Here’s an intriguing number for those thinking about growing herbs: Annual sales of herbal dietary supplements in the U.S. totaled $12.35 billion in 2021, according to the American Botanical Council’s 2021 Herb Market Report.
But, like all other areas of horticulture, jumping right in is ill-advised. Providing tips on planning for a successful herb-growing season during the recent Herbal Entrepreneur Conference were Elise and Jeff Higley of Oshala Farm in Grants Pass, OR.
Oshala has a total of 290 acres of certified organic land in southern Oregon, which they rotate through. They grow almost 90 varieties of medicinal herbs and ship fresh and dried herbs throughout the U.S. They employ around 20 employees.
“We grow for medicine makers. We look at their needs first to figure out how much space we’re actually going to utilize in our cultivated farmland,” Elise explained.
The first thing they do is during winter, they send soil samples to a certified lab to look at the state of their soil in regards to fertility. Then they’ll come up with an amendment plan as necessary.
When planning, the Higleys consult a map to see what had been planted where the year before. Jeff said they also look at different plant families and rotate them throughout the fields so not all the crops are dealing with the same pest and disease pressures at once.
“The most important part of planning is anticipating what we can sell – there’s no point in planting if we’re just going to compost it,” he added.
Other things Oshala takes into account are the seasonality of each herb’s harvest and how much drying space they have for that portion of their business.
“We do a lot more bookkeeping than we’d like to,” Elise laughed. “But recordkeeping sets you up for success.”
Besides their maps and rotation schedules, the duo keeps data from their greenhouses too: how many seeds they need, their germination rate and their timing. Elise said they try to direct seed as much as possible because starting in the greenhouse is both time and labor intensive.
Keeping track of what happens at Oshala is critical, because in general, there’s not as much information out there for herb growers as there are for vegetable growers.
“It’s so farm specific too,” Jeff said. “There are so many different climates and different growing practices.”
Elise added, “It’s super important to plant what you like to plant too – you want to enjoy what you’re doing.”
At the end of each crop’s harvest, they note what they sold and how much. And while they start with a seeding and planting calendar, seasonal variations can change their timing a few weeks either way.
“Last year, we had a really wet spring, so we were in the greenhouse longer,” Jeff said. “Sometimes it’s just being able to shift.”
He offered this sage advice as well: “We have tendency to want to grow crops that don’t grow well in our region. If there’s a demand, trial it a little bit, but focus on things you know are going to do well in your environment. Don’t base your entire farm plan on things that are difficult to grow.”
The top tip the Higleys offered to herb growers came from lessons they learned through experience – don’t plant more than you can actually handle, whether that’s due to labor, plant care, harvesting or drying space.
“You just need to be connected to your plants,” Elise said.
by Courtney Llewellyn