Q&A: Michigan State’s Roberto Lopez discusses new culinary herb research

Q&A: Michigan State’s Roberto Lopez discusses new culinary herb research

Lopez is part of a large team seeking a grant to better understand culinary herb production, and they need grower input.

November 2, 2018


Dr. Roberto Lopez and a team of researchers and extension specialists from Michigan State University, Purdue University, Clemson University, Iowa State University, Kansas State University and the USDA-ARS are asking growers already producing, or interested in producing, culinary herbs to take a survey. The survey, which is open to submissions through Nov. 15, is designed to give them more detailed information for a grant proposal to be submitted next year.

“We received a USDA-SCRI planning grant in August and hope to submit a research and extension SCRI proposal as soon as the request comes out from the USDA,” Lopez says. “The planning grant will help us better determine what crops and issues are most important to growers and allied trades nationally.”


Below, Lopez discusses what topics the team wants to explore, and why there isn’t much information currently available regarding culinary herbs.


Produce Grower: What are you classifying as a culinary herb?

Roberto Lopez: Our team defines culinary herbs as perennial, biennial, or annual plants that are used as part of a leafy green salad mix, or in relatively small amounts in cooking, to add flavor or garnish food. The survey will help identify the most important culinary herbs grown by U.S. growers. We will work on basil because it's the most popular, and then from there, it might be cilantro, oregano, dill, etc. There's a long list, but we are probably going to focus on the top five or six that growers indicate are important to their production. 


PG: Why are you submitting a proposal focused on culinary herbs?

RL: There is a large demand for domestically produced culinary herbs, but there are also many production challenges and information gaps that are hampering the industry. The planning grant allows us to bring potted and fresh cut herb growers, allied trades, and professionals in lighting, fertility and substrates to discuss the current issues and opportunities with growing herbs in controlled environments. At the meeting, we developed the survey, and discussed production and post-harvest issues, marketing and economics in terms of what the limitations are in incorporating technology, plant protection and food safety.


PG: What is the overall objective of the proposal as it is currently shaped?  

RL: Right now, both potted and fresh cut culinary herbs are an emerging industry in the U.S. So, to create an herb industry that better competes with other countries, we want to provide growers with production, plant protection, and food safety protocols. This will allow the industry to grow and meet the demands out there -- because there is a huge demand for domestically grown culinary herbs from consumers, restaurants, and companies like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron. They want to source their fresh cut herbs from the U.S. because the shelf life of locally sourced herbs is much longer than herbs harvested in other countries.Many greenhouse producers of ornamentals are starting to get involved in growing potted herbs. There are food safety and plant protection issues that can arise when growing ornamental and food crops in the same facility. For example, insecticides and fungicides that you use on ornamentals are often not labeled for use on herbs, so that's one aspect the grant is going to focus on.


PG: Why is the U.S. behind other countries in herb production?

RL: I believe part of it is the labor issue, especially with the fresh cut herbs. Additionally, the climate in most of the country does not allow for year-round production, especially to meet demands of the holiday season. So, if we can identify and overcome the barriers to adopting technology for harvesting or packing or even lighting, that may facilitate expansion of the CEA herb industry.


PG: Why is there not currently much information available on culinary herb production? 

RL: You would think that there's been research done on herbs, but when we talked to some national folks in terms of the supply chain, there's very few people actually growing culinary herbs in the U.S. There's a huge demand, but not necessarily the needed supply or desired quality. So, we looked into why -that is, and it's basically because there's no research-based production protocols for herbs. There's very little technology, so it can be especially labor intensive.


PG: Walk me through the process of coordinating different  university and government researchers together for a research project of this size.

RL: [Michigan State's] Erik Runkle and I basically are the lead investigators of the proposal. We sat down about a year and a half ago and began to develop a team that could address the various issues. We looked for people who were working on postharvest issues, but no one was focused on postharvest issues of herbs. Therefore, we asked Jim Faust [from Clemson University] because he's worked on postharvest issues of unrooted ornamental cuttings, and if you think about cut herbs, they are very similar. Then we looked plant pathology, and Mary Hausbeck here at Michigan State works on pathology of vegetables as well as herbs, so she was a perfect fit. Chris Currey at Iowa State has been doing a lot of work on culinary herbs and hydroponics as well as with potted herbs, so he was a great fit too. That’s basically how we assembled our team; we looked at the major production and marketing challenges, then identified who we thought had the appropriate expertise and experience and asked if they were interested in working with us on this project. Fortunately, everyone said “yes”.


PG: What are some of the characteristics of herbs you are most excited to learn about and explore once the research is underway? 

RL: We are looking at how environmental parameters such as light quality, carbon dioxide and temperature affect the flavor of herbs. So, in the case of basil, our preliminary research suggests that indeed, the environment has a big impact. We recently conducted a consumer taste preference panel, and based on preliminary results, when you give the plant too much light, the flavor changes and consumers don't like the taste. In this project, want to perform a phytochemical analysis, so we can correlate how environmental parameters affect particular compounds, and if consumers like or don't like various compounds. Really being able to manipulate the flavor is pretty cool and of interest to growers and consumers.


To take the survey, click here.


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