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Learning from the Ground Up

November 11, 2018
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Mint Cuttings

Mint Cuttings

From the moment we started growing fresh herbs it was a whirlwind of activity, and a fever pitch of educating ourselves with agricultural techniques while acquiring in-depth knowledge about herbs.  In order to expand from the 1½ acres that we started on to over 200 acres by the early nineties, we would develop our own seed stock and propagation methods; we studied the many cultivars and varieties of each type of herb.  We studied soil science with traditional university and professional services.  Also, as we wanted to be as chemical free as possible from the start, we experimented with alternative bio-dynamic methods, integrated pest and crop management and whatever organic methodologies were available.  We had over 60 acres of greenhouse structures, from simple row covers to innovative structural designs.

Tarragon Cuttings

An interesting example of research and development at that time was with tarragon.  True French tarragon was cultivated from root separation; it would not produce nor grow from seed. (Many years later, we developed tissue culture methods.) Tarragon would also go dormant during the winter.  I actually had the date of February 20 marked on the calendar, as generally in Southern California, that is when the new crop would re-emerge from the roots.  We tried everything to fool mother nature though, like sticking the bare roots in a refrigerator and planting them in greenhouses in the fall to “fool” them into thinking it was springtime!  I did have good results growing the crop in greenhouses under a sophisticated lighting system, but it proved too expensive.  The need for winter tarragon drove us to a new frontier in our fresh herb production - we had to reach out to other growers in the southern hemisphere to produce for us in our winter.  Working with other growers became a necessary and enjoyable development!

The beautiful baja surf

The beautiful Baja surf

I had built up a pretty good knowledge of herb production and shipping logistics. (FedEx actually had to schedule a separate daily aircraft for us in San Diego!) I could “take the show on the road” so to speak. Besides working with growers in New Zealand and Costa Rica, we started our own farm in Hawaii and developed growers in Mexico.  Even though I was a New Jersey boy, I became a pretty good body surfer while building a ranch on the Mexican Coast!

Drying system used for hops

Drying system used for hops

As I had mentioned in an earlier article, there was some herb production when we first began.  And as mentioned, the quality of the fresh production was not very good as most of it was used to dehydrate for the spice industry.  Much of the production was basil and mint along with some exotics like lavender, and large tracts of hops.

Much of the production was Mint

I began to reach out to these growers in the western states.  Even though a grower had large tracts of mint used for essential oil in chewing gum, I could work with them to procure some for our needs and experiment with basil and other herbs as well.  These collaborative efforts provided insights into other crops and farming methods. Gilroy California was the garlic capital of the world; producing fresh but also dried as well, for the spice industry.  

Irrigation system in the field

Irrigation system in the field

Water was precious to us on the coast of southern California.  But the desert growers in Central California and Washington State were using flood irrigation.  The aqueduct and canal systems were fascinating.  The drying systems used for hops and garlic were either very sophisticated stainless-steel systems, or simple homemade tunnels.  The equipment used to process dried product, generally came from the seed industry.  Seeds would be brushed off of the dried stalks and separated with large air systems and then finished on other separators and gravity tables. 

Sifting equipment

Sifting equipment

My focus was still on procuring fresh herbs, but something was kindled within me, with this new world of dehydrated production.  I had a rigorous schedule of regular meetings with growers and would drive with them through their fields.  We would exchange information useful in both of our product categories.  By now I had over 10 years of detailed food experience.  I had studied and developed many solutions for consumer needs, from retail products in my store, to the meticulous agricultural production of fresh herbs.  The collaborative effort was rewarding on a business level, but also extremely satisfying personally.  Now, I was able to give back a bit, and was positioned on a new horizon.

-Jerry Tenenberg, Founder of High Quality Organics Express

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