There is almost nothing more appealing than the smell of freshly picked basil. The aroma of a freshly cut small bunch can fill a room. Some of the great eating experiences of summer include the taste of fresh basil. It can be combined with fresh mozzarella on a sliced tomato just picked from the garden. Fresh basil can also be used to make a delicious pesto sauce.
Fortunately, thanks to greenhouses and controlled environment agriculture (CEA), basil can be grown year round. Basil is appealing to growers because of its consistent demand from consumers. Growers who produce basil during colder months are usually able to fetch higher prices when local outdoor crops are unavailable. In some areas of the country high end retailers sell basil for $3-$4 per ounce or $50-$60 per pound.
However, before you start counting your cash and making plans to retire in Hawaii, it’s important to realize that growing basil, just like any other crop, has its challenges. Just as easily as you might make a lot of money from producing basil, you could end up breaking even or losing money.
Factors to consider before growing basil
Here are some issues growers might face and options they might consider before starting to produce basil.
What variety of basil should you grow? Basil comes in all sizes and colors. There are Italian basils, Thai basils and Indian basils. Some have small leaves, some have large leaves. Some are more aromatic, while others have a stronger flavor.
You first need to determine what market you are going to target and what potential customers will need from you as the grower. Then look at your production system and determine which varieties with the characteristics you’ve selected are best suited for your system. After choosing the varieties, run some production trials to see how the plants grow and what changes may be required.
Do you plan to grow year round? Greenhouse basil production can be a very lucrative crop in the off season.
Typically during the summer, many markets are flooded with local, field-produced basil. Consequently the price drops accordingly.
You have the option to grow year round in order to maintain a brand presence. You can choose to grow another crop during the warmer months or use that time for trialing new basil varieties or conduct other R&D work.
Another important consideration during the summer is that energy costs are usually at their highest during this time of year. If you have a big energy bill dedicated towards supplemental lighting, climate management equipment (cooling) as well as other energy hungry tools and technology it might not make financial sense to operate during the summer. Maybe it’s a good time to take a vacation, clear your head, and get ready for the cooler months just around the corner.
How long should basil be harvested before the plants are replaced? Although basil is treated as an annual in the United States, it is actually a warm weather perennial plant. This means in a constant environment, such as in CEA, basil continues to produce indefinitely. As plants age, often the visual quality of the leaves remains very high, but the flavor can change and is less than desirable. Careful attention should be placed on this aspect of production since there are no visual indicators that will indicate when to replace the plants.
Harvesting, marketing basil
What is the best way to package and market basil? This is one of the hardest questions to answer. Basil is an extremely fragile herb which withers quickly. It is very sensitive to chilling injury and is damaged by rough handling.
Basil can be sold in bunches, as live plants, or fresh cut and packaged for a higher quality product. Whatever method you choose, research your options and do numerous tests to determine how your product holds in the market environment where it will be sold. Remember, it is extremely delicate and if the right conditions are not maintained, quality will suffer quickly.
There are other considerations with basil cultivation, just as there are with every crop. These are some of the main factors to consider as you get started. And remember, if you choose the right market and produce a consistent quality crop, you might be able to start dreaming about that retirement home on the beach….
By David Ceaser
David Ceaser has over 20 years experience working with plants and agriculture in numerous capacities and countries. He has studied agroecology, horticulture and business along with several years working in real estate development. He currently does consulting work and operates a small outdoor urban farm specializing in herbs and salad greens. To contact David, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org