Field Of Dreams

Reaping What You Sow

Patience is vital: It typically takes a year or two before you can harvest and sell your first crop. Rogers estimates 2,000 to 3,000 people start commercial herb-growing businesses every year, but only about 25 percent survive the first 24 months.

To ensure you're not one of those casualties, you need to know something about farming, advises Rogers. "People think because they can grow plants in their backyard, they can [run an herb farm], but farming is totally different," she says.

Some risks--such as bad weather and insect infestations--come with the territory. New growers need to learn everything they can about planting and harvesting techniques, pest control, irrigation systems and more.

Another key to success is planting crops with a ready market. Think long-term: Just because an herb is popular today doesn't mean there will be a buyer for it at harvest time, two years down the line. "Lots of people start putting a crop in the ground because they heard it's a hot-money item, but they have no idea who they're going to sell it to," says Rogers. "You need good marketing techniques, a list of people who are buying medicinal or culinary herbs, and [knowledge of the] prices you can expect to get." You also need to know whether your intended customers want to buy plants, fresh-cut herbs or dried herbs.

To avoid getting stuck with slow-moving inventory, stay informed about herbal trends, line up interested buyers before planting, and be creative in seeking alternative customers if those buyers don't pan out.

Domestic herb growers face fierce competition from imported herbs as well as local farms. "You're competing with people in China, India and other countries where labor is cheap," says Rogers. Competing against low-cost imports starts with planting the right crops. Be aware of which herbs are being imported at unbeatable prices. "Don't try to go head-to-head with a crop you know is coming [into the country] cheap," says Rogers.

If you concentrate on high-quality or organically grown herbs, you'll get a better price from the smaller manufacturers that want those crops. (Big manufacturers tend to buy based on price.) An herb broker can give you tips about what's in demand and the likely price for your crops.

Success takes more than a love of natural living and a green thumb. "There's a romanticized view of herb farming and greenhouse work," says Hartung, "but when people realize they're going to spend 80 percent of their time on their hands and knees, it's a whole different thing." If you enjoy getting your hands dirty and can deal with the uncertainties farming brings, you may have what it takes to grow a prosperous herb farm of your own.

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This article was originally published in the July 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Field Of Dreams.

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