Cooking Up Sales
Ask Karen and Mark Langan of Mulberry Creek Herb Farm in Huron, Ohio, and they’ll tell you they have an herb farm first, and it just happens to be all certified organic.
“Growing plants is the priority, and we just happen to do that organically,” says grower Mark Langan. It’s a small but important distinction in a market currently obsessed with the words organic, sustainable and green. He adds the business has thrived for many years and only recently have some customers started to visit the small, family-owned operation because of its organic designation.
For the Langans, the decision was simple as they watched their two sons running around the farm. It had to be safe for them. And though the Langans don’t tout Mulberry Creek (www.mulberycreek.com) as an organic destination, the organic and environmentally friendly way of doing business has attracted a large fan-base–some from as far as two hours away. It has become a destination of sorts, thanks to the annual Herb Festival that attracts people to check out the more than 400 varieties of specialty herbs, heirloom vegetables and more than 300 miniature varieties available.
This summer the herb festival drew more than 1,800 people to celebrate a Tuscan theme with display gardens, cooking demonstrations, herb-related vendors and even musical entertainment. The herbs, all grown on site at the farm, come with descriptions of uses and recipes to entice on-the-fence shoppers into purchasing savory rosemary or delectable basil plants.
In fact, the focus at the festival is mostly on cooking since most customers use them in the kitchen, though they’re also great for everything from soaps and aromatherapy to drying and decorations. “It’s tough if you look in our greenhouse in the spring, in its full glory and it’s all green,” Karen says. “I see the distinguishing features of the herb, but it’s still green. You have to teach people how to use them, and cooking is still the queen use for what we grow.”
The display gardens assist with that, and this year each garden had a specific Tuscan theme, such as Antipasto, Second Course and so on, featuring herbs that would be found in each of those meals.
The festival also features a plant sale, which was initially how the festival started years ago. “It started off as kind of a plant sale and now it’s going into full agri-tourism,” Mark adds.
The retail operation also offers classes outside of the fair, and will customize classes based on customer requests.
A True Niche Market
Mulberry Creek Herb Farm also capitalizes on a specialty product it stumbled upon four years ago. Each year the operation introduced about a dozen varieties in a specialty area, just to pique customer interest. They ranged from English cottage plants to prairie plants and others. But four years ago, they introduced several varieties of miniature plants. The popularity of these tiny forms took off, and it pulled the men who previously waited for their wives in the car back into the greenhouse. Karen describes the miniature enthusiasts as non-traditional buyers–men between the ages of 55 and 70, looking for small ornamental plants for their railroad gardens. Each year since then, the retailer has offered more and more miniature varieties, and now currently has more than 300 available. Next year, Karen says, the main thrust of the miniature plants will be conifers to add trees to the mix.
“The asset of them and the liability is that they grow slow,” she says. “If you find a three-year-old plant it’s going to cost more.”
Progressing To Green
Though the operation has always been organic, Mark says only now with the products recently available does he feel as though the growing can truly be green.
“We are making the transition to 100 percent biodegradable pots,” he says. “We’re just working through our existing inventory of the plastic pots until we can get rid of them. Next year we’re going to add biodegradable pots for all the vegetables.
“We’ve been an organic greenhouse for 14 years now and we’re finally able to go green–and for me that’s really exciting. These products just haven’t been available.”
But now the industry is stepping up, he says, more so than other industries in an effort to be environmentally friendly. He sees more consumers expecting herb and vegetable growing to be organic, though his customer base is still largely price-driven. “We do have probably 10 percent of our customers that buy from us because we are organic, especially with the vegetables. They just won’t buy unless it is organic.”