The leaves of both plants look similar with a smooth downy feel, jagged edge and elongated shape, however they taste quite different. Peppermint has a strong, cooling aftertaste due to the high concentration of menthol, while spearmint has a lighter and sweeter taste. Spearmint is the type most commonly grown as a culinary herb.
Culinary herbs as a commercial crop differ from many other market garden/vegetable crops. They are not generally consumed as a principal source of nutrition, but as a flavouring or condiment and are consumed in smaller quantities compared to vegetables. They tend to have a higher value per kilogram and so the value per acre tends to be higher. Commercial production still requires adequate soil quality and water supply in order to offer good returns from a small area of land. Depending on the cropping system used and the types and amounts of herbs grown, a successful culinary herb operation could operate on as little as two hectares.
Because the harvested product is generally packaged for retail consumption in small bunches or punnets, packing is labour intensive and quite expensive, while storage and transporting to markets is usually less expensive to undertake than for many other crops.
While herbs have some advantages in terms of returns for a relatively small investment in land and infrastructure, growing culinary herbs commercially is labour intensive as they are harvested by hand. Further, the high standards of freshness and quality that consumers demand means producers must commit a high degree of technical skill and effort to the enterprise.
Fresh culinary herbs are grown in every state of Australia by a diverse range of producers including specialist herb growers, market gardeners, horticulturalists and cottage/lifestyle growers. The majority of culinary herb enterprises are located on small land holdings on the urban fringes of Australia’s capital cities.
Herbs are also grown for non-culinary uses including for cosmetics, herbal medicines and essential oils.
The peak body for culinary herbs is the Australian Herb and Spice Industry Association Ltd. Protected Cropping Australia is the peak body for greenhouse and hydroponic horticultural producers.
Facts and figures
- Mint is native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean and used extensively in Middle Eastern, Indian, South American and Asian cuisine
- The two most common varieties of mint are peppermint and spearmint — with spearmint most commonly grown as a culinary herb in Australia
- Demand for culinary herbs is growing as consumer preferences shift to fresh produce
- Culinary herbs are considered to have several advantages as a commercial crop. They can be grown on less land than other crops and in areas with poor soil or limited water supply
- A successful herb operation could operate on as little as two hectares of land
- Herbs can be grown as broadacre crops, in greenhouses or hydroponically
- Culinary herb operations are labour intensive
Fresh culinary herbs are grown in every state of Australia with the industry essentially comprising four main types of growers.
Specialist herb growers, specialise in growing culinary herbs. These producers tend to have properties between 5–40ha and employ up to 100 staff. These growers may also produce dry herbs or other value-added products. It is estimated that these growers account for 60–70% of all production, whether for manufacturing or the fresh market.
Market gardeners produce vegetables and herbs all year round, are typically family-owned businesses cultivating up to 40ha and may have up to 10% of their land planted to one or two varieties of culinary herbs. They are frequently located on urban fringes close to central market precincts.
Opportunity growers (existing primary producers and horticulturalists) may grow herbs in some years, and in some seasons, to diversify their business mix, provide continuity of employment for staff or to capture seasonal price advantages. It is thought that these growers account for 5–10% of Australia’s culinary herb production.
Small scale growers, cottage industry and lifestyle growers who grow herbs may have operations of less than 1ha, may rely entirely on family labour and sell only locally or directly to the public. It is estimated these smaller growers account for 5–10% of production.