The Business of Basil

SmartBasil Farms produces hydroponically grown basil

It’s an herb that’s easy to love.

“No, I don’t get sick of basil,” says Thomas Vandiver as he plucks a huge kelly green leaf from one of the flourishing plants in his greenhouse and takes a bite.

That’s a good thing. Because Vandiver, along with partners Eric Coble and John Stein, are in the business of basil—lots of it. Together they run SmartBasil Farms, LLC, which produces and supplies hydroponic herbs to restaurants, farmers’ markets and retailers in Coastal Virginia.

If you purchase a bunch of basil from Whole Foods Market in Virginia Beach this afternoon to use in the caprese salad you are preparing for dinner, or order the Margherita Pizza from Baker’s Crust in Norfolk tonight, there is a good chance that Vandiver, farm president of SmartBasil, cut the sweet herbs you are tasting at the Suffolk farm this morning.

“The customer is enjoying it at its peak of flavor,” says Vandiver of the couple hundred pounds of basil produced weekly in the two-bay, 5,000-square-foot greenhouse. “We really like to keep it local.”

They also like to keep it clean, green and sustainable. Growing their basil in a hydroponic greenhouse, where plants are nurtured using nutrient solutions, in water and without soil, allows them to avoid the pesticides and herbicides needed in outdoor farming. It also makes it possible for them to more carefully control their crop.

“I am able to offer a consistent product year-round,” says Vandiver, because he avoids environmental extremes, harsh winter weather, etc.

Still, SmartBasil yields twice as much product in the sunny summer months, and the three partners are currently preparing for the busiest season.

“It seems like it has all come together in the last month,” says Coble, farm controller, though the work began with construction in September 2012 and the first basil seeds planted in February 2013.

The SmartBasil concept started when Stein, farm CEO and owner of several local Baker’s Crust restaurants, created an entrepreneur internship program with the College of William and Mary. He opened The Crust Café in Tribe Square and employed some of the school’s Mason School of Business students. Vandiver, 
a student and Crust bartender, decided to 
team up with Stein on a sustainable business post-graduation.

After a great deal of research, they then concluded, along with Coble, that hydroponic basil, particularly the Genovese variety, was definitely the way to grow.

“This type [Genovese] is a more delicate plant, but it offers a better flavor that people prefer,” says Vandiver. “It’s a premium brand.”

And their list of clients continues to expand; Sysco, Dave and Dee’s, grocery stores and several restaurants—Pacifica, Taste Unlimited, Baker’s Crust, Terrapin—all distribute or use their Genovese leaves.

They also distribute some greens—kale, mesclun greens, arugula, etc.—to produce home delivery services Dominion Harvest and The Farm Table, and grow a fair amount of microgreens.

“There is no other place locally to source microgreens,” says Vandiver. “They have a stronger aroma and flavor, so chefs like to use them to sneak in an intense flavor punch with just a few greens.”

Vandiver creates SmartBasil’s microgreens, including microbasil, using the same seed stock as his full-grown basil but more densely packing the plants and cutting them at a younger age. This process produces an herb with four to six times the nutritional intensity.

Overall, though, the company’s plans include sticking to “everyone’s favorite herb” as its primary product. Stein says basil is a high-margin crop, but 75 percent of it is imported, which makes SmartBasil stand out.

“I like the sustainable aspect best—we 
are reducing the carbon footprint in the world,” he says. “The approach is to get 
back to basics. It’s so much more pure. 
We are investing in America.”

“We can’t continue to grow the way we have been growing,” adds Vandiver. “We can’t feed cities the way we have been doing it. It’s food security within the community. We like to keep it in America.”

And SmartBasil will meet the demand for an American-grown herb by adding a third bay to its greenhouse in the next few months.  

“It is a popular product with a consistent demand,” says Vandiver. “Everyone loves basil.”

For more info on SmartBasil Farms, LLC  follow them on Facebook or call 630-945-8478.

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