Fresh herbs resurge under Virginia greenhouses

environment climate changeGreenhouse herb operations are popular in Virginia, and there seems to be a resurgence in the popularity of locally grown herbs.

Greenhouses are located on 51 Virginia herb farms, which produced 29 acres of fresh-cut herbs in 2012. That was down from the previous decade, when there were 73 herb operations.

But the market is changing, and there’s been consolidation within the industry. Most greenhouse herbs are sold to grocery chains year-round. And while cooking herbs are top sellers, up to 40 million adults now use herbal supplements in their diets.

The Growers Exchange has found a niche in this unique farm sector. It began in 1985 as a retail garden center in Richmond and later became a greenhouse operation on a 900-acre family farm in Charles City County. Today it is a modern production facility that includes five greenhouses, a packing warehouse and an office complex in eastern Henrico County, where it sells fresh organic potted herbs to consumers online.

“I love sharing our products with people and then getting the feedback,” noted Kenan White, Growers Exchange marketing director. “And I’ve got to say, after 20 years of retail in a brick-and-mortar store, we’ve got more relationships with people now than we did then. It’s the quality of the interaction, whether it’s through social media, email or even a phone call” that makes the difference, she said.

While greenhouses offer controlled growing conditions year-round, the biggest change for the Growers Exchange has been in its production room. It’s more efficient and streamlined than in the past, said Briscoe Smith, Growers Exchange president.

“Potting soil, pots, flats, tags, seeds, sometimes started baby plants that we buy from another greenhouse” all come through the main door, Smith shared. Workers then feed up to 1,000 pounds of potting soil into an agronomic potting machine, which mixes organic fertilizer and biological fungicide into the soil. The herb seedlings are then quickly transplanted and moved directly to the greenhouses.

Moving to eastern Henrico allowed the greenhouse operation to be within a few hundred yards of a major post office distribution center, another key part of the business, Smith said.

Popular garden herbs at the Growers Exchange include basil, chives, cilantro, oregano and parsley, and they cultivate a dozen more varieties of seedlings. More information about their operation is available on Real Virginia, Virginia Farm Bureau’s weekly television program.

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