Stories: People in the Herb Industry:
I went to Poland and Hungary this past fall to follow plants. I wanted to see how and in what ways they changed as they moved through the supply chain.
Yet what captured my attention and my curiosity were the people: the men and women working hard at whatever part they play in that supply chain: collecting, drying, storing, selling, shipping, or ensuring the protection of the plants. And when I think back on my trip, I think back to these people, not to the plants. I think of the son who came home sooner than planned because he was needed to help run the the herb company started by his grandfather after the fall of Communism and the privatization of the herb industry.
Or the head of another Hungarian factory who talked about how well he got along with the Roma wild-collectors and how they had killed one of their own chickens to feed his wife when she was sick.
I think of the young mother of two in charge of international sales for a company in northeast Poland, who grew up following her mother through fields and forests gathering wild plants and mushrooms for food and medicine. Even though we knew each other for only three days, she gave me a bag of gifts when I left: handmade earrings and a necklace, a crochet bird, two bars of chocolate. And her mother gave me two of her sketches of flowers
Or I remember the Ukrainian woman who came to Budapest to study and ended up running TRAFFIC’s Medicinal Plant Program and leading the charge on implementing FairWild, a new standard for sustainable harvesting and trade in wild-collected herbs. Late one night, in an outdoor bar, she talked about how much she cared for the people collecting wild plants, the people FairWild is trying to help, that that’s why she is working so hard to make FairWild succeed. It was hard to find words to express how deeply she felt, she said.
I remember the collector in Poland who was so eager to keep showing us other patches where he collected Nettles and Meadowsweet, Yarrow and Elder and Dandelion. I was eager to see them as well and would have followed him all day, but I was worried about not taking too much more of the head of the company’s time. And I think of this man who had taken time away from all he had to do running one of the largest herbal processing companies in the region to drive me around to see collection sites and who, when I asked why the work mattered, said that it provided good jobs. And that that is why he did it.
Stories and Commodities
Many of these conversations were in broken English or with poor translation; most just scratched the surface. Yet as I listened, I found that the things that had first surprised me so much about the herb industry when I first arrived faded into the background. The huge piles of herbs in processing facilities, the noisy machinery, the seeming chaos of so many different plants from so many different places needing to be dried and processed and bagged and shipped no longer seemed so important. And what mattered more were the people and their stories—and the way, even in such brief encounters, a connection was made.
A month or so after I returned, I was buying a box of Traditional Medicinals Gypsy Cold Care tea. I rarely read the descriptions on boxes, dismissing them as pure marketing with little grounding in reality. Yet a paragraph on the side of the box caught my attention. It said that the Elder flowers in the tea were FairWild certified and were wild-collected from near the Bialowieza Forest in Poland—and then it described the region and the collectors, one of whom was likely the very collector whom I had just met. I couldn’t believe it. This was probably the first time in my entire life that I had actually visited the places on the far side of the supply chain for a product distributed on the international market. As I placed the box into my cart, I felt something shift inside. A lowering of a defense I only realized had been there by its sudden absence: the defense against all I can’t control about the impacts of every purchase I make. For this one box of tea, there was nothing to defend.
Sure, I know commodity systems are complicated, and I’ve read enough anthropology to know that certifications like Fair Trade are mixed, that things aren’t always what we want to believe and that the benefits don’t always flow to the people to whom they are meant to flow. Supply chains are complex and, as with anything, it is important to do our homework.
Yet I can’t help feeling that the stories of these people are a missing link in the herb industry. That as much attention as we’ve given to thinking about the plants that make their way into the medicines we ingest to heal, we’ve missed how the plants also connect us to people whose lives the economy renders invisible. Seen in this way, my attention shifts from thinking about how this herbal product can serve me to how my purchase of this product made with these plants can help particular people in particular places. In this way, I begin to understand how the plants might reconnect us not only with a larger ecological web of life but with a social and cultural web as well. And I wonder if this might be a key piece of the healing they make possible.