According to the ever-rising sales figures, western countries cannot get enough of fresh herbs. Retailers and producers are responding to this demand with creative sales concepts, meeting the consumers desire to purchase fresh, health food.
In this article we’re focusing exclusively on genuine herbs, with basil taking the leading role. This aromatic plant has become synonymous with Italian cuisine, where, among other things, it forms the basis for green pesto and is an indispensable ingredient in caprese salad. And just as pizza has conquered the globe, so basil has begun its triumphal march through the western world. Sales are by far the highest in summer, when basil gets a boost from the fresh tomato consumption peak.
Not only is basil popular amongst consumers, but it is an interesting and attractive crop for Enza Zaden breeders as well. Because basil is a delicate plant that is quite susceptible to diseases and suboptimal growing conditions, growers and the wholesale channel prefer hybrid varieties breeders developed to have increased tolerance and resistance to diseases. While these hybrids have a higher seed price, the difference in cost is made up for by the stronger, homogeneous development, faster growth rate, lower losses, much higher production, longer shelf life and most importantly, great flavour. This also applies to chives, parsley, leaf celery and dill.
Photo credits: Infarm
In recent years we have seen the growth of two main concepts in terms of sales and volume:
Living herbs in pots has become more and more popular due to the demand of the younger generation, and is also driven by the number of specialist herb growers (from traditional producers with glass or plastic greenhouses and hyper-modern vertical farms to small-scale rooftop farms in urban areas) who want to differentiate themselves. In the fresh potted herbs segment, there is a clear shift towards growing organically and more sustainably with the use of alternative substrates and the replacement of the traditional plastic pots with biodegradable materials. The demand for sustainably and organically produced food is rising, and growers of potted herbs are eagerly responding to this.
In addition to fresh cut herbs and living herbs in pots, a few new exceptionally innovative store concepts have been tested and trialled over the recent years and are proving to be promising. These concepts include:
This is based on a modular system of transparent, closed cultivation chambers on the sales floor in which fresh herbs and leafy vegetables are grown. The plants are rooted in a tank with recirculating feed water and lit with LED grow lights. The conditions in each module are individually controlled and, depending on the details and implementation of the concept, may be controlled remotely by the service provider. Strong points of this concept are the visual appeal and experiential value, the guaranteed provenance and freshness, and the clean cultivation method without pesticides. With in-store farming, the consumer can see the products grown with their very eyes.
A relatively new concept, pick-your-own (PYO), is bringing a growing number of organic and conventional nurseries and rooftop and urban farms into direct contact with the consumer. The great experiential value and the guaranteed freshness that PYO delivers inspired the Dutch retailer Albert Heijn to develop a cut-your-own variant for fresh herbs. The Zelfpluk Kruidentuin(cut-your-own herb garden) consists of a visually appealing display of trays of living potted herbs. Consumer can cut, pack and weigh their choice of herbs in the quantity they need. Although a large-scale pilot turned out to be too ambitious –a slimmed-down version of the concept, which launched in 2017, has proven sufficiently promising.
Large quantities of fresh herbs are also sold in traditional loose bunches in countless places such as regular street markets and farmers’ markets. For a good many consumers, this is still the best way to judge product quality for themselves. But one thing seems certain: the market for fresh herbs will continue to grow steadily over the next few years, and the same is true of the breadth and depth of Enza Zaden’s herb portfolio. After all, every cultivation method and every sales concept place its own demands on the underlying genetics of the product. And that is a prime example of how a breeding company can differentiate itself.