Question of the Week
I want to start producing culinary herbs in Illinois for restaurants and grocery stores. Do you have any advice?
Answer: ATTRA has produced a number of publications that will help you research herb production. You can find these publications by typing "herbs" in the search box on the ATTRA website at www.attra.ncat.org.
You will see that these publications deal with outdoor and indoor production of herbs and each method has its pros and cons. Since you are in Illinois, you will most likely be doing the majority of your production indoors, or at least in seasonal high tunnels. The longer you have production during the year, the more likely you are to get wholesale accounts. Grocery store chains typically won’t do business with an herb producer that only has product available for three to four months a year.
A good place to start your research is to go to the closest grocery stores to see who they are currently buying from. Then you can do research on those companies to learn their strengths and weaknesses. While you are at the stores, talk to produce managers and clerks and get their opinions about the herbs they are currently selling. Pay attention to what they say they don't have or what they would like to have instead of what they are currently getting.
For the restaurant trade, you can contact (or visit personally) people at the major wholesalers in your area. Check the local telephone directory listings under "Produce Wholesalers." Inquire about who they are currently buying from so that you can research those companies, and ask the wholesalers about the pros and cons of those herb companies. You can also visit with the chefs or the appropriate personnel at as many restaurants as you care to go visit. Start with the high-end restaurants and see what they say about the herbs they are using. If you have any friends in the restaurant industry, ask their opinions as to which restaurants you should survey.
I encourage you to get to know the Organic Trade Association at http://www.ota.com. Do a search for "herbs" to get insight about people and companies in the organic herb sector.
Regarding production in greenhouses or high tunnels, see the NRCS webpage about its high tunnel cost-share program at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/programs/financial/eqip/?cid=stelprdb1046250.
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