A variety of medicinal herbs (perennial and annual) are started in a greenhouse early spring and transplanted into an 8 ½ acre field to be grown out organically. The perennials are harvested after two years of growth and annuals yearly. The annuals are rotated yearly; the perennials are rotated every two to four years.
Before receiving this grant, the field was transitioned into organic production between 2006 and 2008. My first full year of production (and farming) was 2008. Winter rye was used as a cover crop for the field as well as a thick layer of leaves spread to condition the soil and add organic matter.
The main goals of the project were to research the production methods and marketability of organic medicinal herbs. Weed control and harvesting methods were major facets of production that were studied. Wholesale (through large herb distributors) and retail sales (through direct marketing) were facets of marketing that were researched.
Production methods: all herbs were started in an on-site greenhouse in early spring. This was done as opposed to direct seeding in order to maintain a controlled environment to ensure good germination rates. Many herbs take 2-3 weeks to germinate. Some require special conditioning such as cold storage of seed for a period before planting or manual scarification before planting. A controlled start was required to ensure a good start for the herbs. The seedlings were transplanted into the field after 8-10 weeks with a transplanting machine that is pulled behind a tractor. Weed control was achieved with primarily cultivating as well as flaming and manual methods (hoeing and pulling.) All herbs were manually harvested by hand. This was done carefully to keep dirt and debris off of them. The harvested herbs were either hung or spread out on screens in a clean building to dry and be packaged for sale.
I carried out all aspects of this project with the aid of a few individuals as well as the U.W. Extension service.
1. Scott Cayley, investor – labor for seeding in spring and harvesting
2. Monsen Family – loaned transplanting machine for project
3. Midwest Organic Services Association – organic certification agency used for project land plant cover crop
4. Stan Mabee – local farmer hired to plant cover crop
5. Ilene Nelson – U.W. Extension service agent with mailing lists for field day/general info.
6. Bruce Ludolph (Top Crop) – local agronomist who carried out soil testing/recommendations for fertility
7. Madeline Fontaine – labor for seeding and harvesting (daughter)
1. Yields – yields were generally 30-40 percent lower than expected. The main reason was row spacing and weed pressure. I planted rows with space between for maintenance and access for harvesting. The wide spacing was extra room for weeds to continue to grow after cultivation could no longer be done due to crop height. It also reduced the number of plants per given area. For shorter crops, such as chamomile, cultivation could continue as needed. For taller crops, such as Echinacea or motherwort, the wide row spacing did not allow the crop to canopy (shade areas between rows and prevent weeds). Taller crops, which are mostly the perennials, need a row spacing which will allow for a canopy to form by the second year of growth. Harvesting will have to be done from the edge of the crop area working inward versus being able to harvest by walking between rows.
Marketing was as difficult (if not more so) than the production of the herbs. Distributors want larger amounts (thousands of pounds, not hundreds) of herbs than what one tenth to one twentieth of an acre can produce. Distributors generally purchase from the international market. They can buy herbs much cheaper from developing countries who keep costs low by exploiting labor and have lower quality control. One example is chamomile. I need at least thirty dollars per pound for my chamomile. I have established a local market which accepts this as a fair price. Distributors purchase chamomile primarily from Egypt, where labor is exploited, and pay five dollars per pound. The quality is lower due to large quantity production as well as overseas shipping and age of product once it reaches the U.S. market. I found if you search for small product makers who use herbs as a primary ingredient in their product, you will be offered more for the herbs. Natural pharmacies who re-sell small amounts of the dry herbs are also willing to pay a fair price for local/domestic herbs. It is best to establish buyers for the herbs before planting. The very best option would be to set up a contract with a buyer before production.
The main method I used to inform others about my project was direct communications with other producers (organic). The organic producing community in Wisconsin is very much networked with each other. Phone calls, emails, and word of mouth were used. I had a field day in the summer of 2010 attended by about 20 producers, product makers, and buyers. A Web site (midwesthealingherbsandgrains.com) is being developed for marketing as well as educating others about this project. I plan on having another field day in the summer of 2012.
The programs seems to accomplish what it set out to. I think it’s a great opportunity for others to learn form projects — ongoing and completed. It is also a great opportunity for funding of projects which help farmers/ranchers either begin (like me) or further their enterprise.