Expanding market offers opportunities for herb growers to create value-added products
By Jane Hawley Stevens, Four Elements Organic Herbals
The market for herbal products is flourishing. U.S. consumers spent approximately $480 million more on herbal products in 2015 than in the previous year, according to the American Botanical Council. Domestic organic herbs are needed, especially as more regulations come down the pike on imported medicinal herbs.
This interest in herbal products offers organic farmers a unique opportunity to develop value-added products from herbs they grow.
Herbs can be used to create value-added products in three categories: culinary, medicinal, and cosmetic.
If you’re interested in creating a product within the culinary category, you should be aware of new laws that have been passed to allow growers to create edible products in their home kitchens to sell directly to consumers. Most states have a “cottage food law,” as they’re commonly called, stipulating the kinds of foods that can be made without a commercial kitchen. The exact regulations vary from state to state. Before you develop a value-added product, be sure to check with your state Department of Agriculture for regulations regarding manufacture and sale of these products in your area.
Culinary herbs can be used to create pickles, jams, jellies and fermented foods. Other ideas include herb blends, herbal salts, garlic and garlic braids, herbal vinegars, chutney, salsa, and salad dressings.
Use farmers’ markets to see how well a recipe, packaging and product story can sell a product. The value in this cannot be overstated. It will give you feedback on the flavor or results you want your product to evoke, as well as ideas on how to fine-tune your recipe.
Craft and seasonal shows also are excellent retail opportunities where consumers are more attuned to quality and willing to pay for your efforts. These venues are great for product research, too.
When using organic plants to make medicinal products meant to be taken internally, a commercial kitchen is required. Again, your state Department of Agriculture can guide you on the specifications for a commercial kitchen. Most states will require commercial kitchens to have:
- Washable floors, walls and ceiling
- Four units of stainless steel sinks
- Doors that close automatically with a spring or latch
- Bleach and pH strips present for cleanliness
You don’t need a commercial kitchen to make cosmetic products for topical use from functional or medicinal plants. Currently, laws are being drafted to restrict those who generate $500,000 or more per year on cosmetic preparations.
At Four Elements Organic Herbals, our most popular products in this category are soaps, lip balms, creams, and salves. We also make insect repellent, bath salts, and deodorants.
Herbal products can have a variety of scents and attributes. Pay attention to what attracts you or products you need—that can guide you, as it did me, toward a potential bestseller!
My bestselling product was designed for my infant daughter who had a severe case of eczema. It was horrifying to be an herbalist selling skin care products while my daughter’s skin was breaking out. After much research and interviewing, I came up with a product that reaps most of my testimonials, as it helps people across the country. We eventually made soap with the same herb combination, which became my next bestselling product until the Minus Sinus Tea bumped it out of second place.
Other top-selling cosmetic products for a large-scale grower are distilled hydrosols. Hydrosols are a by-product from making essential oils with steam distillation.
At Four Elements Organic Herbals, we make four kinds of hydrosols using a small still. Five to ten pounds of fresh herb make just about two gallons of hydrosol. We package these in four-ounce glass jars and sell them as an aromatic spray, a skin toner, an aftershave, or a room freshener.
Four Elements Organic Herbals
My personal journey towards value-added products within the cosmetic market started with my organic certification. As a University of Wisconsin-Madison horticulture graduate in 1981, the only growing methods I knew were conventional. Just tossing out the N-P-K fertilizer did not produce an organic crop of potted herbs! My herb plants became chlorotic and stunted. I was planning to sell potted herbs at a farmers’ market, but I didn’t have enough to fill the market booth. Something had to take the place of herb transplants.
The idea of honoring the Earth by not using chemicals started my journey towards organic certification that led to growing and manufacturing value-added products within the cosmetic market category. I started making creams, soaps and lip balms. Now, 30 years later, Four Elements Organic Herbals has national distribution!
Unlike a strategic plan of acquiring millions of dollars in sales per year, this organic evolution was the result of wanting to be at home to raise my kids and capture Nature’s healing wisdom into each jar I filled. Experimenting with dynamic, but simple, remedies for my family and friends, I quickly realized these cosmetic value-added products captured the interest of more people than I could have reached with my 200 species of herb transplants. These products also extended my season year-round, and made me a firm believer in the efficacy of herbs.
In 2010, I applied for and was awarded a three-year USDA Value-Added Producers Grant. I hired a grant writer to secure the grant for Four Elements Organic Herbals.
I used this $300,000 matching grant to expand our tea line and package it into individual bags, allowing us to expand our market from natural food stores to mainstream grocery stores. In 2015, we shipped over 2,500 pounds of our herbs to California to be milled, blended and packed into our nine flavors of USDA certified organic teas.
Receiving this grant was a big challenge to my business, as it required me to spend the money strategically—Four Elements Organic Herbals was matching the grant funds. My best business decisions were hiring an office manager, moving the office and production off the farm to a separate location, and rebranding Four Elements. This economic development grant also allowed me to hire local labor to do meaningful earthwork, and hand harvest the plants going into the teas.
This grant project demanded that Four Elements Organic Herbals increase herb production from hundreds of pounds to thousands of pounds per year. Thankfully, Four Elements Organic Herbals has a dedicated staff, and fields that were ready for growth. My husband, David, had cultivated and cover-cropped these fields following organic standards, making the soil prime for planting.
To handle the new volume of herbs we produced, we expanded our drying facilities to a larger 10-by-15-feet herb dryer. This addition included an industrial dehumidifier, which removes moisture and releases heat with an electric motor, keeping the dryer at an optimal 100-130 degrees. Inside the dryer, three feet by three feet racks act as garbling trays. Plants that contain little moisture like Urtica dioica (nettles), dry overnight; while more succulent herbs like Borago officinalis (borage), take up to a week. This dryer is running almost non-stop from May through November.
We developed our drying facility according to regional best practices for on-farm herb drying. These practices include having washable racks, a dark interior to maintain quality, and a good dehydration and heating system.
We also found it helpful to have a wilting area for managing large quantities of plant material. We retrofitted a wagon with several covered racks that can be hauled into the field for herbs to wilt in the wind before a tow back to the dryer. While this would be more efficient in an arid climate, it still contributes by holding herbs if the dryer is full.
Proper recordkeeping is essential for traceability and to fill the organic requirement. Our lot numbers include herb field designation, the Latin initials and date. Separately, our harvest log contains field, date, the name of the person handling the herb, dried weight and amount of time in dryer.
Now Four Elements Organic Herbals has developed some traction and is motivated for growth and market share. Many new possibilities developed out of the Value-Added Producers Grant that allowed our Four Elements Organic Herbal teas to enter the grocery market.
Developing value-added products is not the hardest part of the business—marketing is. Wouldn’t it be great to get the lucky break of a celebrity endorsement! More than likely, you will be moving your innovation along step by step, as I did. So think about what you grow and harvest. Think about how you will develop the market with the value-added organic product you intend to offer. Remember that you are offering Nature’s wisdom to keep your customers healthy and coming back for more.
With the right help and business planning, you might find that value-added products create the income you are looking for and the opportunity to grow, harvest and develop your herbal products for the culinary, medicinal or cosmetic markets.
Jane Hawley Stevens owns Four Elements Organic Herbals, which includes a 130-acre certified organic farm and a processing facility near Madison, Wis.
She also teaches classes locally. See www.fourelementsherbals.com.
From the November | December 2016 Issue