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US (NY): Pleasant Valley herb company has big impact

The headquarters for Rockhedge Herb Farms sit inconspicuously off Route 82 in the town.

Though the company distributes to just under 500 supermarket stores on the East Coast and sources from over 50 farms in the United States, and eight around the world, according to its owner, John Alva, one might not discern that driving through Dutchess County.

The Dutchess County Economic Development Corporation awarded Rockhedge its Business Excellence Award in agriculture this year, according to the non-profit organization that works to help develop business and jobs in the county.

"They're the classic growth story for Dutchess County. When they bought this firm they had only six employees; now they have 57. That's what economic development is all about," said Betsy Brown, who chairs the awards. "They expanded the business, so now they do a year-round supply of herbs, and ship all over the Northeast."

When Alva took over the company in 2009 it sold about 2,000 pounds of herbs a week; now it can sell over 20,000 pounds of basil alone and 15,000 pounds of other herb, she said.

That equals 560,000 portions — plastic containers at the supermarket — a week, plus smaller orders of edible flowers that chefs sometimes use for garnish, Alva said.

On a recent afternoon, in the company's office, a second-floor room above the main processing facility smells of fresh basil as strongly as if one crushed fresh leaves and held them close to their face, administrative assistant Darlyne Sarubbi could be heard taking orders over the phone for Thai basil and chives.

Below, on the first floor, where every fresh herb the company sells — wherever its source — is hand-processed and hand-packaged, before it's sent to secondary vendors who distribute the product, often under other brand names to retail stores or restaurants, 24 employees and two supervisors were working.

All wearing hair nets, about two-thirds of the workers sorted basil plants, picking out anything remotely damaged, and stacked bundles of the choice herbs on digital scales. At another table, 24 workers took the ends off fresh chive plants to prepare them for packaging.

"We sell to people who sell to your local produce distributors," Alva said.

He took a basil leaf from the large reject pile and showed a small spot on part of the leaf. "Compost pile," he said.

Before buying Rockhedge, Alva was a packaging engineer and owned a golf course and sports dome in New Windsor, Orange County. The trucks that deliver Rockhedge's products he designed to have different temperature compartments, as required by the different herbs, he said.

"They (the buyers) get it in good shape," he said.

The processing room is staffed seven days a week, by two shifts that alternate days on and off. They close on Christmas Day, he said.

"We're back open Christmas night,"

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