A finished product company is either vertically integrated, which means they grow, process and produce the medicine on-site or, as is more often the case, they will buy from farmers and producer groups around the world. There is a huge range in herb farmers. We visited everything from small 2-3 acre plots to huge fields where calendula or thyme or artichoke grew as far as the eye could see. We saw fields where crops were certified organic or biodynamic or simply conventionally grown. We saw fields of mono-crops and fields so diverse you couldn’t tell the ‘crop’ from the weeds. Some farms were completely mechanized, others did everything by hand. Most farms used a mix of harvesting methods – leaf and root crops harvested by machine, flowers harvested by hand.
Organically cultivated senna in Rajasthan, India.
Many medicinal plants are perennials and so require longterm planning, both to ensure a reliable supply for companies and for the longterm sustainability of farmers and producer groups. Farmers need to be able to plan into the future and to know that they’ll have a market in three years when the root crops they plant now are ready. Longterm relationships with these farmers is key to developing the trust needed on both sides to work together.
While it is impossible to draw generalizations about who grows medicinal herbs, it is possible to map out different types of farmers.
Small-holders contracted with processing facility
These farmers typically grow specific herbs on contract with a national processing company that buys the herbs from the growers and handles all of the drying and processing arrangements. Under this arrangement, the processing facility is in charge of all of the marketing and distribution and bears the risk and costs of processing, testing, storing, marketing, and distribution.
These owners are typically not farmers themselves. They hire employees to do the planting, weeding, transplanting and harvesting. They often also grow herbs on contract with a processing facility that handles the processing and, if the farmer doesn’t have a drying facility, the drying as well.
Farmers who sell direct
These farmers are typically found in developed countries. They usually do some of their own processing and often sell value added products in addition to the herbs they grow. They sell directly to customers or to herb companies, large and small. These herb companies will in turn manufacture products for sale.
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A store in Rishikesh, India was selling Organic Honey certified by Nature. I asked who Nature was, whether it was in Indian certification body I hadn’t heard of. The clerk repeated what was on the label, “By nature.” “But who is nature?” I persisted. Surprised at my seeming stupidity, she gestured to the air around her and repeated, “By nature.”
Shifting to organic farming requires a tremendous commitment on the part of farmers, and it takes a lot of work for everyone involved. On our visit to Karnataka state with Pukka Herbs, Ben Heron met with farmers to make sure they understood the importance of buffer zones and what these zones looked like on the ground. Later in the car, Ben reminded the field representative about following up with these farmers to make sure they implemented the necessary changes. And he made notes in his notebook so that he would remember to follow up as well.
The finished product companies are likely driven by values. This isn’t the case in countries like India or Bulgaria, where farmers have largely shifted to conventional agriculture. For these farmers, implementing organic standards involves more than simply passing on some technical advice. It involves imposing a different set of values onto them. To make the shift from conventional to sustainable organic farming methods involves education, financial and technical support, and a willingness to engage in the ongoing trouble shooting needed to figure out challenges such as insect predation, production amounts, pesticide drift and more.
Organically cultivated Echinacea at Trout Lake Farm
The crucially important thing about this research is that it shatters the myth that how we farm does not affect the quality of the food we eat. – Helen Browning
Why Buy Organic?
I attended a two-day stakeholder conference on medicinal plant cultivation in Tamil Nadu, India. Farmers and researchers came together to discuss viable species for cultivation, marketing opportunities, technical research, seed supplies and more. While people I spoke with were interested in growing organic herbs, they all said there was no market for certified organic material in India, that the price of certification and the price of the organic material was simply too high. Plus, they said, no one was asking for certified organic materials, neither the Ayurveda companies that were the primary market for farmers or the consumers of those products.
Like the early days of the organic food movement, certified organic medicinal plants are still considered a luxury. But buying certified organic botanicals has benefits far beyond just ensuring we have a product that is free of pesticides and that the farmers aren’t exposed to toxic chemicals. Organically grown plants have a higher phytochemical profile (see overview of recent research) which in turn will produce more phytochemically active medicinal products. This means not only will the finished product be more effective, but less raw material needs to be used to reach the level of active ingredients needed for these products. Less raw material means less costs all the way down the supply chain, fewer labor costs, fewer storage and shipping costs. Less raw material going through processing and extraction machines also saves costs, both in terms of labor and in terms of wear and tear on the machines. Lower production costs means that more money can be spent on the raw material, supporting those at the bottom of the supply chain who typically make the least amount of money. And finally, by buying certified organic products, we help create markets that will bring more organic farmers into the supply chain, making organically produced herbal products available to more people at a more reasonable cost.