By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America
As Americans look to alternative medicine to ease their pain – both physical and financial – demand is increasing for Chinese medicinal herbs. The Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium is working to develop an American supply for more than 30,000 licensed U.S. practitioners. Among their partners are tobacco farmers who are looking for new crops.
“Our mission is to increase farmer income while providing the acupuncture and oriental medicine community with quality, effective herbs that are grown and processed with respect for the nature and the tradition of Chinese medicine,” says David Grimsley, director of consortium, which is housed at the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine in Floyd County, Va., (pop. 15, 500) The center sits up a hill, at the end of a gravel road in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
Grimsley and team are working to prove that ecologically grown, sustainable medicinal herbs can be grown profitably in central Appalachia. While the climate and geology promise a fresh, high-quality product, profit may be a challenge. Medicinal herbs from China — though they face unknown quality control in agricultural practices and processing AND may face lengthy times in storage and transit — are low-cost in the marketplace.
“We can grow and we can process, but will we be able to sell them? Will people pay for them? Is there a market for American, ecologically grown medicinal herbs,” asks Naomi Crews, herb production coordinator. “We’re learning where the price points are and whether they’re profitable for farmers.”
International politics could answer some of those questions. For example, says Grimsley, “It would not take much for there to be a domino-effect of trade embargoes, bringing Chinese herbalism to a screeching halt. By responsibly introducing these Chinese herbs to Appalachia, we are creating a medicine chest for our country that might prove someday to be what we have to rely upon if faced with international sanctions or antibacterial resistance, or an epidemic.”
Creating a potential medicine chest means being ready to launch quality production. “As medicinal herb growers, we are working to produce the best quality herb, which is not necessarily the same as aiming for the highest output,” says Crews.
Currently, the Center has 50 farmers with trial gardens. They receive appropriate seeds or seedlings and guidance for cultivation. Some plants, like Mentha haplocalyx, a Chinese field mint are prolific and ready almost immediately for harvest. Others, like Anemarrhena asphodeloides and Scutellaria baicalensis, take up to three years to develop. And then, their roots are the valuable component. These require new plantings each year to sustain the production.
For now, Crews cares for roughly five acres of hillside test gardens that grow 35 different herbs. Among them are Platycodon grandiflorus. This isn’t just any balloon flower but, the one valued by practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine.
Nearby, Chrysanthemum morifolium is grown for its delicate flowers that bloom in late fall.
Dedication to ecologically grown crops goes beyond unadulterated soil and chemical avoidance. The center gathers rainwater for irrigation, offers houses for pest-eaters like wrens and bluebirds, and keeps flowerbeds blooming for pollinators. Black snakes prevent a seed-thieving mouse explosion in the barn.
“We recognize that we exist in an ecological landscape,” says Crews.