouse pest. They don't do all that much damage (unless they are really bad), but they are a nuisance and extremely difficult to eradicate.

One way to help control them is to keep herbs that attract pets away from each other as much as possible; another is to move the plants to an outside location where the wind help control the size of the colony.

When confronted with a plant pest fungal problem find out exactly what the problem is -- then tale immediate steps to correct it. Too many gardeners and greenhouse growers waste their time, money and plants (to say nothing of needless building of immunities) by erroneous or "too late" treatments.

There are numerous chemical insecticides and fungicides that can help -- and many non-chemical (organic) techniques as well.

Rotating crops, picking off pests and introducing natural controls, such as milky spore disease (Japanese beetle, lady-bugs, praying mantis, lizards, (geckos) or frogs and washing with insecticidal soap sprays are considered "natural," controls, Reuter Laboratories specialize in "natural pesticides, which are sold under the trade name "Attack".

It may become necessary to decide whether your herb garden will be "normal" organic. In most cases, organically grown herbs are more in demand and bring higher prices.

Your decision may be influenced by the type and number of pests in your area, your luck in controlling them, demand. If you use toxins, be very careful for your own safety, and be informed to protect your prospective customers!

Tip: One of the more effective controls for white flies is malathion, which is usually can be sold or eaten a week later (check the label for accurate instructions).

Some experts tell use that when mixed with some city waters will break down into harmless (to the bugs) solution in as little as 15 minutes! It still smells like it is working for hours, but it isn't. You can either check on your local water situation or apply malathion fast and in small mixed doses.

Toxic chemicals are rated by a factor called LD. The "acute oral LD factor" indicates how much it takes at the indicated strength to kill 50% of orally dosed specimen (those who eat the treated leaves).

There is also a dermal LD rating that concerns the effect on the nose, throat, eyes and skin (through absorption). The low numbers are more toxic : LD 1 to 50 is highly toxic; LD 500 and above is only slightly toxic.

Most chemical pesticides available today are designed to breakdown into harmless compounds within a week or so, but there are also "hard chemicals" (DDT, Deldrin, Aldrin, Heptachlor, Endrin, Lindane and Chlordane) that remain toxic up to twenty years.

These chemicals normally used only by licensed professionals for things like termite control (where "safe" chemicals would be ineffective). Many growers use some forms of "soft" pesticides (Sevin, Diazinon, Pyrenthins and Malathionn that are effective against pests, but usually not harmful to humans in the plants or are not eaten within 7 to 10 days after the treatment.

When it comes to chemicals there is one cardinal rule: READ THE LABEL!

For an outdoor herb garden in areas where small animals, grasshoppers or too much sun might be a problem, consider erecting a simple shade house.

Some gardeners combine a green house and shade house by constructing a simple enclosure of treated wood, painted metal or plastic, covering it with shade cloth AND 4 to 6 mil plastic for the greenhouse and pulling the plastic back to reveal the shade cloth for a shade house.

A Quonset frame can be used, or a corral constructed of landscape timbers spaced 8 feet apart and connected with treated (or painted) 2 by 4s. Stretch the shade cloth over the frame and apply the plastic -- there is your combination shade/green house!

Note that within a shade house, you will need a means of pollination.

If all else fails, use a water color brush to "tickle" the flowers every few days. Herbs generally do not need fertilizing. In most cases, a good compost and a little processed (purified) manure is fine.

If you need an easy way to apply fertilizers on a large scale, consider a syphon attachment on your watering hose. Hyponex makes one that works fine and costs about $10 (retail).

Although it would be worthless as a learning aid for growing herbs, Culpepper's Complete Herbal (See Bookseller, Sources) is a copy of a 17th century book outlining the uses and powers of the various herbs.

This, and others that tell about their "magical" powers are no longer considered factual, but nonetheless, fascinating -- they will help create interest in your herbs!

Marketing your herbs profitably is a matter of finding those with a need (gourmet restaurants and cooks), and coming up with something that is different and interesting.

Check with small stores, health and gift shops. Ask them to try your products -- even if it is on consignment. Ordinarily, you can offer a special introductory price to entice shop keepers to try them.

Exposure of both your name and herbs is what you are after at this early stage. Work with a printer to have a display package to show off your products to their best advantage. A poster with a tray of products underneath would be a nice window display.

Meanwhile, advertise (radio, cable TV spots, newspaper ads) in your market area and write some "news release" items for the local paper to help introduce yourself and your products.

Herbs and their accompanying folklore lend themselves well to this approach. Of course, your little articles will also mention where one can get such interesting things!

Put magnetic signs on your car and call on as many retailers and restaurants as you can to establish a wholesale route.

Leave samples of your best products with the large, gourmet cooks. When building a route, it is necessary to keep calling on prospective customers -- even when they haven't bought anything. This tends to prove your reliability (why buy from an out of town supplier and pay freight if they can get the same quality delivered?).

Remember that some retailers have been "burned" is the past by those who SAY they are reliable. Since very little actual space and weight is needed for herb delivery, your family car (with signs, of course) will do nicely as your first delivery van.

Tip: offer a plan to place and periodically replace, live, growing plants such as basil to restaurants. This will allow them to advertise that they use fresh herbs!

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