What would our food taste like without a dash of those herbs thrown into the dish? Fresh coriander and mint, basil and dill, rosemary and thyme, oregano and sage – all add both flavor and aroma to our dishes, making our food so much more appetizing. Fortunately, herbs are making a comeback into our cuisines after the industrial era, when synthetic flavouring agents had briefly but largely replaced natural products. It’s well known that herbs are used in medicines and drugs too, and thus greatly contribute to our well-being. While herbs are classified according to their uses, the most important group is the culinary herbs. These are the most useful ones to herb gardeners and chefs, because of being used widely in cooking as a garnish. Culinary herbs need to be used only in small quantities and yet add flavor to food. These are the herbs that are produced in the largest amount. The second line of herbs is the aromatic ones. Most are pleasant smelling flowers or foliage. Scented oils are produced from these herbs that are used in perfumes and aromatherapy. Even after they are dried, they retain their aroma for a considerable amount of time. Then there are the ornamental herbs, which have brightly coloured flowers and leaves. Medicinal herbs are those grown for their curative properties.
When it comes to cultivation of herbs, soil and drainage are the two most important components. While the soil needs to be well-drained, it does not have to be too fertile. This is because very fertile soil gives rise to excessive foliage, and yet it may lack flavour. Therefore the means to achieve ideal growing conditions is to add lots of peat or compost – which helps in naturally improving soil type and aiding drainage. The herbs have to be sown in shallow boxes, but not too deep into the soil. In the case of certain other perennial herbs, cutting and division are the steps to be followed. Additionally, crop rotation helps to reduce the possibility of common crop diseases. Herb plants can be grown from seed or purchased as a seedling. Common herbs grown from seed are basil, flat and curly leaved parsley, chives, dill, sage thyme, rosemary and cilantro.
A farm where herbs are grown for sale in the market is a herb farm. Here we find a wide range of farms – from small ones entirely dedicated to herb farming to commercial farms. Small farms often work out to be more efficient in terms of manpower usage and value of crops, and their produce is directed to the local market. The small farm could ideally have one or two greenhouses, an area for storage, and an area to sell the produce. The concept of starting one’s own small herb farm stems from the needs of local restaurants and at-home chefs demanding fresher, locally grown products. Commercial operations on the other hand focus on a larger scale of cash profit and may use some of the same growing systems, but may use advanced technology. The first-time herb gardener, however, might encounter some confusion in deciding which herbs to grow, such a wide variety as there is to choose from. The best way to decide is by looking through local stores, as it gives the most accurate idea of what is in demand. The organic farming of medicinal herbs in some countries, especially India, is also increasing rapidly. Medicinal herbs are considered as valuable and profitable as cash crops. The herbs have a good export potential also. Some of these medicinal herbs include Aloe vera, Amla (gooseberry), Ashwagandha, Basil, Brahmi, Calendula, Jatropha, Saffron, lemon grass, parsley and vanilla.
There are such first-time herb farmers who have converted this activity into a profitable business. This is what is happening under the patronage of the recently formed Central Herbal Agro Marketing Federation of India. Acknowledging that marketing is a major problem for herb growers, the federation has chalked out a specific strategy by pooling the entire produce of its members to be sold collectively. In fact, the federation first enters into purchase agreements with the buyers and then advises its members to plan the production accordingly. Organic farming is practiced, which helps negotiate better prices.
The man who blazes this trail is Rajaram Tripathi, a first-time herb farmer who quit a bank job and decided to return to his native land in the predominantly tribal State of Chattisgarh, India to start herb cultivation. Even though a bank loan provided a fillip to this venture, it was his business acumen that really turned it into a success. The medicinal herb that he planned to grow was Safed Musli; but even before that, he visited traders in Delhi to assess the demand and the price range. He got instant results and was able to not only repay his loan from the income from the first harvest, but also avail another loan. With this newfound confidence, he set up Maa Danteshwari Hitech Herbal Farms on his land to take up research and development of organic herbal cultivation. In less than a decade, this farm has become the hub of herb promotion activities for the whole country. It now serves as the training centre, demonstration farm and even a seed supplier for herb growers. Today, the herbal marketing federation has a membership of nearly 2,700 farmers in 11 states. In fact, the Chhattisgarh government has come out with a policy paper to make it a “herbal state”. Tripathi is upbeat about boosting herbal exports from India. The annual global market for medicinal herbs is estimated at around USD 65 billion; and is growing at a high rate of around 16 per cent a year. By adopting modern marketing strategies and highlighting the advantages of organically grown Indian herbs, the exports can be multiplied several folds. The federation, as well as Maa Danteshwari herbal farm, is reaching out to the world through their website.
Even if not on such a large scale, growing your own herbs certainly saves money on grocery bills while enhancing food. It could be a great way to supplement income, with a little spare time and money. The knowledge of watering, sunlight and trimming, of course, can be acquired.