Fresh herbs can breathe new life into a tired recipe and turn a home-cooked meal into a gourmet experience.
For the discerning chef who thumbs his nose at dried seasonings, or the weeknight warrior who simply wants to kick things up a notch, a valley company is doing its part to ensure that high-quality fresh herbs are readily available in the produce section of your neighborhood supermarket.
Shenandoah Growers, founded in 1989, employs about 170 people in the Shenandoah Valley and its sister operations in Florida. It offers fresh-cut herbs packaged and sold under private labels as well as its own brand of living herb plants nurtured in one of two climate-controlled greenhouses on a 55-acre site east of Interstate 81 in Rockingham County. The company recently opened the second greenhouse, which cost $3 million and covers 75,000 square feet, and added 31 jobs.
Shenandoah Growers is vertically integrated, from seed to store, and has been at the forefront of the fresh-herb retail movement for more than 20 years. Today, its two-dozen varieties, including staples like
basil, cilantro, mint, rosemary, sage and tarragon, can be found in every major grocery chain in the mid-Atlantic region. “We think we’re the most complete fresh-herb company in the country,” says President and CEO Timothy A. Heydon. “We’re very passionate about healthy eating, good food and the organic and local food movements. Those are the principles that guide us.”
While the company was built on fresh-cut herbs, it has blossomed with the introduction of organic living herbs three years ago. The tiny plants, available year-round, are often given lip service by celebrity
chefs on cable and network television. “Consumers will watch the show, write down the name of the herb and go to the store to seek it out,” Heydon says. “For us, [the plants] offer the freshest possible way to use fresh herbs in the kitchen.”
The growing process at Shenandoah Growers starts with a proprietary blend of organic, biologically active soil. A machine carefully measures and irrigates the seeds, and the nursery trays are then carted into a dark, damp chamber to germinate for a period of three to five days, after which they are transported to the computerized greenhouse. There, the young plants are fed and watered using a series of pipes running underneath the long rectangular beds.
The result is row upon row of compact, rugged, uniformly beautiful herbs that, with proper maintenance, will stay fresh in the kitchen for up to three weeks. The new greenhouse more than doubled its indoor growing capacity. “What we can do in here in four acres would take 50 acres outside to get the same yield,” Heydon says.
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