The verdant mountains and forests of the Appalachian region in southwestern Virginia may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking about sourcing herbs for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). However, the terrain and climate of Appalachia are similar to some of the primary herb-growing areas of China, and the region is well-suited for cultivating medicinal herbs used in TCM.1 Thanks to the efforts of a group of herbalists, growers, and practitioners, Appalachia has now become renowned for producing raw herbal materials to address the growing demand for high-quality Chinese herbs as TCM continues to gain popularity in North America.2
The Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium (AHGC) was established in 2014 and now represents 50 small farmers in southwestern Virginia who are using ecologically sustainable practices to grow Chinese medicinal herbs. The consortium’s mission is to bolster farmers’ incomes and crop diversity; provide high-quality, effective herbs for practitioners of acupuncture and TCM; and grow and process herbs with respect for nature and the traditions of TCM.3
The consortium began as a way to support the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine, a community health facility established in 2006 in the town of Pilot, Virginia, an open-minded community with a strong alternative culture harkening back to the 1970s and 80s. Practitioners at the center offer a range of services from acupuncture to massage and provide a variety of classes and workshops for the public.4
The Blue Ridge Center was founded to provide a new type of health care for the rural community, according to Nile Bachmann, LAc, MSOM, a clinical supervisor and practitioner at the center, who provides input on herb quality and efficacy for the consortium (oral communication, October 12, 2017). People in the area are surprisingly receptive to TCM, he noted. “We have a lot of pain conditions here, and Chinese medicine uses herbal medicine to address those conditions.”
The center has been well-received by locals, but the biggest obstacle has been to make the treatments accessible and affordable. “This is a wonderful place to live, but it’s hard to make a living here,” said Naomi Crews, an herb production coordinator at AHGC (oral communication, October 12, 2017). “Our hope is that by increasing the quality of life and economic opportunities, it will help make the Blue Ridge Center accessible and give the community resources to seek out these services.”
The AHGC was created in part to support Blue Ridge Center practitioners who wanted to grow herbs for use in a clinical setting, Bachmann recalled. They began by growing herbs at the center’s garden, but as they realized the potential of the local climate and growing conditions, the production of Chinese herbs on a bigger scale was an obvious next step. With expanding interest in herbal and Chinese medicine, establishing a homegrown source of raw materials and adding to the domestic production of some of the more obscure and difficult-to-obtain herbs were additional benefits.
“The quality of the herbs we were getting was also at the back of our minds,” Bachmann said. “[Suppliers in China] are not always very transparent about what they send, and we don’t necessarily get China’s best product. They keep that for themselves. Herbs also go through natural degradation when shipped, so we wanted to address that as well.”
To get the consortium off the ground, seed was obtained from reputable sources including the Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm in Petaluma, California, and High Falls Gardens in Philmont, New York, the latter of which is part of the Eastern Forest Chinese Herbal Medicine Consortium, which became an early partner of the AHGC.
Getting farmers on board to grow herbs for the consortium has been a tough sell. There was substantial interest, Crews noted, “but the nature of this is different for most farmers here. It is perennial agriculture.” Many farmers were unfamiliar with this model, and they needed faster returns on their investments. In some cases, farmers may have to wait several years to harvest and see a profit. “It has taken a while to court them and help them learn to cultivate the plants without taking too much of a financial risk,” Crews said.
AHGC members come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from home gardeners to wholesale vegetable producers. To become a member, growers need to have some experience in agriculture (three to five years is preferred), but they don’t have to have specific experience with Chinese medicine or herbs, explained Adam Fisher, an herb production coordinator for the AHGC (oral communication, October 12, 2017).
All growers are required to practice ecologically sound growing methods, which, at a minimum, means they need to avoid use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Growers do not need to have organic certification, but they do need to follow Good Agricultural Practices as established by the United States Department of Agriculture.5
Beyond that, the consortium farmers also practice perennial polyculture, which is a specific cultivation technique designed to mimic natural relationships among plants in the wild. The plots in this system should contain a variety of plants, with different heights or structures that form a network of supporting plants to attract insects, accumulate nutrients, and maximize soil biodiversity. “We ask the farmers to plant a minimum of three species [that belong to] different plant families that can offset the challenges of pests and disease,” Fisher explained. For example, in a full sun area, a good grouping would be red root sage (Salvia miltiorrhiza, Lamiaceae) in the mint family and flowering herbs like chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum × morifolium, Asteraceae) and Chinese bellflower (Platycodon grandiflorum, Campanulaceae).
The polyculture system is designed to mimic ancient traditional methods for growing Chinese herbs in order to ensure their potency, Bachmann said.
AHGC growers are instructed not to modify their farm for the plants, but rather to fit the right plants in the proper place, Crews added. “For most of the crops, we have to teach the farmers to not use nutrient amendments like organic fertilizers. But there are always exceptions,” she said. “A few species like the fruit-producing vine Trichosanthes kirilowii [Cucurbitaceae] seem to appreciate additional nutrients, just like pumpkins [Cucurbita pepo, Cucurbitaceae] or squash [Cucurbita spp.]. For some of the root crops, we have to help [the growers] understand that it is acceptable to have some insect pressure to help produce a stronger, healthier plant.”
The AHGC also provides education and monitors growers along the way, conducting site visits to ensure that plants are placed appropriately and providing instruction on how and when to harvest. The consortium also offers an advantageous model in which farmers can diversify crops and minimize financial risks involved with food spoilage and shipments. “If you are a tomato [Solanum lycopersicum, Solanaceae] farmer and you have a truck load of nice, ripe tomatoes, you need to get them delivered quickly,” Fisher said. “What we are selling is dried herbs. The farmers don’t have to worry about that with these plants.”
After the plants are harvested, the consortium washes, processes, and chops the plants to their preferred specifications, and then gently dries the raw materials in customized dehydrators to ensure potency and freshness. Once the herbs are dried, the farmers get paid. The consortium is responsible for marketing and distributing the herbs to TCM practitioners around the country.
The raw materials are also continuously reviewed for quality and identity, with input from practitioners, like Bachmann, and from practitioners’ customers. The input is invaluable, according to Crews. “We are constantly reviewing the product, looking at form, taste, and smell,” she said.
The meticulous care for the plants is paying off, according to Bachmann, who is familiar with the properties of herbs shipped from China. “What we have found is that the herbs grown here have a high intensity in scent and flavor.” As AHGC began comparing its herbs with product from China, it found consistently superior organoleptic profiles in the US-grown material, Bachmann said. “I didn’t understand the difference until I tasted our chrysanthemum. The flavor profile fits much better with the traditional uses than the samples I have accessed previously. I won’t say the plants from China are bland, but they don’t pack the same punch.”
In this era of increased scrutiny of herbal ingredients and focus on identification and adulteration, the consortium acknowledges that it does not currently test products for potential contaminants. Crews explained that the “AHGC is based at a small non-profit Chinese medicine clinic and has not achieved the size to afford these types of tests” (oral communication, October 24, 2017). “Since contaminant concern is one of the primary reasons US practitioners and product makers are interested in domestically grown herbs, we are committed to doing everything we can to produce and deliver clean products that will pass standardized tests for both chemical and biological contaminants, even if we can’t yet afford to pay for them ourselves,” she said.
Although AHGC’s primary market is practitioners of TCM, the consortium also sells to dietary supplement manufacturers that produce various products (e.g., formulas, tinctures, and granules). According to Crews, these practitioners and manufacturers test the herbs and reject the botanical materials that do not pass inspection. “We understand that as we grow, [authentication] is one of the many future steps we will need to take as a business,” she said. “In the meantime, we work under the assumption that any material we grow has the potential to be tested at any time by any customer, and we have implemented many practices to support producing the cleanest herbal raw material possible.”
The consortium also takes extensive measures to qualify growers and assure soil quality, and its processing center is inspected by the Virginia Department of Agriculture, as required by law. (In Virginia, the herbs are considered dried agricultural food products and are therefore subject to food-grade standards.) The Blue Ridge Center’s processing facility also is subject to inspections, and as a part of that process, the water supply has been tested to ensure that no contaminants are being added in the wash process.
Looking to the Future
The AHGC’s program has come a long way in the four years since its inception. The Blue Ridge Center’s herb garden now serves as a living seed garden that provides high-quality seed for the AHGC growers. The program now also receives support from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, which requires that the consortium serve growers within the historical range of tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum, Solanaceae)-growing counties, a region that encompasses farms within about a 150-mile radius of the Blue Ridge Center. As the program grows, the consortium hopes to work with farmers outside of that region as well.
Fisher and Crews are constantly looking to the future and discussing the appropriate scale for the consortium that will allow it to remain sustainable both financially and agriculturally. Demand for Chinese herbs in North America is still somewhat small, Crews noted, so there is a risk of getting too big to maintain the current standards, impeccable processing, and grower support. “Our goal is not to compete with China, but to provide exceptional quality and meet the demand for these herbs in the United States,” she said.
At the same time, Crews said, the consortium is at a critical juncture when it comes to getting support and business from the market. “Our products have been reviewed as exceptional and grown to the highest standards,” she said “The question is, ‘Will people be able to pay for the production costs?’ If practitioners aren’t willing to pay enough to support the farmer, then these herbs won’t be available.”
- About the herbs. Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium website. Available at: https://appalachianherbgrowers.com/about/about-the-herbs/?v=7516fd43adaa. Accessed October 11, 2017.
- Harris R. Chinese herbs growing in Virginia. Radio WVTC (Virginia Public Radio). Available at: http://wvtf.org/post/chinese-herbs-growing-virginia. Accessed October 11, 2017.
- Homepage. Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium website. Available at: https://appalachianherbgrowers.com/?v=7516fd43adaa. Accessed October 11, 2017.
- Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine. Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium website. Available at: https://appalachianherbgrowers.com/about/blue-ridge-center-for-chinese-medicine/?v=7516fd43adaa. Accessed October 11, 2017.
- About the growers. Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium website. Available at: https://appalachianherbgrowers.com/about/about-the-growers/?v=7516fd43adaa. Accessed October 11, 2017.