A Michigan State University-led team has received a $3.4 million U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant to evaluate the profitability and environmental sustainability of fresh-cut and potted culinary herbs produced in controlled environments. The funding is part of the Specialty Crop Research Initiative of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The U.S. market for fresh culinary herbs — leafy plants such as basil, cilantro, and parsley that add flavor, aroma, or garnish — is a burgeoning one. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, the popularity of the specialty crop increased from 10% to 12% annually from 2004 to 2014 and has continued to climb. At this point, domestic field production and imports have been used to keep pace with demand.
Culinary herbs are divided into two market segments: fresh cut for the leaves and stems and potted plants. Roughly 69% of domestic fresh-cut herbs are field grown in Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, and Texas, and nearly $300 million worth is imported each year. But both field production and imports face mounting challenges, such as diseases, droughts, floods, foodborne illnesses, environmental impact, and supply chain disruptions.
Researchers will work to demonstrate how controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) can create a more sustainable and economically fruitful future for the industry. The multi-institutional research and outreach collaboration, called CEA HERB, includes investigators from MSU, Iowa State University, North Carolina State University, Texas Tech University, the University of Tennessee, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service.
The project is led by Roberto Lopez, an associate professor and controlled environment extension specialist in the MSU Department of Horticulture. Other participating MSU researchers are Bridget Behe and Erik Runkle, professors in the Department of Horticulture, and Mary Hausbeck, a distinguished University professor in the Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences. Like Lopez, each has AgBioResearch and MSU Extension appointments.
Michigan is home to the nation’s third-largest greenhouse industry, making it a natural location for growers to expand into culinary herb production.
“Growing fresh culinary herbs in controlled environments offers a multitude of benefits, including less environmental impact by reducing inputs, the ability for year-round production, and offering high-quality, flavorful, and nutritious foods,” Lopez said. “But there are still impediments to the industry reaching its full potential, which heightens the need to educate growers on cost-effective production techniques, boosting yields, improving flavor and post-harvest shelf life, increasing food safety, and much more.
“Consumer demand for locally grown, pesticide-free, safe produce drives our team to provide growers and distributors with information to fuel their growth and profitability.”
Commercialization and use of high-intensity, energy-efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs) give growers control over plant architecture, height, flavor, and aroma by simply adjusting light colors and intensities.
Lack of research
Lopez said that a lack of dedicated research and uncertainties of the return on investment prevented many potential growers from taking the plunge into controlled-environment agriculture. The goal of the 4-year project is to show current and prospective growers that there are production and sustainability benefits that cannot be replicated in the field.
“Fresh culinary herbs are a small specialty crop with little financial backing for research,” he said. “That makes projects such as this even more essential.”
Project GREEEN, Michigan’s plant agriculture initiative hosted at MSU, provided the initial funding, and findings from this work were leveraged to obtain USDA support and scale up the project.
“Right now, production is localized to a relatively small geographic area domestically, and there’s a reliance on imported herbs,” Lopez said. “Controlled-environment agriculture provides a unique opportunity to distribute production across the U.S. by taking seasonal climate variability largely out of the equation.”
Stages of the research
The team will first conduct a survey that touches on varying production methods, sensory experiences, and marketing strategies. The questionnaire will capture feedback from participants around the country, assessing their perceptions of the product and their willingness to buy fresh culinary herbs at premium prices if the product is of high quality.
Participants will taste-test an assortment of culinary herbs and provide input on which sensory characteristics they value. A product choice experiment using eye-tracking technology will also provide insight into the traits gravitated to by customers.
Secondly, researchers will perform controlled-environment studies to identify practices that increase growth, quality, shelf-life, disease management, and food safety.
Finally, the group will use the results from the survey and lab to create effective marketing, production, plant protection, technology adoption, post-harvest, and food safety resources for growers. Print and electronic publications will be developed, in addition to webinars, videos, and in-person presentations with growers and industry stakeholders.
“We need to perform research trials to test and validate, of course, but to truly understand what may help grow the industry, we also need to better understand consumers,” Lopez said. “Consumer profile development will allow for the identification of new markets and aid in increasing demand for U.S. controlled environment-grown, fresh culinary herbs. It’s important that this project is a holistic research and outreach effort.”
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