The herb category continues to increase as Americans learn how to use fresh herbs in their diet, said Robert Schueller, director of public relations for World Variety Produce, Los Angeles, which markets under the Melissa's brand.

"Americans used to focus on what they could shake out of a salt and pepper shaker, but they've opened their eyes to the use of different herbs," said Schueller, whose company is a wholesaler and distributor that works with a network of international and domestic growers.

Consumers are beginning to taste the difference between fresh and dried herbs, which is increasing sales for Melissa's. The company expects to see a double-digit increase for the summer season.

Growing awareness

The demand for herbs is increasing as Americans become more aware of the ways in which fresh herbs can spice up a meal, said Andrew Walsh, president of Vida Fresh, Vernon, Calif.

Camilo Penalosa, vice president of business development for Infinite Herbs LLC, Miami, agreed, saying that more young adults are also starting to get into cooking with fresh herbs.

Jonathan Roussel, sales manager for Rock Garden South, Miami, which grows herbs in Mexico, Columbia, Peru, Guatemala, Palestine, Costa Rica and Florida, has seen a continued growth in demand for herbs. Last year, the company shipped out about 4 million pounds, and this year, Roussel said he expects a 20% increase in business.

The company's commitment to quality, customer service and food safety has boosted sales for this year, he said. In addition, more consumers are learning how to cook with fresh herbs by watching shows on the Food Network. Nowadays, he said it seems like everyone is cooking with herbs.

"There are millions of Web sites with recipes," he said. "The demand just keeps on growing."

Articles about herbs in the food sections of the local newspapers have also helped to boost the demand for herbs. Also, as consumers go out to eat at restaurants, they often try to make the same kind of meals at home, which is good for the herb category, Schueller said.

"If they have an enjoyable experience at a restaurant, they want to duplicate that experience," he said. "With the current economy, people are less apt to go out to eat and they instead cook at home, which is good for herbs."

Organic demand

As more consumers eat at home to save money, some are using fresh herbs in a variety of ways. For example, they're using mint to freshen up their salads or using chives in more recipes.

"Chives are a very delicate herb that doesn't hold very well," Penalosa said. "Now that it's doing much better post-harvest, the chive is looking good in the stores, and people are buying it more."

Another trend that some companies are seeing is an increased demand for organic herbs. Some retail chains demand 100% organic fresh herbs, said Walsh, whose company has been certified for organics since 1994. To meet this demand, the company plans to increase its organic herbs by 25%.

"Our organic product is growing each year, and we plan a significant increase for next season," he said.

The company has moved all of its organic and vegetable produce inside net and greenhouses. This has allowed the company to free up a lot of organic-certified land to increase organic herb production.

Infinite Herbs is producing a line of herbs in both conventional and organic. As prices go up, however, people are hesitant to move to organic due to the higher costs, Penalosa said.

"Organic in some market segments is demanded by consumers, but in other segments, it's the produce buyer who wants it not to lag behind other stores. It's not that his consumers demand it or really see a need for it."

Price point

Prices for both organic herbs and other herbs have increased, Penalosa said.

"Typically, the prices have increased (up) to 15%, depending upon the product and the origin," Penalosa said. "The farther they are from the U.S., the more the prices have gone up, due to freight (costs)."

However, Walsh said herb prices have stayed flat over the last few years.

"There are always some growers who can grow acres of herbs, pack them under a palm tree, and people will buy them," he said. "It's hard to compare those to growers like us, who are food-safety certified."