Community Opinion

Upside Down Under

Herb farming in North Dakota….. Numerous people have tried in the past and failed. It’s most likely because they didn’t understand the needs of herbs regarding germination temperature, moisture, pests and harvest.

By Marvin Baker

But there is a couple living near Esmond who have mastered the trade and are probably the only successful herb farmers in North Dakota today.

Holly and Barry Mawby have been at it for a number of years and have reached a success level that pays their bills and gets their products to various places around the state.

They do business as Gardendwellers Farm, and their herbs, in season, may be found in grocery stores in all the major cities as well as being available at the Grand Forks Farmers Market.

The Mawbys started their culinary herb business in 2002 at Churchs Ferry but soon moved to Esmond where they have more property and room to grow.

Following is a list of the herbs the Mawbys grow and market on a regular basis: Genovese Basil; Extrakta Sage; German Thyme; Winter Savory; Italian Triple Curled Parsley; Italian Flat Leaf Parsley; Rosemary; Santo Cilantro; Mrs. Burns’ Lemon Basil; Lemon Balm; Dill Leaf; Purly Chives; Spearmint; Fennel Leaf; Zaatar Marjarom; Greek Oregano; Italian Oregano; Peppermint; Tarragon and Stevia.

The Mawbys price their produce at between $14 and $16 a pound. It’s unclear what the yields are or how many pounds they might sell annually, but it’s clear the crops take up plenty of space and need special care while growing.

If you need any of the above mentioned products, be sure to look for Gardendwellers Farm on the label because you know as well as I do that fresh herbs, just like vegetables, are far better when they are fresh out of the field as opposed to sitting in a warehouse for an unlimited amount of time.

This is something that Holly Mawby has always wanted to do and is now 16 years into the venture. Early on, when they were experimenting with growing, they actually grew rhubarb, brought volunteers to their Churchs Ferry location and got busy with knives and machetes. It took a long time to harvest, and according to Holly, the return wasn’t so good vs. the labor. When they moved to Esmond, they gave up growing rhubarb commercially, even though many of the wineries in the state are always looking for rhubarb. They may keep some for their own purpose, but the business is herbs. When in nature, rhubarb is actually considered a vegetable even though people often call it fruit primarily because it is used in desserts, often with strawberries.

The Mawbys grow the bulk of their herbs, especially the more valuable ones, “indoors” in a high tunnel, sometimes called a hoop house. The biggest advantage is it shelters the plants from the wind, and we all know the wind will destroy anything in its path in North Dakota. The high tunnel is heated so the seeds get a jump on germination in the spring and grow well beyond the first frost date in the fall.

The Mawbys use the proper refrigeration to keep the clipped herbs fresh in cold storage for several weeks beyond the growing season. They’ve said they run out of fresh herbs about Christmas time.

Three months later, they start it all over again so they can keep their clientele and build new customers into their portfolio.

Growing, harvesting and delivering herbs is Barry’s full-time job. Holly, a former teacher from Devils Lake, is also the executive director of the Entrepreneurial Center for Horticulture at Dakota College in Bottineau and is also a master gardener.

That gives her an “in” when it comes to the finicky habits of herbs throughout the growing season. Although the center is mostly about vegetables and fruits, Holly’s knowledge of general growing practices, as well as her expertise in growing herbs, has helped build the reputation of Gardendwellers Farm across the state and parts of Minnesota.

As was mentioned at the top, others have tried. In fact, some have tried to grow one or two herbs on a large, commercial operation and have failed.

Others have tried numerous herbs, throwing the seeds into the ground expecting them to grow when the ground temperature is too cold or too dry.

It doesn’t work that way, and this is perhaps why Holly and Barry Mawby are so successful. They know. You reap what you sow!