Wednesday, July 21, 1999

Preserving herbs for medicinal use

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As farms go, the 70 acres Tim Blakley calls home is not the kind of land that would make a farmer drool.

        “It's pathetic,” he says. The Meigs County clay has been periodically cattle-grazed, planted in corn, logged and ignored over the last 100 years. “I don't even call it soil.”

        Fortunately, the fields are not the attraction of this remote part of southeastern Ohio. The trees are. The maples, elms, tulip poplars, sycamores and paw paws provide cool, protective shade and rich humus for precious plants that grow underneath.

        Mr. Blakley is heading one of the country's only non-profit herbal preserves to grow “at risk” medicinal plants — varieties that are considered difficult to cultivate or are already over picked. He wants to make sure that these herbs, rising in popularity on the the nation's drugstore shelves, remain organic, healthy, researched and plentiful.

        “I consider this my last big conservation project,” says Mr. Blakley, who has studied, taught about, raised and written about herbs since the 1970s in California, Iowa and now Ohio. In that time, the herbal market has grown from about $20 million in 1975 to an estimated $3 billion-$5 billion in 1999, according to the newsletter “Consumer Reports on Health.” It continues to grow at an estimated 20 percent a year.

Herb preservationists
        Two years ago, one of the nation's largest herb companies bought this land and lured Mr. Blakley, who is in his 40s, and his wife of 10 years, Heather McNeill, here to run the non-profit National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs.

  The National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs is focusing on special herbs that are considered “critical to cultivate.” This means the plants are at risk of over harvesting in the wild or need special attention through growing, research and cultivation to remain viable. Among them:
  • Goldenseal
  • American ginseng
  • Black cohosh and blue cohosh
  • Slippery elm
  • Partridge berry
  • Bloodroot
  • Wild yam
  • False unicorn root
  • Yerba mansa
  • Stoneroot
  • Gold thread
  • Echinacea
        Frontier Natural Products Co-Op, based in Norway, Iowa, hopes the research on this land will be pioneering work, leading other growers to find practical ways to supplement their incomes, save family farms, find substitutes for tobacco, explore new crops and find the best ways to grow herbs for profit.

        “This is an ideal property for doing what we're doing,” Mr. Blakley says, hiking into one of the hollows where colored flags on wire stakes identify raised growing beds. Goldenseal, ginseng, blue cohosh, black cohosh, stone root, wild yam and other plants are carefully marked. “The herbs that we're focusing on the most are the shade-loving varieties.”

        The focus is on 25-30 “at risk” varieties. These plants are hard to raise and are over picked in the wild by so-called “wild crafters,” who scour the land in search of herbs. They have been labeled at risk because future supplies are jeopardized or compromised.

        According to a 1998 assessment by the Smithsonian, World Wildlife Fund and other groups, up to 30 percent of the plants in the U.S. are in danger of extinction, including perhaps 25 species of herbs.

        The basic problem: supply and demand.

        “The problem with that is that we've gone from begging people in the '70s to use herbs to begging them in the 1990s not to use too many,” Mr. Blakley says. “We're over harvesting the supply, and the business is getting so big that we can't sustain the herbs being harvested in the wild.”

Farm is budding
        Frontier bought the farm in 1997 and is still building it. The company spent about $200,000-$250,000 preparing and launching the center.

  • What: The National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs.
• Where: 68-acre wooded farm on the Appalachian plateau in southeastern Ohio near Rutland, Meigs County.
• Who: Created in 1997 by Frontier Natural Products Co-op, based in Norway, Iowa. The non-profit center works with conservation and herb groups, volunteer organizations and universities to study, cultivate and conserve native herbs.
• Annual membership: $25 (newsletter); $50 (plus T-shirt and e-mail consultation) or $100 (plus copy of $25-value book Medicinal Herbs in the Garden, Field and Marketplace written by center manager Tim Blakley). All visitors/members must call ahead for reservations, tours or visits.
• Information:
        Cattle fences are gone. An irrigation pond has been built, and another is planned for later this summer. Irrigation pipes are in place, and underbrush has given way to several hundred growing beds now scattered throughout the wooded slopes.

        The home was renovated to include a greenhouse and extra rooms for overnight guests and classes. About 30 apprentices spend several weeks here each spring and fall, helping with the arduous planting and caretaking tasks. They are volunteers from the U.S., Canada and Europe.

        The proximity of the Lloyd Library in downtown Cincinnati, one of the best known botanical libraries in the world, is one reason Frontier chose an Ohio farm for its test plot.

        And Frontier has plenty of support from the Meigs County Extension Office of Ohio State University to cultivate new agricultural business here, one of the poorest areas in Ohio.

        “This area is where a lot of herbs originally were found 150-200 years ago, so we have a rich history of herbs,” says Harold Kneen, Meigs County agricultural and natural resources agent. “A lot of Appalachian families have used goldenseal, ginseng and medicinal plants through the generations or have wild-crafted natural herbs.”

        Unfortunately, many of the native varieties are gone. Plants like ginseng and goldenseal are valued because of their roots, for example, but once the tap roots are pulled out of the ground, the plant dies and can't regenerate.

        “One of the reasons I joined the extension in 1990 was to find alternatives to tobacco farming in Adams, Brown and Highland counties,” Mr. Kneen says. “And we're hoping herbs can be a source of supplemental income to Meigs County farmers who are looking to keep their old homesteads or keep the farms within the family.”

Research is investment
        That's certainly one of Mr. Blakley's goals, even if it takes a while for the research to pay off.

        “We could easily spend 20-30 years and not finish all the research on the herbs we're working with now,” he says.

        In the growing beds, he's testing and comparing the various factors that influence herb cultivation and harvest success — soil type, sun-shade requirements, fertilizers, the best way to divide roots for harvest or replanting, costs and per-acre yield, tilling methods, water requirements, nutrients and more.

        Mr. Blakley, who serves as Frontier's educator, also wants to study the purity and hardiness of native plants. That's why these herbs will not be sold commercially unless, in the future, the center is able to provide transplantable stock to growers.

        Goldenseal roots, for example, must grow at least three or four years before they are ready for harvest. Once mature, an acre of goldenseal can bring in up to $50,000 for a grower, he estimates. That's far higher than the price Appalachian farmers can expect for forested acres that are harvested only every 40-50 years.

        “I see Southern Ohio as an area ripe for growing herbs. The problem is that if Ohio doesn't get on this bandwagon pretty soon, some other area of the country will, and the opportunity will be lost,” he says.

Endemic poaching
        Because of the income potential from rare or endangered herbs, security is always a problem, even for people who aren't full-time growers.

        “You think of wild-crafting as this ideal thing — being out in the woods, picking wild herbs that Mother Nature provides,” he explains. “In reality, a lot of the wild-crafting is done along roadbeds and in drainage ditches, where there can be a lot of pollutants and runoff.

        “And wild crafters will pick anywhere — on public lands, on private land, in national parks. On private lands, we call that poaching, and it's endemic in the United States.”

        Frontier picked the remote area because it is off the beaten path — a rarely traveled gravel road, to be exact. Frontier wants to make sure there's always organic stock for cultivation and to make sure the demand for herbs in the United States and Europe doesn't sap the supply.

        “There's virtually no research being done in the United States. Many of the herb companies are not supporting the environmental aspect of herbals,” Mr. Blakley says. “Herbs come from somewhere, and the companies that are profiting from herbs need to support that somewhere.”

        Ultimately, Mr. Blakley hopes the center will be a rich source of plants and information — with research findings, growing tips and advice available in published papers and on the Internet.

        “The government will never save these plants, not in the numbers we need them to be saved. “The farms providing medical herbs were jut a handful a few years ago, and I consider it essential that we have more growers. The only way we're going to save these plants it to cultivate them.”


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