Growing Chinese herbs organically in the US

Hu zhang photo Sally Rappeport

Hu zhang photo Sally Rappeport

Guest Post by Sally Rappeport

More frequently than ever before our patients express concerns about pesticides in the herbs we sell to them. As practitioners we need to both educate ourselves and support various efforts that counteract these concerns. In China, regulations are slowly emerging but perhaps not as quickly or as effectively as we might prefer.

In the US, there are several farming endeavors that are being established around this country that are expanding the scope of possibility for us to choose where we source our herbs.

More needs to happen, but as a practitioner who has been aware of these issues for 10 years, it is notable to see how much is in the ground at this time. Most significantly, these efforts will not be able to continue growing without our demand for the final products – the herbs.

Harvesting Huang Bai Photo Jean Giblette

Harvesting Huang Bai Photo Jean Giblette

Multiple issues are involved in growing Chinese herbs “locally”. We know that different herbs grow well in different types of soil, climate, and geography. The processing of the herbs is crucial to how we use them; and the medicinal properties can change depending on multiple factors. In addition, evaluation of the medicinal properties comes into question. There are a few experts in this country who have been figuring out ways to address these topics during the last decade (and longer). These include Jean Giblette at High Falls Gardens and Peg Schaeffer in California, author of The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herbs who together formed http://localherbs.org . There you can find a list of Chinese herbs that grow in North America and farmers can find information on how to begin cultivation.

 Why local herbs? Local has become a catchword for the “locavore” food movement that I support in its intentions since there are such positive effects in having better access to quality food. Living in a metropolitan area, the neighborhood food coop considers local within 500 miles of NYC. For most of us practicing in the US, local herbs will not necessarily be grown that close, but it will be far nearer than imports from China. More importantly, local is referential to the farmers. Agribusiness is not going to be interested in the small scale nature of our market. However, independent farmers and family farms are looking for markets that are outside of the realm of agribusiness and they are developing more and more interest . This potential market can only develop if the practitioners create a demand for it. That’s us!

Gua Lou Photo by Sally Rapport

Gua Lou Photo by Sally Rapport

In California near Peggy’s farm in Sonoma County, there is an herb exchange for practitioners and farmers  but in most of the country, this is not an option yet. However, featured in the High Falls Garden 2014 Autumn newsletter are two projects located in southern Virginia and Chicago which were spearheaded by local practitioners in direct contact with farmers. There is also another farm project in Nevada that has been supported by Peggy Shaeffer. In Virginia 9 farms planted herbs in 2014 as part of the Appalachian Medicinal Herb Farmers Consortium with 20 other farms hoping to join. In Chicago, Inner Ecology, an herbal formulary, has co-sponsored winter workshops for farmers interested in growing Chinese herbs.

Harvesting mu dan pi Photo Jean Giblette

Harvesting mu dan pi Photo Jean Giblette

In addition, several Seattle area practitioners have helped to develop the Northwest Asian Medicinal Herb Network. A workshop for pda credit for clinicians on Descriptive Sensory Analysis and Organoleptic Evaluation occurred in April 2014. What’s that you may ask??? Well, for us, concern about evaluation of medicinal efficacy for plant material grown outside of China is one of the major issues of domestic herb production. The conventional ways of evaluating medicinals involve checking for pesticides and heavy metals as well as biochemical analysis. These methods are important, but we are also aware of their limitations. We know that since the Shen Nong Ben Cao, Chinese herbs have been evaluated through the senses: taste, smell, touch and sight. For most of us, our skills at organoleptics and descriptive sensory evaluation are far less developed than in ancient times because we seldom need to rely on them. With the potential growth of local herb harvests, we will need to develop our abilities to evaluate herbs – in terms of their quality as well as their temperatures and tastes.

Harvesting wu wei zi (Sally and Jean) photo Regina Serkin

Harvesting wu wei zi (Sally and Jean) photo Regina Serkin

Besides developing our organoleptic skills and building relationships with farmers, I think another way of supporting the growth of Chinese herbs in the US is by encouraging the herb distributors that we currently buy our stock from to invest in this movement. Perhaps initially we can ask them to support conferences and workshops that we become involved in. And lastly, we must financially support the endeavors of those advocating for us like High Falls Gardens. Without our (tax-deductible) contributions, they can’t show that Chinese herb practitioners are behind them when they apply for grants from foundations, government,etc..

 

Zhi mu Photo Jean Giblette

Zhi mu Photo Jean Giblette

Sally Rappeport is an alumnus of Sharon’s Graduate Mentorship Program and adores studying classical Chinese medicine. Her clinic is in Park Slope in Brooklyn, NY.   In 2006-07 she interned with Jean GIblette at High Falls Gardens and witnessed the cultivation of Chinese herbs through the seasons from germinating seeds to gathering the harvest. Since then she has tilled a small patch of land behind her Crown Heights brownstone.

 

This entry was posted in Individual Herbs. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Growing Chinese herbs organically in the US

  1. This is a fabulous post. One institution here in Melbourne, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, had a similar project for a while with four or five local farmers participating, but Institute administration changed and the project was cut from funding. As Peg points out in her book, growing herbs is no way to get rich, but (as I mention in an editorial in The Lantern) any change in circumstance could see local production become absolutely crucial. “Change in circumstance” such as any war or other occurrence that cuts shipping lines from China.

  2. Sheila G says:

    Check out the WVTF Public Radio program done by Robbie Harris on the Appalachian Medicinal Herb Growers Consortium at the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine in Floyd, VA.
    part 1 – http://wvtf.org/post/chinese-herbs-growing-virginia

    part 2 – http://wvtf.org/post/appalachian-medicinal-herb-growers

  3. I agree with Steven. This movement for locally grown, organic herbs is a must at this point in the evolution of Chinese medicine. Michael Broffman’s organization, Pine Street Foundation is about to publish a study on levels of pesticides in imported Chinese herbs, and the data isn’t pretty, I hear. As a side note, I will be leading a Chinese herb expedition (we found over thirty growing wild last time) in the mountains of Northern New Mexico this summer, one last time…1/2 day of studying Su Wen and Ben Cao literature, 1/2 of wildcrafting, with visits to local hot springs.

  4. I’m so happy to see this post, but also know first hand the obstacles involved to create a viable CM herb farm in the US. As an acupuncture student, I lived on an estate in Napa where my partner managed a farm. In my last year of school, she grew close to a dozen Chinese medicinal herbs. Peg became a mentor, and we sold the herbs to the Sonoma Herb Exchange and my peers and teachers in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco.

    Had a serious health issue not cut my partner’s farming career short, we would most likely be living somewhere in Tennessee (cheap land) making a go of growing Chinese medicinal herbs on a large scale.

    The education was incredible and the experience thrilling. I miss it everyday. However, it was never a business that we expected to make a living from. Break even, yes, but realistically my clinic income would support us. Many of the CM herbs we use are time intensive for the farmer: years in the ground (i.e. most roots), some invasive (Jin Yin Hua), delicate and difficult to harvest quickly (any seed crop), and require a lot of care and infrastructure to store (Mai men dong, Ju Hua). There is also the issue of real estate: setting aside 1+ acre of land to grow a 2-5 year crop means that the farmer is losing money for years. Does she own her land and equipment? Does she have enough land to rotate crops? Does she have enough space to store herbs properly? How else is she supporting the farm?

    Rather than thinking small, we need to think big in order to help create a sustainable and viable alternative to buying herbs from China. Large farms run efficiently can support a farmer and can cut costs in a way a small farm is not able too. How many pounds of herbs do you go through in 6 months? Multiply that by 1000.

    I like the idea of compelling herb companies to invest. Hopefully the Pine Street Foundation study (more than the Green Peace study) will be the fodder needed to compel practitioners to take action.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *