Impressions of the Herb Industry

We’ve just returned after almost five weeks of visiting herb farms, primary processing centers, and finished product manufacturers of herbal products. It’s been a whirlwind tour through three states and five countries. I have hours of footage and pages of notes to sort through, all of which will take many, many hours. But before immersing myself in this material, I thought I would share some initial impressions of the herb industry overall. Here are my five thoughts:

1. It’s Hard Work

Producing herbs for any market – local, national and international – is hard work. Whenever I asked people – collectors, growers, machine operators, sales representatives – what they’d like consumers to know about what goes on behind the scenes, they all wanted consumers to understand how much work and how many people are involved.

5 Initial Thoughts on the Herb Industry by the Sustainable Herbs Project.

A farmer weeding his field in central Bulgaria. Photo by Willow Forbes.

2. People Behind the Scenes

These people are as important to the finished product as the herbs are. The herbs wouldn’t ever reach us without all of this hard work. Yet current quality control regulations only focus on the plants, on correct ID, on microbiology, pesticides and heavy metals. These issues are of course crucial in international trade, but they are only part of the picture. A big focus of the Sustainable Herbs Project will be on thinking about this issue and seeing what can be done to correct the imbalance.

3. Depends on Nature

Herbal products are from nature and, like any product from nature, they depend on lots of things growers and collectors can’t control, especially the weather. Everywhere we have visited this summer is experiencing a drought; plants aren’t germinating or growing as big or as quickly. One farmer we visited has lost whole fields, others are getting much smaller harvests. Elsewhere, collectors are waiting to harvest plants until it rains and cleans the dust off the leaves. But it keeps not raining… and the plants need to be harvested.

5 Initial Thoughts on the Herb Industry by the Sustainable Herbs Project.

A farmer showing us his fields in Germany. You can see the stunted crops in the background from lack of rain. Photo by Willow Forbes.

4. All Companies aren’t Equal

The companies that are trying to bring more accountability to the supply chain are making a difference in bringing more traceability and attention to how the people and plants are cared for along the way. Their products cost more – but that’s because it costs more to do it right. It is in turn our responsibility as consumers to educate ourselves about what questions to ask these companies, how to interpret their answers to make sure they are walking their talk to the best of their ability, how to pressure them to go a bit further… I’ll do my best here to offer guidelines and resources.

5. The Herb Industry is an Industry

The herb industry is an industry. If we choose to buy herbs that are bought and sold as part of this industry, it is also up to us to learn what good practices look like – this scale of industry can be pretty shocking to those of us with romantic ideas of hand harvesting plants dried in woven baskets… Again, I’ll do my best to share what I’m finding out about what herb buyers look for in deciding where to source their herbs, but ultimately I believe it is up to each of us to decide what scale we are comfortable with, what values matter most to us, and how to support the companies working on that scale to produce the best product they can.

5 Initial Thoughts on the Herb Industry by the Sustainable Herbs Project.

Sacks of herbs waiting to be stored or processed. Photo by Ann Armbrecht.

5a. And, again, it’s Hard Work

And one last one! Our journey was exhausting, it was logistically complex and it was expensive. I now have a lot more respect for the challenges herb companies face in trying to get to know their suppliers. These suppliers are spread around the world and are typically not close to major transportation centers. And then once you arrive, there are cultural and linguistic barriers as well. It’s hard to see below the surface on one or two day visits. There are a lot of layers to this issue: the need to protect sources in a competitive industry vs. the importance of sharing knowledge/resources. Again, I’ll do my best to share perspectives on this from individuals directly involved.

Stay tuned for more!