FAQs – Chinese Medicinal Herb Farming

Q: I have 14 acres and would like to grow Chinese medicinal herbs. What herbs should I grow?

Do you want to grow to satisfy your curiosity, or for commercial production? If for production, what is your market? These are important questions to answer before you begin.

At present, we have insufficient organizational capacity to give advice to individual farmers outside our defined geographic area. The start-up time for domestic production is estimated at ten years. Most of the plants take 2-5 years (or more) to get established in ecological, perennial polyculture settings, a form of agriculture new to most US farmers. We use a specific model of ecological production that is quite different from commodity production. Our model has more in common with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) than with raw materials sourcing for manufactured herbal products.

Q: What is the market for Chinese medicinal herbs?

Our market, the licensed practitioners of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (A&OM) in the US (currently numbering over 30,000), is waiting enthusiastically for fresh, locally sourced, ecologically grown herbs. Licensed practitioners help direct our organizations and hundreds of them contribute money to help support our work. They take the lead in monitoring the quality of the products. They expect to combine the domestic herbs with imported herbs to make traditional formulas, thus supporting the health and well-being of their patients.

Q: Why should I join a group to grow Chinese herbs?

Chinese herbal medicine is different from other forms of herbal medicine. Its effectiveness depends on the formula-herbal combinations-not individual herbs. This means that production must be accomplished by groups of farmers who work together to grow many different kinds of herbs, and to present them to the A&OM practitioner market in a coordinated manner. Further, the groups must ensure that the herbs are grown from correctly sourced seed and starts, sited in appropriate ecological niches on farms, harvested and processed using traditional methods. The products are approved by experienced practitioners before they are sold.

The benefit of being part of a group like the Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium allows farmers to do what they do best: farm! We have created a central hub for our growers to bring their freshly harvested herbs. The hub has the facility, processing equipment, and drying capabilities that would be the financially and physically limiting factor for most growers. The hub, located at the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine in Floyd , Virginia, then inspects, processes, packages, markets, and sells the final product under the Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium. The farmer gets paid a percentage of the herb sale.

Q: Is growing Chinese medicinal herbs this complicated?

Yes, another reason for group work is that the learning curve is very steep. Our organizations provide expert, careful consultation with our farmers upfront, to determine which of 50-75 crops they might choose to fit into ecological niches available on their farm. Few people in this country, at this time, are familiar with this entire set of plant species. Almost none of these crops (as medicinals) have been subject to production research by the US Agricultural Research Service, so we must work out production costs on our own. We have recruited entrepreneurial farmers who are willing to experiment and share their results, and meanwhile are earning income by diversifying their farm enterprises.

Q: Has it taken a long time for you to reach this point?

Yes. We have been preparing for the development of this new industry for over 20 years, consistent with the growth of the profession of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (A&OM) in the US. Although the imported herbs used by A&OM practitioners are carefully sourced in China by experienced and knowledgeable people, rising worldwide demand for the medicine indicates that production must become more widely distributed to sustain access, efficacy and safety of the herbs.

The Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium was created in 2014 and is using compiled sources that extend several thousands of years’ herbal knowledge. The herb gardens at the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine were established in 2006 to provide herbs for in-house use. This has allowed for many years of careful observation and experimentation with herbs that should grow well in the Appalachian region.

Q: Are some of these plants invasive?

The potential for expansive or dispersive behavior of these plant species is well known from the horticultural literature and various databases. Thanks to our established gardens at BRCCM, we have been able to experiment with potentially invasive plants and removed herbs from our growers’ list that expressed invasive tendencies. The big invaders like kudzu and Japanese knotweed were introduced many decades ago. A plant may be invasive in one biome and well-behaved in another. For example, it’s illegal to bring Isatis indigotica seed into California, the plant is considered invasive throughout the West.  But in the Northeast it’s just another brassica and easy to work with.  From a farmer’s point of view, naturalization is desirable. A tendency to expansion or dispersion can be helpful, it’s a matter of degree. No farmer wants to introduce a pest into their operation, and all plants are handled cautiously. See this database for more information: http://www.invasive.org.

Q: Are your farms organic?

Some of our farms are certified USDA organic, natural or biodynamic, but not all. We adhere to standards of ecological production, which are beyond the organic requirements and include fitting the crop into a micro-niche that resembles its origin in the wild. Wild-cultivation of ginseng is an example of this standard: no tillage of the soil, no inputs whatsoever, no monocultures. If the crop won’t grow, it doesn’t belong there. Perennial polyculture is different from annual vegetable cropping. Fertilization is not needed, and may even be undesirable because it results in a less potent product.

Q: Are your medicinal plant growers supporting the preservation of forests through wild-tending/forest growing?

Yes! We say “restoration” rather than preservation. Preservation means keeping it the same.  Restoration means enhancing biodiversity to make the woodland more resilient in the face of climate change. For example, on some of the New York farms sugar maple is the key species. But USGS scientists forecast it will be gone from this area by the end of this century. So we need to plant new species now and strive to achieve a new compatibility and balance. By the way, Pennsylvania Certified Organic is now running a forest-grown certification, and a farmer does not have to be certified organic to qualify for it: www.paorganic.org/forestgrown

Q: What is the relationship between the New York and Virginia farmers?

High Falls Gardens (HFG) is a Hudson Valley farm operated since 1993 by Jean Giblette, who is not a practitioner (clinician) but holds two certificates in Chinese herbal medicine from Dr. Jeffrey C. Yuen. Various research projects related to Chinese medicinal herbs were carried out or managed from that location. In 2000 a fund created at a local community foundation enabled Jean and colleagues to accept foundation grants. Its successor, High Falls Foundation (HFF), became incorporated as a 501(c)3 charitable organization in 2008 by Jean and two A&OM practitioners.

HFF ran a one-week intensive farm internship for A&OM graduate students from 2005 to 2011. Several “movers and shakers” came out of that program and one of them, Jason Redinbo, went to southern Virginia and founded the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine (BRCCM), a 501(c)3 charitable organization, in 2006. He started a garden right away using seeds from Jean. Although Jason has moved on, BRCCM is now a partner with HFF and, together, we are collaborating as the Eastern Forest Chinese Herbal Medicine Consortium. BRCCM will have 50 farmers in 2016; they secured funding for their growers’ program beginning in 2013. HFF received funding for their growers’ program in April of 2015 and has formed a core group of 30 farmers spread across New York State.

Q: We are a nonprofit that helps farmers in our state find new crops. What is the potential for collaboration with you?

We formed the Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium in the hope of adding new groups in the future, sharing technical assistance materials, helping them to avoid redundancy, and furthering our coordinated approach to the market. However, our production model also requires leadership from the profession of A&OM. Can your organization muster substantial support and involvement from the A&OM profession in your state or region? Do you have enough capacity in terms of staff and funding to really work with farmers, not just to provide information, but to track and monitor the crops over a several-year period? If you meet all these requirements, collaboration is indeed possible. However, our organization does not have the funding to provide to interested groups at this time. We invite collaboration opportunities. If you have an idea, please contact us!

Q: Why do nonprofits manage these groups?

We have yet to meet a venture capitalist who is slow enough for perennial polyculture!  Given the ten-year startup period, and the difficulty in obtaining financing for any new enterprise under current economic conditions, we need charitable contributions and grants to undertake this work. We need to manage groups of farmers to grow the necessary variety of crops and bring them to market simultaneously. Should a broker or distributor assemble products from different farms to offer that list?  No, it would add to the price, which is already higher than the import price. Farmers are well aware that direct marketing recoups the most profit, and they also have learned that they can collectively own the distributor, this is essentially an agricultural cooperative with a manager. However, cooperatives have a hard time capitalizing themselves (making enough margin to pay a manager), so at the beginning we subsidize that process with nonprofit donations which serve the public well-being.

If you have further questions regarding farming Chinese medicinal herbs, please send your inquiry to info@appalachianherbgrowers.com