Herb farm fills niche
gardendwellers FARM plans entry into freeze-dried market
ESMOND – A new freeze-drying operation is spicing up the marketing strategy of a North Dakota herb farm.
This past spring, gardendwellers FARM near Esmond received a grant from the state Agricultural Products Utilization Commission to purchase a freeze dryer that will enable the business to preserve herbs and extend its season year-round.
“We have always focused, from the beginning, on fresh because I feel that’s where the flavor and quality are,” said Holly Mawby, who has operated the herb farm with her husband, Barry, for six years at the present location. They had started the operation near Devils Lake in 2002 and have sold wholesale to retailers and directly to consumers, including at farmers markets.
The Mawbys did their research before settling on freeze-drying as the best method to preserve flavor and quality to compete with fresh.
Their efforts this year, in addition to direct sales to consumers, are going into freeze drying herbs and creating herb blends that will be sold this fall and winter. Freeze drying creates a shelf life of 25 years.
“We will start small so, again, we can wrap our heads around the marketing,” Mawby said. “We probably will start small at trade shows and craft shows. But the hope is to get back into that wholesale market eventually. It’s also a product that you can sell online, which we could never do before.”
She explained gardendwellers has shipped fresh product around the country but shipping must be overnight, which is too expensive for general sales. It also is a considerable drive from the farm to an overnight shipping point.
Having freeze-dried herbs also means agri-tourists who visit gardendwellers will be able to take home a souvenir, which seldom was feasible with fresh herbs.
“Our first focus is get those tourists and visitors something in their hands to leave with,” Mawby said. “But we have to get a handle on it and make sure we have the quality and the packaging where we want it to be.”
Mawby, who is director of the entrepreneurship center for horticulture at Dakota College at Bottineau, offers other specialty crop growers the benefits of her first-hand experience in production.
“I have been in horticulture all my life,” Mawby said. “We lived in southern Minnesota for a long time. When we moved back to North Dakota, I got a job working with small businesses at Lake Region State College, but I knew that I needed to keep my fingers in the dirt and needed to keep growing things. An herb garden was one of my first gardens.”
The Mawbys noticed no one in North Dakota selling herbs on a significant scale at that time. They also liked the idea of herbs because they both worked full-time, and herbs were less demanding than some produce in the sense they can go an extra day or two and still have quality if they can’t be harvested right away.
When they started, the interest in locally grown foods hadn’t yet exploded.
“So we had to do a lot of education on how to use and preserve them,” Mawby said of their farm-grown herbs. Within several years, a shift came that was prompted by what people were seeing in the media. Herbs were showing up more in recipes, she said.
“The education part was being done by others. It was being done by the media and magazines. So we didn’t have to do that quite as much. There are still herbs that people aren’t familiar with, that we have to do a little educating of consumers on. We find we also have to do a lot of education still on how to preserve,” Mawby said.
Gardendwellers grows up to 20 varieties of herbs every year, including new, less familiar herbs every year to give customers something different to try. Varieties of mint, rosemary, oregano, cilantro, dill or basil are among the regular herbs on the farm.
For nine years, gardendwellers was engaged in wholesale marketing, selling to 19 restaurants and 10 groceries and processing more than 10,000 packages of herbs. Last year, gardendwellers discontinued wholesale due to the cost increases in packaging and distributing.
“We would have had to raise our prices. We no longer would have been competitive,” Mawby said.
Last year, the company returned to farmers markets.
In addition to learning how to educate consumers and preserve product to extend sales, the Mawbys have come to understand the need to watch the market. Mawby recalled taking mint to a farmers market and seeing little interest. Then one day, the mint sold out quickly.
“At the time Bacardi was doing a big push for mojitos. Fresh mint was in every one of them,” she said. “All of a sudden we are selling out of mint. So we learned we really have to watch the national and regional marketing that’s around us because that really affects what we do.”
Later, when they began seeing advertising for stevia sweeteners, they upped their planting of the herb the next spring.
“We are capitalizing on the marketing of others by being able to have this product available,” Mawby said. “That’s probably the biggest thing is knowing where to watch so we can react to the market appropriately.
“We are very conscientious about trying to grow everything sustainably and although we are not organic certified, we do follow organic practices. The way we have it set up, we only have to use half our production field at a time to produce everything we need. You can put out a whole lot of herbs in not a lot of space,” she said.
At gardendwellers, half the crop ground is seeded to herbs each year and half to cover. The plots are swapped the following year. To maintain crop quality, herb plantings are rotated within the field. Planting happens throughout the season, ensuring fresh plants to replace older plants.
“We harvest so hard and work those plants so hard,” Mawby said. “You start to lose quality when the plant has to work that hard to grow and come back from being cut back so many times. It starts to get tough or lose flavor or it just doesn’t look as nice. We succession plant to make sure that we always have that nice looking, fresh growth.”
A high tunnel enables gardendwellers to extend the season of less frost-tolerant herbs.
Food safety is also a priority. Although exempt from federal rules for larger farms, gardendwellers does follow the safety and sanitation procedures, and its processing facility is state-inspected, Mawby said.
That focus on food safety carries over to the new food-drying process, which will get under way soon. The first harvest that typically happens in early July was somewhat delayed by the weather, but once started, the Mawbys expect to be cutting and preserving herbs until well into the fall.