Summary of an American Herbalist Guild Symposium Panel

What Can Herbalists Do?

Herbalists often talk about the value of supporting bioregional sources of herbs. Yet, in reality it is difficult to do that. Ann Armbrecht organized a panel at the American Herbalist Guild Symposium, held at the UNICOI State Park and Lodge in Georgia on October 25-29, 2018 with panelists: Katie Commender, Jeannie Dunn, Elise Higley, Janet Kent, Kat Maier, and CoreyPine Shane. Each herbalist spoke about their perspective on the challenges and opportunities of developing bioregional supply chains of herbal medicine based on their involvement in a particular sector of the supply chain. We then opened up to a lively discussion on how education can help support more sustainable and regional supply chains. Below are some highlights from this discussion.

Some of the guiding questions included:

  • How can herbalists support a shift toward more sustainable and equitable supply chains for medicinal plants in their classes and their practice?
  • What are the deeper changes that need to happen, beyond telling students and clients which companies to purchase from, to support this shift?

The key discussion points are organized into five take away lessons, listed first. Below the lessons, for those interested in reading more, is a bullet point list of the challenges and opportunities highlighted by each speaker. We include this information so that it can serve as a foundation to continue these conversations in your own communities. Ann Armbrecht will be exploring these questions in her upcoming AHG free webinar Where do Herbs Come From and Why Does it Matter? on February 20, 2019.

Five Take Away Points

1. Caring for the Commons: How to change the mindset? 

How can we embody the aliveness of the relationship with plants that brought many of us to herbal medicine in how we source and produce herbal remedies? How do we embody that relationship when we teach about these plants?

One participant said that we need to reawaken the idea of caring for the commons – land and resources that aren’t privately owned – and a sense of community stewardship. Everyone applauded. Another mentioned the need to undo the colonial mindset, i.e. the capitalist model of seeing plants as objects rather than as living entities with which to enter into a relationship.

Many people shared ideas for teaching in ways that show that using plants to heal is first and foremost about building relationships with all things. It is about falling in love with plants and people, not about consuming a product. Another participant mentioned the importance of moving beyond thinking about sustainability to regeneration and to building worlds that are resilient and alive.

2. Pricing

Everyone talked about the challenges of pricing. Plants are the least expensive step in the process and those working with plants either as collectors or growers are the lowest paid workers in the process. Until the pricing structure changes it is very difficult to create initiatives that support sustainable and ethical sourcing. This is why the discussion primarily focused on the importance of education.

3. Creating Supply Webs:

The premise of the panel was the question of how to move from supply chains where there are rarely connections between the source and the finished product to webs, networks that link different stakeholders in a bioregional context. Participants talked about ways to build these webs and networks – both as a source of medicinal plants and herbal medicine and also as a tool for teaching. Is this best done regionally? By schools? Nationally, by AHG or other entities?

Kat gave the example of Charlottesville, VA. Students who have graduated from her school, Sacred Plant Traditions, have gone on to begin cultivating herbs, producing medicines, teaching classes, building these kind of bio-regional webs. Participants seemed to agree that herb schools are the most obvious centers to develop these networks. Perhaps AHG could help facilitate these conversations and schools around the country could begin to document stories about how such networking is working in their bioregion.

4. Education:

Herbalists are still teaching and practicing in ways they did in the late 1970s when herbalism began to be more widespread. But the population has increased dramatically and overall there is much greater interest in/demand for medicinal plants. CoreyPine and Janet Kent both talked about the decline in plant populations in popular wildcrafting areas around Asheville, NC, which has grown as a regional center of herbal medicine. How can herbalists incorporate these changes into modifying how they teach?

A number of people emphasized the importance of a direct relationship with the plants, both by having a relationship with the plants growing in the earth (rather than simply buying a product) and by understanding how plants are handled on an international scale, which can be shocking to those who haven’t considered where herbs come from before.

Some of the specific ideas around education included:

  • What can companies do? How can companies talk about these issues in a way that isn’t greenwashing? For example, what about companies using the fact that herbs are out of stock as a chance to educate their buyers, reminding them that the product is a seasonal item that comes from particular places that are increasingly impacted by a changing climate.
  • Herb teachers can include detailed information about the herb industry in their curriculum, not just teaching about how plants are used as medicine but where they are sourced and by whom. In addition to teaching about wild harvesting, show the ways that cultivating plants in wild gardens can create the same qualities that draw many herbalists to wild harvesting.
  • Those of us purchasing herbs can use information about sourcing and scarcity to bring our own actions more into alignment with the awareness that plants are plants growing in places that change over time. What changes can we make by buying in season, offering our students and clients a relationship with a living plant rather than simply prescribing an herbal product, etc.?
  • See the SHP site for additional ideas for teaching, including a sample curriculum for teaching about the herbal industry.

5. Action:

Push back on segments of the herb industry that peddle in low quality herbs that are produced in an exploitive manner.

  • Ask questions, wait for answers – make sure that companies and the industry overall are really walking their talk. What is big enough? Think about scale and the impact of scale all through the supply chain. What size makes sense? Ask companies this question.
  • Someone in the audience suggested contributing 1% to be used to create sanctuaries not for harvesting plants but for deepening relationships with the plants. Another person added that UpS has been trying to do this.
  • Social media – Social media is a double-edged sword – Instagram posts praising wild crafted plants can lead to over harvesting those plants. But it can also be used as a source of pressure. No company, David Winston said, wants to be on the bad side of social media.


Five Ways to Support Sustainable and Ethical Sourcing.

Jeff Higley spreading calendula flowers to dry at Oshala Farm.

Panelist Presentations:

Growing Herbs: Elise Higley, Oshala Farm 

With her husband, Jeff Higley, Elise manages a 113 acre certified organic farm in the Applegate Valley, Oregon. Right now they sell 95% on contract as wholesale and only 5% retail but their goal is to sell 50/50 wholesale and retail to make it more sustainable for their farm.

Some of the challenges they experience include: 

  • The cost of land.
  • The challenge of finding clean land (clean as in pesticide free, no heavy metals)
  • Seed supply (sourcing the correctly identified and authenticated seeds in the quantities needed).
  • Labor – the cost and availability of good, efficient workers.
  • Price point. This piece is really hard to figure out. They pay their workers a fair wage, but then have little left over for themselves. When they sell wholesale, they need to compete with the going price which is based on a global supply chain of cheap herbs.
  • Contracts are good because they allow them to plan ahead.
  • They are required to test by lots. This means the fewer lots a farmer has, the lower the costs of testing. This puts on pressure to scale up, which isn’t always the smartest financial or ecological decision to make.
  • More training is needed for growers.
  • Agricultural technology to bring in more farmers.

Processing Herbs: Katie Commander, Appalachian Harvest Herb Hub

Appalachian Harvest Herb Hub based in southwestern Virginia provides herb farmers training, shared-use commercial processing equipment to reduce costs, and aggregation and marketing services to help farmers collectively meet volume minimums and access premium markets.

  • Herbs are undervalued, how to make it work financially?
  • On the positive side, they have the potential to create niche markets for their products which can allow them to set fair prices.
  • There is a need to have more consumer education (herbalists to start) about how many roots are in a dry pound, how many years different plants take to grow before they are ready for harves, the sustainability of the harvest (or lack of), etc. so that end users can really understand the impact of our use of these plants and the true value.
  • Since Katie was speaking generally about processing, there was a comment from the audience after she spoke saying that it was important to also educate consumers to ask about where the menstruums are from. And to develop a chart that includes the source and the issues in using different menstruums.

Wildcrafting/Medicine making: Jeannie Dunn, Director, Red Moon Herbs

Red Moon Herbs wildcrafts a lot of fresh herbs from local sources in Appalachia in western NC. When they cannot find the supply needed, they work with organic farmers and other sustainable wildcrafters.

  • Pricing – a wildcrafter will make $3-4/lb for dried black cohosh when they sell it to a broker. Mountain Rose herbs sells organic black cohosh root powder (not specified whether cultivated or wild collected) for $22.50-32/lb. How to reconcile that price discrepancy? Pricing in general is very challenging – and Jeannie constantly struggles with how to value the time that goes into sourcing and producing high quality herbal medicines and still sell her products at a price people can afford.
  • Habitat loss is also leading to a decline in wild plants. It isn’t just over-harvesting.
  • She tries to source directly from growers and wild collectors which means she needs to contact each potential source individually, respond to queries, most of which don’t pan out because people don’t understand what it takes to supply a medicine making company. It takes a lot of time.
  • How big is enough? She constantly faces that. As David Winston, founder of Herbalist Alchemist, later said to Ann, what company is going to tell you they don’t want to grow?
  • So much is species specific – sourcing requirements, pressures on the plant populations, how to dry, handle, and extract. That’s the beauty of herbal medicine. It also makes medicine making challenging.
  • It is important to look for analogues for over harvested plants.
  • GMP is costly for small medicine makers and a challenge to meet the requirements.
  • Consumers – and sometimes herb students and teachers – often have no awareness of the plants, where and how they grow, and of their scarcity.

Herb Teachers:

Note: Janet and CoreyPine’s comments both spoke as teachers and so their comments are combined. So I include the paragraph they submitted in preparation for the panel.

Janet Kent, Terra Sylva School of Botanical Medicine. 

“Currently, I am concerned with ways to make herbal medicine accessible and affordable while moving towards local sourcing. We are in danger of becoming a niche, upscale modality. How can we keep herbal medicine affordable while acknowledging the labor of growing and harvesting herbs and more importantly, honoring the plants themselves?

As those with active clinical practices know, even keeping a few people on tonic formulas requires a large amount of plant material. This demand will only increase as we expand our work to address the growing crisis in health care. How do we meet this demand, while minimizing our impact on the Earth while simultaneously making affordable medicine?”

CoreyPine Shane, Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine.

“As we grow bigger, one of our challenges is going to be wildcrafting woodland herbs. There is an inherent unpredictability to wildcrafting, and also the need to be aware of what herbs are long-term sustainable working in an area with so many herbalists. From a production perspective, it is easier to buy dried herbs from a wholesaler, but I believe that fresh herbs harvested by the person making the medicine are inherently stronger and more potent.”

  • Janet and CoreyPine have both observed a decrease in plant populations in popular wildcrafting areas around Asheville, which has grown as a regional center of herbal medicine.
  • Wildcrafting is a positive way to connect with the plants in a way that is different and allows students to really experience the heart of herbal medicine.
  • There is very little awareness about where the money is going. What kind of world is that money supporting? And how does that circle back in to the principles that, as an herbalist, you are seeking to promote? How to use our purchasing power to bring these two into greater alignment?
  • Impact of Social Media – posts on foraging leading to dramatic impact on over harvesting.

Non-Profit/Policy: Kat Maier, Sacred Plant Traditions and United Plant Savers

Some points Kat made in addition to those included above:

  • Kat talked about how her work with UpS and Forest Farming accreditation has allowed her to work directly with diggers and has introduced a whole new inquiry. As an herbalist, having a direct relationship with those digging and harvesting the plants we use helps ensure appropriate ethics in wildcrafting and allows diggers to become our eyes on the ground, assessing inventory of local plants. As of now they make pennies on the pound. This leaves little incentive to harvest conscientiously.
  • Dosing – how can dosing take into account the plants themselves, how they grow, their scarcity?
  • Plant rescues as a good source of wild plants.
  • After visiting a huge warehouse of blue cohosh, she wondered what we are doing.
  • SCALE – We have no sense of what the harvest actually is, Kat said. “400 trillium roots equals only one pound of roots.”