Herbs: Finding His Niche

Whether for culinary, medicinal or spiritual use, herbs have been a part of human life for countless centuries. And, until recently, growing herbs in Yuma was more of a backyard hobby. This has all changed with Yuma Organic, which has been producing organically grown herbs on the mesa for over 7 years.

Ernesto Amador established Yuma Organic in2002 bringing a relatively new crop to Yuma agriculture. With a great concept, a little risk and a lot of hard work, Amador started his enterprise using an air conditioned shed as a cooler and overnight delivery services as a means of shipping. Today Amador has expanded his Yuma operation into Mexico and ships thousands of pounds of fresh, organically grown herbs to gourmet restaurants and distribution hubs all over the US.

Cutting and packing product in the field, Amador says 10,000 pounds of fresh basil on a weekly basis is common.

“Basil is my most popular product, and seems to be the most adaptable herb. We can successfully grow it during the summer and use our Mexican locations to produce herbs that require cooler temperatures.”

As herb buyers want fresh product on a year round basis, Yuma Organic supplies more than just basil. Amador also routinely grows dill, sorrel, savory, peppermint, rosemary sage and thyme. He is committed to using both its Yuma and Mexican growing locations for year round production of these crops. “The crop needs to be uniform, of high quality, and fresh. We want to keep our established buyers happy.”

The farming of the labor-intensive niche crop provides year-round employment opportunities. The company employs 6 full time employees in Yuma and grows the herbs either in greenhouses or in shade enclosures. The entire product requires hand weeding, planting and maintenance, and being organic, no synthetic materials are applied what so ever. As Amador was fertilizing the crop with a liquid fish emulsion, a liquid organic relatively high in nitrogen, he stopped for a moment. “We inject the fertilizer right into the drip system”, he said, it’s one of the easiest parts to this deal.”

Herbal products have been increasing in popularity, and Amador seems to have hit the mark in supplying a fresh organic product that many consumers are now demanding. Current market trends suggest that there is now a niche for natural culinary ingredients that are safe and effective in making good and healthy food.

"The herbal market has its ups and downs, and it is on a slight upswing right now," Amador said. "For several years, it was a very strong market. It then went down somewhat. Now the prices are up on the types of crops we have been growing."

Growing a herbal crop is one thing, and marketing it is another. So it is important that the herbal crops not only grow well in the desert, but also have other advantages.

"We're looking for something we can produce at a certain time of year that other people can't, in ways other people can't and, most importantly, herbs that are high quality," Amador said. "We want plants that grow the easiest at the least cost and have some of the best growing conditions."

Quality in the production of fresh herbs is extremely important, and organically grown herbs need to, not only, bring out the natural flavor and aroma of foods but they need to be clean, and free of pests and diseases. Amador mentions, "Our quality is exceptional. Quality here has been well received by buyers."

While there are good prices out there relative to the cost of production, there are challenges to building the agricultural production of herbs in Yuma. While Yuma produce growers have produce tens of millions of pounds of crops which are marketed all over the world, mastering the learning curve at the next level has been particularly rewarding for the local herb grower. “We always wanted our own label, and this year we have it. We don’t have to market our product on the coattails of a major shipper. We’re totally independent.”

But there has also been a challenge in growing organic herbs. “Many of these plants have never been cultivated before. The way they perform in one area may be slightly different than another area.”

The vision for growing organic herbs in Yuma includes going farther than just production. “I had a vision, a sound business plan and with some initial success, we’ve done pretty well,” Amador says.

Amador mentions, “I’ve been fortunate to find some very faithful customers who demand good tasting, high quality specialty herbs that they cannot get anywhere else. And Amador offers them, “top quality, on time, when promised, every time.”

Kurt Nolte is an area agriculture agent with the Yuma County Cooperative Extension. He can be reached at 928-726-3904.