Rocket Farms' Clark: Growing Herbs Organically
Rocket Farms and its executive vice president, Marc Clark, prove an effective organic herb program is feasible on a large scale from production to market.
November 23, 2010
Rocket Farms has been an established grower in California's Salinas Valley for more than 25 years, synonymous to many with beautiful orchids and high-quality poinsettias. We're also known for our innovation, so while some would say not to mess with a good thing and just stick with what we know works, we can't resist an interesting challenge.
One of our most recent programs growing organic potted herbs has certainly presented its difficulties, but we've been pleased with the end results. On a 2007 trip to Europe, we noticed the popularity of fresh herbs in households there, and the idea really resonated with us.
Of course, potted herbs offer a fresher, more flavorful product than cut or dry herbs, but because you only cut what you need and let the plant continue to grow, they represent a better value, as well. The emergence of the Slow Food movement and similar philosophies encouraging consumers to choose local crops over food imported long distances further supported why consumers would opt for fresh herbs. It seemed like common sense that this idea could work in the United States, too, but if we were going to do this, we wanted to also do it organically.
We decided to take an existing non-organic facility and make the entire 40 acres organic, as well as certify it for food safety. This required a third-party audit by Davis Fresh, and we eventually earned our organic certification through Quality Assurance International, both of which (understandably) involved a lot of work to comply with their high standards.
Achieving these certifications was just the beginning, as we realized the challenges inherent in growing organically - most notably managing insect pressure. Using biologicals in place of pesticides proved tricky, and we changed the soil many times to see what worked best to control insect pressure. We also encountered nutritional issues in that it is difficult to give organic crops enough nutrients to thrive.
Another roadblock arose as we realized we needed to do our own propagation. We ultimately built a propagation house, and keeping in line with our code of sustainability, we did it completely out of recycled materials. We also planted our own mother stock to take cuttings from in order to ensure all our plants have the same level of quality that our consumers expect from Rocket Farms.
Mastering irrigation practices was complicated, as well: water too much and you get fungus gnats; don't water enough and plants don't thrive. It took a lot of time and effort to find the amount that would strike that correct balance.
Apart from the challenges in actually growing organic herbs, managing the production and sales side brought its own difficulties. As with any new program without a history of prior sales, we had to draft our production curve of how many plants to grow each month based on educated guesswork. Some months we were closer to our target than others, but we quickly learned that demand for herbs fluctuates wildly on a weekly basis.
So it was nearly impossible to get production consistently in line with sales. If your plants don't fit the sales window, you can end up with higher than expected shrink.
It's been a long and sometimes frustrating road, but we're proud of the end result: organic basil, mint, oregano, sage, parsley, thyme, rosemary and other herbs that provide an easy, high-quality option for at-home chefs who want fresh herbs in the convenience of their kitchen.
Our organic herbs are currently sold throughout the western United States and are available in Safeway as part of its O Organic brand. This represents the first time any live good has fallen under that classification, which not only took some persuasion on our part, but also having our herbs pass Safeway's stringent standards.
For anyone who is considering taking on a similar project, it requires a very knowledgeable growing team that really understands nutrition and substrates, as well as the added challenges of the organic side of growing. Organic certification also requires a lot of maintenance, audits and a tremendous amount of record keeping.