Few ingredients can breathe life into a homecooked meal like fresh herbs. Cilantro, basil, parsley, or mint are tasty additions to a meal, but they often seem to wilt and turn before a home cook can even turn on the stove.
North Shore Greenhouses has a solution for the shoppers tired of wilted and wasted herbs. This hydroponic greenhouse operation in Thermal, Calif., sells fresh herbs—roots and all—to consumers who want a better-tasting product that can last three times longer than traditional cut herbs.
Leo and Suzette Overgaag started farming in 1987 after moving to the Coachella Valley to raise their children and grow long English cucumbers. Later, the couple transitioned their operation from a commodity crop to herbs, and soon found a niche in the fresh herb business.
“Herbs are notorious for having very short shelf life,” said Leo. “And our competitors, they will cut a small piece of an herb plant, put it in a package, and it will dry out or get mold. That’s always been our niche—to grow a living plant with the roots attached.”
Leo, who is originally from Holland, said he had learned about new greenhouse technology and techniques that would plant the seed for his and Suzette’s herb business. The couple applied indoor growing practices that have saved tremendous amounts of water, reducing North Shore Greenhouses’ water use by up to 70% when compared to field crops.
“In our business, we obviously look to be profitable,” said Suzette. “However, when Leo and I started this business, we really started it based on raising our own family and coming up with ways to reuse and recycle.”
Selling fresh herbs to grow
Leo and Suzette had a vision for an operation that delivers fresh, growing herbs to consumers. To make this a reality, they had to find the right technology, people, and techniques to harvest and prepare the herbs for shipment within a single day.
“We don’t pack anything ahead of time,” said Leo. “So, today we get all our orders, and they are harvested and packed. They will be packed onto our truck this afternoon, and our drivers will typically leave around midnight to 1 a.m. to make deliveries tomorrow morning.”
From there, the company’s fresh herbs—ranging from classics like cilantro, basil, and thyme to sage and tarragon—will be stocked on grocery store shelves by the afternoon.
Delivering such a fresh and delicate product to stores is no easy feat. Nick Sullivan, director of research and development at North Shore Greenhouses, is focused on implementing systems that help the business grow and deliver herbs as efficiently as possible.
“We’re using precision irrigation and precision climate control, and that ensures that we can always deliver consistent, high-quality products to the consumer year-round,” said Nick. “So, 365 days a year we’re producing crops, and we are able to produce them on a much smaller plot of land than you traditionally find in conventional horticulture.”
Two sides of sustainability
Conserving water and energy and limiting waste are key focus areas for North Shore Greenhouses. Over the years, the operation has invested in solar panels, taken steps to conserve water with hydroponic growing practices, and became the first culinary herb grower in the U.S. to be designated as sustainable by a third-party certifier.
The greenhouse operation has also invested in creating a sustainable business model that keeps longtime employees engaged and able to put down roots in the community.
“We approach sustainability from two sides,” said Nick. “Sustainable employment and sustainable production practices.”
“The fact that we’re able to produce a crop 365 days a year continuously means that our staff is able to settle here, grow a family, have dependable, year-round work, and be a part of the team for years and years.”
At the end of the day, it’s the flavor and freshness of the herbs that keep Leo and Suzette motivated to do this work. By harvesting and selling herbs with roots, North Shore is supplying home chefs with the freshest, most delicious ingredients possible.
“I want to cook fresh and use the freshest ingredients,” said Suzette. “When I saw the value of fresh herbs, it just made me want to produce great products that can fulfill our mission of making every meal a special occasion. You can use these herbs with everything—literally anything you’re doing in the kitchen. They are really fresh, and they look really good.”