OSCIA: Non-traditional crops may yield health market opportunities

There may be opportunities for Ontario farmers to grow medicinal and culinary herbs, as well as other non-traditional crops, for the health market — but the first step is determining whether it’s possible to grow these crops in Ontario.

That step was the basis of a Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)-led project at the research station at Simcoe.

“We knew there were a lot of questions about different herbs that people might want to grow, but there’s not a lot of information available,” says Sean Westerveld, ginseng and medical herbs specialist with OMAFRA. “We wanted to showcase the challenges and opportunities and show different principles of herb production through this project.”

How was the research conducted?

A plot of 117 non-traditional crops (140 including different varieties of the same herb) for the health market, including culinary and medicinal herbs, and berry crops was established in spring and early summer 2010. The goal was to illustrate different principles of herb production for both field and forest herbs, and both culinary and medicinal herbs.

The plot features herbs native to every continent except Antarctica, including traditional Chinese, Indian, North American and European herbs. Several old English cottage herbs that are no longer frequently used were also included to illustrate the importance of identifying a market before growing any new crop.

“Our goal was not to promote one crop or variety over another but to provide a showcase of different options,” says Westerveld, explaining that although it was a one-year project, the herbs are still in the ground and observation is ongoing. “This includes looking at what kind of challenges rowers might face with pests or with our winter climate.”

What did the research find?

Many herbs survived the Canadian winter without difficulty, but Westerveld says they weren’t surprised to find some of the non-native varieties weren’t able to handle the climate, showing it’s not possible to grow everything here even if some of the conditions, like soil, are suitable.

They were able to successfully grow plants like eucalyptus and lemon verbena, but others — such as stevia, which has garnered a lot of interest as a natural low-calorie sweetener — were not shown to be a viable crop. Pests were also a challenge and with the exception of some culinary herbs, there are currently no products registered for pest control use on these crops.

“There was no real shining star that emerged from our project and the industry is still small. There are perhaps local niche market opportunities for some of these crops, but no studies have been done yet on this,” says Westerveld, adding that interest in the project has been strong with several hundred people touring the plots at the research station over the last two years, including a large turnout out at a grower open house day in 2011.

One grower who has visited the plots is Tom Benner. He owns Heritage Line Herbs near Aylmer, where his family grows culinary herbs such as parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil and oregano. They sell live plants in the spring as well as grow herbs in-field that are dried and processed into seasoning blends and sold across Canada.

“There is a lot of consumer interest in locally grown herbs, especially with respect to their quality and freshness,” says Tom, whose farm’s production is certified organic. “People are always asking us about whether we can grow different things, so we’re always on the lookout for new opportunities. And there are production issues, like pest management, that we need help in addressing too.”

Where can I get more information?

More information on this project can be found online at the Crop Advances section of the OSCIA site. OMAFRA is also working on a new interactive online resource that will provide crop profiles and pest issue information on over 100 speciality crops including fruits, vegetables and grain.

How was the research funded?

Funding for this project was provided by Norfolk Soil and Crop Improvement Association. Additional project support was provided by OSCIA, OMAFRA, University of Guelph, Richters Herbs, Oakland Shading Co., St. Williams Forestry and Ecology Centre, and Dubois Agrinovation Inc. OSCIA assisted with communication of research results.

— Lilian Schaer is a freelance writer and communications project specialist at Guelph, writing on behalf of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA).

Top tips for farmers

  • Not all herbs can be grown in Ontario, whether due to climate or pest issues.
  • Determine market potential before starting to grow new crops.
  • Herbs have as many pest issues as conventional crops. Think about crop rotation as you do with any other crop.

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