Organic Broadcaster

Book explains all aspects of growing medicinal herbs

By Harriet Behar, MOSES

Available for purchase:

As a small-scale organic medicinal herb farmer myself, I was intrigued when I saw this recently published Chelsea Green book, The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer. For the past 14 years, I have grown, dried and sold culinary and medicinal herbs from my own farm, referring to books, other growers and lots of trial and error to learn appropriate and practical information for this unique farming system. This encyclopedic volume covers not just the growing aspects, but also lays out a complete roadmap to aid growers who wish to develop their farm either dedicated to organic medicinal herbs, or as a side line to a vegetable, fruit or crop operation.

Many folks are attracted to growing medicinals to surround themselves with plants they use themselves, or because of an affinity for herbal medicine. It takes more than a love of plants to live your dream of growing medicinal herbs, though. Beyond just growing plants (and medicinals have special needs), it is necessary to retain as much of the herb’s medicinal activity through harvest and post-harvest handling as possible. Drying herbs on rusty screens in a barn with pigeons roosting is not a good idea. This is the first book I have seen that takes the reader through all aspects that need to be considered, and offers numerous practical suggestions from seed to a variety of finished products and possible markets.

The organization of this book, starting out with finding land and setting up a business model, provides a strong foundation for entering this niche market. The second third of the book covers numerous considerations for management of fertility, weeds, disease, and pests as well as the very important harvest, processing, storage and marketing of these herbs. The last third covers the specifics of growing, harvesting, processing and using 50 different herbs. While many folks might migrate to the end of the book to learn more about the growing of specific herbs, it is the first two sections of this book that provide the information needed to produce an abundance of quality herbs.

As with all farming operations, knowing your market, your capabilities and the profitability of what you want to grow are important aspects to developing a successful operation. Medicinal herb markets are somewhat more fickle than other horticultural crops with high-demand herbs having good prices one year and crashing in subsequent years, mostly due to influx of lower-priced organic imported crops. However, by building relationships with stores and herbal practitioners who seek out local and organic high quality herbs for their businesses, you can be successful.

Depending on your inclination, you can focus on one or a few herbs to grow in volume for a known wholesale market, or grow numerous herbs in very small quantities and produce your own tea blends, salves, tinctures and more. The extensive discussion in this book on markets, prices, growing herbs that are both native and non-native and producing a wide variety of value-added products will help you prioritize what works best for your farming operation.

Since medicinal herbs are a mixture of annuals, biennials and perennials, and the crop harvested includes roots, stem, leaves, flowers, barks and fruits, there are many considerations in order to plan for efficient planting, weeding and harvesting. This book covers a wide variety of options, with pros and cons for each. This gives you enough information to select a method that will work best for your growing conditions.

I greatly appreciated the authors’ approach to weed and pest management. They use foundational organic methods that improve soil and plant health, producing healthy plants that can handle some pest pressure.

They discuss harvesting methods ranging from hand harvesting leaf and flower to harvesting root mechanically. This helps the novice grower understand the time, labor and equipment needed to get the crop out of the field in an efficient manner.

Since most herbs are either dried before use, or sold as dried to wholesalers and direct to consumer, the section of post-harvest processing and dehydrating the herbs is especially useful for growers who are versed in organic horticultural production, but have only sold their crops fresh. Numerous charts and graphs provide scientific data on fresh versus dried volume—you need quite a bit of volume to end up with just a few pounds of most dried herbs.

In my experience, leafy herbs also need to be “garbled,” which is separating the leaf from the stem and sifting herbs through a screen to obtain uniform-sized pieces. The authors discuss the possibility of mechanizing this time-consuming task, but unfortunately no equipment is currently available on the market.

The section on processing is quite comprehensive, covering the infrastructure needed for the processing of leaves, flowers and roots as well as milling larger-sized particles down to powders.

The alphabetically organized last section of the book provides information specific to 50 different types of herbs from alfalfa to yellow dock! Details include plant description, the life cycle, growing conditions, propagation, planting considerations, medicinal uses, harvest specifications, post-harvest and drying considerations, pests and diseases, yields, and current pricing. This long list of information helps growers choose what to grow. Since these organic farmers are in Vermont, all of the herbs will also grow here in the Upper Midwest. Having grown many of these herbs myself, I still learned many new items in their comprehensive yet compact summary of each plant.

The book includes an appendix on the United Plant Savers “at risk” herbs, a listing that herb growers can use to grow herbs that are usually wild crafted, but should be cultivated to avoid losing our native populations. Growing some of these plants can be somewhat difficult, but it is rewarding when you can accomplish this necessary goal.

The book also features a listing of seed and plant sources to get you started, and recommended books and schools for further learning.

Anyone wanting to grow herbs for their own use, for sale to wholesale customers or to build their own herbal products business from the farm to finished product, will find this comprehensive, detailed, practical and easy-to-read book invaluable to success. I wish I had a book like this years ago when I first started working with herbs. I’m happy to have it now—my copy already carries the dirty fingerprints that mark it as a well-used reference book!

Harriet Behar, MOSES Senior Organic Specialist, grows medicinal and culinary herbs and more on her farm in Gays Mills, Wis.

From the September | October 2015 Issue

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