Cultivating Local, Organic Medicinal Herbs
by Daniel McQuillen
On a sunny day in late August, the Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm is a picture of calm. Here on a 10 acre plot of land in Petaluma, California, rows of lush Dan Shen are just going to seed while green fragrant shrubs scent the wind as it blows towards Sonoma Valley. Chinese, Ayurvedic and other Asian medicinal herbs are growing in loosely cultivated rows and flourishing under the strong sun. The blue sky, soaring hawks and golden hills mix into that heady brew that makes visitors reconsider their occupation
Together, Schafer and Fannin are working to bring organic, locally grown medicinal herbs to the Oriental Medicine community in the Unites States. After starting her farm in 1997 with just a few herbs, Schafer now contract grows more than 40 different varieties (while keeping several hundred in the farm's collection). These herbs are processes into tinctures and other products through Fu Tian Herbs.
For Schafer and Fannin, however, the reasons for farming and selling medicinal herbs go much deeper than a desire to make a profession out of personal interest. Schafer continually emphasizes that growing medicinal herbs in an sustainable manner is a healing endeavor not just for the intended users but for the plants and the environment as a whole. "Over-harvesting of medicinal herbs in China and increasing use worldwide are bringing things to a crisis. We will not have enough herbs for the world," she emphasizes. "Many of the herbs in China are harvested in the wild and are not cultivated. So if we want to use these herbs worldwide we're going to have to start cultivating them."
And there's a lot of work to be done. A whole superstructure of support has to be created to link herb farmers to buyers, processors, practitioners and finally end-users. Focusing on the OM community, Fannin is working to build connections between growers like Schafer and practitioners throughout the U.S. "The relationship between herb growers and practitioners is starting to change. Our idea is to have a joining together of the grower, the practitioner and the patient, so everybody is working together along the same lines, which is of course toward the individual's health, but also the health of the community and the health of the planet as a whole."
Cultivating "Wild-Quality" Herbs
It all begins with the herbs. Schafer is sitting down just long enough to share a short lunch with her interns, and in explaining the process of growing herbs she repeats the terms "cultivating wild-quality" and "farming with the wild" like a mantras. The terms, she says, describe the method of recreating natural, semi-wild conditions for cultivated plants. Primarily, this means growing herbs that are not "pushed," or grown with a lot of fertilizer. This yields smaller plants but, according to Schafer, higher concentrations and diversity of active medicinal components.
The technique also means not growing herbs too lushly or deflowering plants in order to artificially increase root size. The grower allows natural pressures, even if those pressures mean insect pests and hungry herbivores. "I even let deer browse on some herbs, as long as they don't take all of it!" Schafer laughs. All of this helps create herbs that are closer to what is found in the wild.
Farming with the wild is a natural -- almost unavoidable -- approach if the end goal is superior herbs, adds Fannin. "We look at health within in the body and it's always about living in accordance with nature: having the right movements and the right nourishments. We are a microcosm of what is in nature," he stresses. Therefore, if the herbs are cultivated in accordance with nature they should have good Qi and good taste, the traditional indicators of the function and quality of the Chinese medicinal herb. "And they do," he concludes
Connecting to Oriental Medicine Students
While Schafer is answering a visitor's questions, the group of interns are joking and sifting the Dan Shen seeds pulled from dried stalks. Whenever she makes an emphatic point, however, they stop and listen to glean another small piece of knowledge. For OM students, working with living plants and the people who grow them adds an entirely new level to their appreciation of medicinal herbs
For those students who don't have access to an herb farm, Schafer offers a few tips. First, get the book Herbal Emissaries by Steven Foster and Yue Chongxi. Then, pick an herb of personal interest and find out the requirements for growing it. "There is a Chinese herb for every location: wet, dry, high elevation, and so on." There are vines, trees, succulents, garden-worthy perennials and even incredibly ugly plants to choose from. Finally, start small and grow from there.
A Small but Growing Community
Learning how to reliably grow medicinal herbs naturally and organically has been the biggest challenge of Schafer's endeavor: there are few experts and fewer books, even from sources in China. "I do a lot of thinking outside the box, " she says. "For example, there's nothing written about harvest methods and processing for many of these herbs. So, I experiment, run trials, grow something out, then I talk with my connections: researchers, botanists, herbalists from china, older farmers from china. Finally, I look closely at the finished product." After a decade of farming, experimenting, networking, researching and educating, Peggy says "I'm still very much a pioneer."
It's tough work, but it's not as lonely as it once might have been. Over 90 farms across the U.S. have joined together into a group called the Medicinal Herb Consortium (MHC), a nonprofit consortium that helps U.S. medicinal herb growers by facilitating market demand and building connections with practitioners.
Herb farm owner Jean Giblette serves as the MHC's coordinator while running High Falls Gardens in Philmont, NY. In a recent telephone interview, she explained how the consortium is trying to organize growers and markets so that a complete system can sprout, grow and flourish. Like farming herbs, it's not an easy task: "We're in a catch 22 because farmers are waiting to see whether we can prove there is a market," explains Giblette. "Yet we can't prove there's a market without product."
This is why Giblette and others formed the MHC: to get information to the farmers, assess the results of their efforts, and offer contracts with guaranteed prices. A farmer that wants to grow Jie Geng may know a lot about bellflower plants, but is her farm the right place to grow Platycodon grandiflorum to produce medicinally effective Jie Geng? Ultimately, Oriental Medicine practitioners are the best judge of the quality of the final product. The MHC connects that practitioner knowledge back to the farmers. "So the farmer grows a little Jie Geng, gets the nod and the contract, then grows a lot more with less risk," she explains. "The farmers and the practitioners have to go through a process together to get what they want. We're beginning that process right now." (The group has just launched a website at www.localherbs.org.)
The MHC is working to help herb farmers like Schafer -- who co-founded the group with Giblette -- organize, collaborate and exchange information and techniques. But in the end there is still a big requirement of ingenuity and a trust in nature. "How do I know what to do?" asks Schafer. "Nature is guiding me. It makes me feel good about what I do."
(Daniel McQuillen is an interactive programmer, part-time journalist, and aspiriing medicinal herb grower. He lives in Santa Cruz, CA.)