MSU-Led Team Studying Expansion of Culinary Herb Production in a Controlled Environment in the United States

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A new $3.4 million USDA grant supports research and awareness.

Roberto Lopez, an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Horticulture, is leading new $3.4 million USDA-funded research. Photo courtesy of Roberto Lopez.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – A Michigan State University-led team has received a $3.4 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to assess the cost-effectiveness and environmental sustainability of freshly-grown culinary herbs cut and potted produced in controlled environments. The funding is part of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Crops Research Initiative.

The U.S. market for fresh culinary herbs — leafy herbs like basil, cilantro, and parsley that add flavor, aroma, or garnish — is booming. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, the popularity of special culture grew 10% to 12% per year from 2004 to 2014 and continued to climb. At this point, domestic production on the ground and imports have been used to keep pace with demand.

Culinary herbs are divided into two market segments: fresh cut for leaves and stems, and potted plants. About 69% of the nation’s fresh-cut herbs are grown in the open field in Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii and Texas, and nearly $300 million is imported each year. But field production and imports face growing challenges, such as disease, droughts and 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 successful future for the industry. The multi-institutional research and outreach collaboration, called CEA HERB, includes researchers from MSU, Iowa State University, North Carolina State University, Texas Tech University, University of Tennessee and USDA Agricultural Research Service.

The project is led by Roberto Lopez, associate professor and controlled environment extension specialist in MSU’s Department of Horticulture. Other participating MSU researchers are Bridget Behe ​​and Erik Runkle, professors in the Department of Horticulture, and Mary Hausbeck, University Professor Emeritus in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences. Like Lopez, each has AgBioResearch and MSU Extension appointments.

Michigan is home to the third largest greenhouse industry in the nation, making it a natural location for growers looking to expand into culinary herb production.

“Growing fresh culinary herbs in controlled environments provides a host of benefits, including lower environmental impact by reducing inputs, year-round production capacity, and the supply of high-quality food. , tasty and nutritious,” Lopez said. “But there are still barriers for the industry to reach its full potential, which reinforces the need to educate producers on cost-effective production techniques, increase yields, improve flavor and shelf life. post-harvest, increase food security and much more.

“Consumer demand for locally grown, pesticide-free and safe produce drives our team to provide growers and distributors with insights to fuel their growth and profitability.”

Basil plants - 2022
Basil plants growing in MSU greenhouses. Photo courtesy of Roberto Lopez.

The commercialization and use of high-intensity, energy-efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs) allow growers to control plant architecture, height, flavor and aroma by simply adjusting light colors and intensities. .

Lopez said a lack of dedicated research and uncertainties about return on investment have prevented many potential growers from taking the plunge into controlled environment farming. The goal of this 4-year project is to show current and potential 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 research funding support,” he said. “It makes projects like this all the more essential.”

Project GREEEN, Michigan’s Plant Agriculture Initiative housed at MSU, provided initial funding, and the results of this work have been leveraged to gain USDA support and expand the project.

“Currently, production is located in a relatively small geographic area nationally, and there is a reliance on imported herbs,” Lopez said. “Controlled-environment agriculture offers a unique opportunity to spread production across the United States by largely eliminating seasonal climate variability from the equation.”

The team will first conduct a survey of different production methods, sensory experiences and marketing strategies. The questionnaire will collect feedback from participants across the country, assessing their perceptions of the product and their willingness to purchase fresh culinary herbs at premium prices if the product is of high quality.

Attendees will taste an assortment of culinary herbs and provide feedback on which sensory characteristics they enjoy. A product-choice experience using eye-tracking technology will also provide insight into the features that are attracted to customers.

Second, 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 survey and lab results 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 producers and industry stakeholders.

“We need to do research trials to test and validate, of course, but to really understand what can help grow the industry, we also need to understand consumers better,” Lopez said. “Developing the consumer profile will help identify new markets and help increase demand for fresh culinary herbs grown in a controlled environment in the United States. It is important that this project be a holistic research and outreach effort.

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