Herb growers step up their operations

08/01/2011 10:03:00 AM
Dan Gailbraith

Fresh herbs may not enjoy the broad-based popularity of other fresh commodities such as potatoes or apples, but as far as herb companies are concerned, that means there is plenty of opportunity to grow sales.

A study commissioned by Shenandoah Growers revealed that only 8% of Americans use herbs on a regular basis, which was defined as every week or two, according to Michele Henning, vice president of account sales for the Harrisonburg, Va., company.

The study found that 40% use herbs once or twice a year.

“That is the group we’re going after,” Henning said. “They know how to use herbs because they are using them for holidays or other special events. What we have to do is get them into the habit of using them regularly.”

Consequently, Shenandoah Growers is working closely with retailers to educate consumers. Point-of-sale materials, smaller clamshells and recipes included in packaging are in the marketing mix.

The efforts are paying big dividends, despite the less than temperate economic climate in the U.S., Henning said.

“People are cooking at home more instead of going out, and we think that is helping us,” Henning said. “Our sales are growing in double digits.”

That growth resulted in Shenandoah Growers adding a second greenhouse in Virginia and a new packing operation in Florida during the past year, along with hiring new employees.

A similar scenario is playing out in Canton, Ga., for Sweetwater Growers, according to Dennis Dault, co-owner.

Sweetwater has expanded growing space by about 40% in the past year to meet demand, Dault said.

Dault and Henning said prices have held steady as the fresh herb market grew steadily in recent years.

Basil is a top seller for both companies, and parsley, thyme, mint and dill are strong performers.

Henning sees buying trends follow pop culture, she said, with mint coming into vogue as the popularity of mojito cocktails exploded.

Other companies, such as Pappy’s Fine Foods Inc., Fresno, Calif., are beginning to venture into the fresh herb market, too.

The 30-year-old firm joined forces earlier this year with Epicure Farms to launch a line of conventional and organic fresh herbs. The herbs from a 3,000-acre farm near Hollister, Calif., initially are being offered in California with plans to expand distribution later this year.

Sweetwater and Shenandoah Growers also have expanded product offerings, following a trend to take the fresh concept to the extreme. Living herb lines have caught on better than expected.

“I was worried that some Americans wouldn’t want to be kitchen gardeners,” Henning said. “But it hasn’t turned out that way, and the broader portfolio allows us to reach more retailers. I see the light go on in retailers’ eyes when they see the culinary possibilities and the differences between the living herbs (in the produce aisle) and potted herbs.”

Dault said Sweetwater’s living herb line also is growing in popularity, particularly its basil.

The living herbs give growers a reliable customer base because, as consumers pinch off leaves in their kitchens, they are virtually guaranteeing the next sale — unlike dried and processed herbs in jars, the living herbs must be replaced much more frequently.

Consumers also have responded positively to smaller packages in the fresh herb category.

Henning says quarter-ounce clamshells, rather than the traditional 3/4-ounce size, encourage consumers to buy several types of fresh herbs at once because they know they will be able to use up the herbs before their expiration dates.



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