December 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 6 // Research in Brief // 6RIB1

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Culinary Herbs as Alternative Cash Crops for Small Scale Farmers in Southern Ohio

Agricultural and horticultural Extension agents are faced with challenges of coming up with viable cash crops for small scale farmers. Fresh herbs are high value crops. There is a good potential for small scale farmers to generate a substantial amount of income from limited acreage by growing culinary herbs. A survey of the members of The American Culinary Federation of Greater Cincinnati shows that popular herbs in demand by chefs in the Greater Cincinnati Area are basil, dill, French tarragon, mints, oregano, rosemary, chives, parsley, and thyme. The value of various basils ranged from $6,160 to $11,280 per acre at Hillsboro farmers' market, Hillsboro, Ohio. However, growers need to have buyers and markets established before attempting herb production.

Gary Gao
Horticulture Extension Agent and Assistant Professor
Ohio State University Extension
Clermont County
Owensville, Ohio
Internet Address:

Brad Bergefurd
Horticulture Extension Agent
Ohio State University Extension
Enterprise Center for Economic Development
Hillsboro, Ohio
Internet Address:


Agricultural and horticultural Extension agents are faced with challenges of coming up with viable cash crops for small scale farmers. According to 1992 U.S. Department of Agriculture census, 12 of the 16 counties in the Ohio State University Extension Southern Ohio District, have some of the lowest average net cash returns from agricultural sales per farm in the state. The average farm in southern Ohio has the smallest average farm acreage in Ohio. The traditional crops produced on these farms, such as corn, tobacco, alfalfa, grazing land for cattle, and soybeans, wheat and oats in some areas have not allowed southern Ohio producers to produce an average net cash return capable of paying normal cash expenses, let alone produce the required cash return to pay family living expenses. In addition, many working adults, without any agricultural knowledge, purchase land and need to figure out what to do with the land. These small scale farmers, full-time and part-time, need viable and alternative cash crops as well. They often turn to the Extension Service for help. There is little information available on minor or specialty crops since Extension services have traditionally worked with large farm operations.

There are many potential alternative cash crops. Fresh culinary herbs are one of the best candidates. They are in very high demand since healthy eating and cooking are becoming more and more important in our daily lives (The Herb Companion, 1996). Fresh herbs add a great deal to both flavor and presentation of foods while reducing salt and calories in food preparation. Fresh herbs are high value crops that can be successfully grown without the use of pesticides.

Culinary herb production and marketing information is very important to farmers before they decide whether they can successfully grow herbs. Field trials and marketing research have been conducted in southern and southwestern Ohio. This report focuses mainly on the results of marketing research. Some of the results were presented at the Galaxy Summit in Cincinnati.


The results were compiled from a comprehensive survey that was sent to members of The American Culinary Federation of Greater Cincinnati. The survey was designed to determine what kinds and quantity of fresh culinary herbs chefs will buy from local growers. Two hundred fifteen surveys were sent out; 30 were returned. Most surveys were filled out by the chefs in up-scale restaurants in the greater Cincinnati area. The project was funded by OSU Extension-Innovative Grant Program.


The survey shows that the top 12 commonly used herbs in their food preparation were parsley, basil, chives, dill, mints, rosemary, thyme, oregano, French tarragon, sage, sweet marjoram, and French sorrel. In addition, some chefs also use lemon basil, chervil, and cilantro.

Top 12 herbs that chefs anticipated purchasing were parsley, basil, mints, dill, chives, Rosemary, thyme, French tarragon, oregano, sage, sweet marjoram, and French sorrel. Several chefs indicated they would also buy cilantro.

Twenty-one chefs would consider purchasing herbs from local growers if they were available locally. Ten others currently purchase herbs from local growers. In brief, chefs were eager to purchase locally-grown herbs. Their reasons for purchasing herbs from local growers included fresher products, competitive price, and quality, consistency, helping boost local economy and farmers and a good source of marketing and advertising.

Most chefs surveyed planned to purchase one-to-two pounds of their commonly used herbs each week (Table 1). Some chefs anticipated purchasing more than three pounds of parsley and five -to-six pounds of basil per week.

Table 1

Percentages of chefs that will purchase herbs each week in four quantity categories

Quantity Categories 1-2 lbs 3-4 lbs 5-6 lbs over 7 lbs
Basil 50% 0% 10% 3%
Dill 40% 0% 0% 0%
French Tarragon 27% 0% 0% 0%
Mints 33% 3% 0% 0%
Oregano 23% 0% 0% 0%
Sweet Marjoram 7% 0% 0% 0%
French Sorrel 3% 0% 0% 0%
Rosemary 27% 3% 0% 0%
Chives 40% 3% 0% 3%
Parsley 20% 17% 0% 13%
Thyme 33% 0% 0% 0%
Sage 17% 0% 0% 0%

The size of packaging is also critical if farmers were to deliver fresh herbs to restaurants. More than 73% of the chefs would prefer packages of two pounds or less.

Culinary herbs are high value crops. Several kinds of basils were sold at Hillsboro Farmers' Market in bunches of 12 or 30.

Table 2

The retail cash values of fresh basil at Hillsboro farmers' market

Crop Lbs. Per Acre Market Price Gross per Acre
Sweet Basil 2,820 $4.00 lb $11,280
Lemon Basil 1,560 $4.00 lb $ 6,240
Dwarf Bush Basil 1,900 $4.00 lb $ 7,600
Green Ruffles 2,820 $4.00 lb $11,280
Cinnamon Basil 2,580 $4.00 lb $10,320
Green Bouquet Basil 1,540 $4.00 lb $ 6,160


According to the marketing survey, popular herbs in demand by chefs in the Greater Cincinnati Area are basil, dill, French tarragon, mints, oregano, rosemary, chives, parsley, and thyme. The size of packaging should be about half a pound to two pounds. The value of various basils ranged from $6,160 to $11,280 per acre.

Herbs make excellent cash crops. "There is definitely a place for small-scale commercial herb growers; in fact, most buyers were looking for more qualified organic growers who could produce and deliver a quality product." (Oliver, 1997). However, growers should be cautious before beginning herb production. Markets and buyers need to be established before any seeds are purchased. Other markets including health food stores, grocery stores, farmers' market, and food manufacturing companies need to be considered in addition to restaurants in the region. Growers are also strongly encouraged to have greenhouses for year-round production.

Extension agents could serve as the vital links between growers and herb buyers. Marketing of herbs is much more difficult than producing them. Growers with great marketing skills will have a much better chance of success. Extension agents could definitely help growers work with chefs and produce buyers in addition to providing technical information on herb production.


Cooking with Herbs (1996, Oct-Nov). The Herb Companion, 9(1).

Oliver, P. C. (1997). Commercial herb production: Myths and realities. The Business of Herbs, XV(5), 1-2; 5-7.