Close

Access flooding information on Disaster Resources.

February 1, 2015

Innovation & Sustainability Hallmarks of ‘Living Herbs’ Operation

Leo & Suzette Overgaag

North Shore Greenhouses Inc.

Thermal, CA

Member Since 1996

Background: Leo and Suzette Overgaag met at Hollandia Farms in Carpinteria where Leo worked at his father’s firm in the greenhouse flower business and Suzette first found employment as a teenager.  After several years went by, the duo became a couple and eventually married.  “We had decided we wanted to raise our family in the desert so we moved to this area and started our own farm,” said Suzette.

And thus began North Shore Greenhouses Inc. in 1987.

 

From Greenhouse Cukes to Living Herbs: Initially the family business featured greenhouse-grown European cucumbers.  Leo handled the growing end of the business while Suzette was in the office and handled the financial affairs.  “European cucumbers were a specialty crop then and they were a very good item for us for years,” Suzette said.

However, the popularity of the item moved it toward the commodity category with larger, Mexico-based farms achieving a competitive advantage.

To this day, North Shore still grows a few European cukes, but in the mid-1990s, it changed its product mix to greenhouse-grown living herbs.

“Becoming parents spurred on our health focus and got us cooking healthier meals,” Suzette said.  “That led to our experiencing the flavor superiority of herbs picked fresh from the garden.  We wanted to make that experience available — year round — to other everyday people — garden fresh flavor at your fingertips.  That’s where our focus on living herbs came from.”

Packed in a clamshell with roots intact, the North Shore Living Herbs were able to carve out a unique position in the marketplace.  “We started with seven varieties and have grown to 21.”  The firm also added a potted herb category over the years.

Basil is the number one seller, but mint, rosemary, thyme, dill and chives are not far behind.  There are many others that especially appeal to the “foodie” community.

 

Measured Growth: Suzette said the company did not experience difficult times during the recession, nor is it in boom times now that the economy has rebounded.  “We try to keep our growth very gradual,” she said, noting that this philosophy has allowed the firm to responsibly grow its business over the years.  “Some people consider us a luxury ingredient and we were happily surprised to see that growth in demand for our produce hasn’t been impacted by economic swings.  Due to the impact of trends on healthier eating over the last few years, we have seen interest remain good in our category.”

 

Responsibility & Sustainability: The very idea of beginning the company more than 25 years ago in an area where it could take advantage of geothermal conditions is de facto proof that sustainability has always been in the forefront of North Shore’s thinking.  But they didn’t call it that.

In recent years, with the sustainability concept gathering momentum, North Shore Greenhouses endeavored to achieve sustainability certification.  During the process, the firm discovered that with most of its ingrained practices, it was already well on its way to earning that distinction with few changes.  Besides the use of renewable geothermal power for energy, Leo’s many greenhouse growing innovations created a very efficient use of water, including the use of recycled water.

Suzette said it turns out that the company’s progressive practices with regard to pay, benefits and the care of its employees were also important factors in gaining sustainability certification.  While treatment of resources is important, so is the treatment of the worker.  In both cases North Shore received top marks.

The same company culture prevailed when North Shore sought Global Gap certification this year.  It scored 100 percent on the audit.

 

Grower Challenges: Suzette said greenhouse growers face many challenges but she can’t compare them to those faced by field growers as they don’t walk in each other’s shoes.  “It is very expensive and very challenging to operate a greenhouse,” she said, “but it’s completely different than field farming.  I don’t know their challenges.”

However, she said challenges with tax laws and government regulations are areas where probably all growers have issues.

 

Technology Rules the Greenhouse:  Maybe more than field agriculture, technology is a very important factor in greenhouse production.  Suzette said that just like computers, greenhouse technology is advancing all the time and it is important to keep up to date to be able to produce crops in an efficient manner.  The high cost of production—which is calculated on a per-square-foot basis—makes it imperative that the latest technological advances be incorporated.  Her husband and partner, Leo, takes care of the grower end of the business and is well-versed on those technologies.  Suffice it to say that producing crops under greenhouse conditions today is much different than it was when the firm was started 27 years ago.

 

The Western Growers Connection: In 1996 North Shore Greenhouses joined Western Growers to be a part of the grower community.  “We were aware of the services they provided to the industry and when we started our own company we thought it was important to have the resources that Western Growers provides.  Many different ones, with a focus on employment/labor/benefits, we utilize those services mostly.  I look forward to having the time to use their services more as our company continues to grow.”

The company has a year-round workforce, so it does not have the seasonal labor issues that plague others, but it still has to deal with a myriad of labor regulations.

 

A Family Affair:  As mentioned earlier, Leo’s father was a longtime greenhouse grower in the Carpinteria area, so it was with particular delight that the Overgaags welcomed their daughter, Brittney, into the family business this past year.  “That was very exciting when she came to work with us full time,” said Suzette.

Of course, Brittney and her two siblings grew up in the business and did whatever jobs were necessary, but it was very special when she joined the company full time.  Another daughter is a teacher who doesn’t appear to have the family business in her future.  “We want Brittney to explore other options as well but it’s great that she is working with us.  She graduated from University of Redlands and is currently doing some great graphic design work for us.”

In addition, the couple have a 17-year-old son who currently says he is going to run the business one day.  “He is not mechanically minded, but he has a good business sense and a good personality.  We’ll see.”