Native Minnesota Medicinal Production Feasibility Study

Final Report for FNC97-178

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1997: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1998
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


My project is located on what remains of my family farm. This farm consists of ten acres of rolling oak savannah partially wooded and with small ponds. Since this was part of the homestead this acreage contains the old dairy barn and metal machine shed as well as the home. Before the conception of this project the land as well as the buildings were really without purpose and they really were looking as such. The former pasture had grown over with grasses and weeds, and the barn was collapsing from neglect. It was clear the homestead needed fresh ideas or at least the recreation of some old ones.

Before working on this project I researched and grew on a much smaller scale (10-15 plants each) of several types of medicinal herbs. Some ground was cleared (the former barnyard) and two successive plantings of buckwheat were planted as smother crops. This step is critical for several reasons. One reason is that it helps to eliminate established perennial roots of established weeds, as well as germinating many of the available weed seeds. Hand weeding between plants is a tedious and time consuming process and it is wise to take steps to reduce the efforts necessary to keep the future planting areas free from future completion. Another benefit is experience and knowledge is gained on the different soil types, drainage problems, and shaded areas. The successive plantings of buckwheat also increase the tilth of the soil and adds green manure.

I also wild crafted stinging nettle for sale. By harvesting, drying, hand processing, and marketing nettle leaf, I gained experience in nettle as a cash crop as well as developing additional knowledge and contacts in the industry as a whole. From this experience I developed the idea of weeds as a cash crop. A business plan was developed with the assistance of Richard Miller, a known authority on the business of herbs.

The project goal is to find out what plants, many of which are regarded as common weeds, could be produced to help fill the needs of the pharmaceutical trade. This project was completed in cooperation with a grant with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Initially a cross referencing was done between plants with known market potential, preferably currently being imported from other countries, and also were native or naturalized in the upper Midwest. From this cross referencing dandelion, wormwood, motherwort, pennyroyal, skullcap, valerian and catnip. Licorice was added because the amount imported into this country is measured in tons and very little information regarding its ability to winter in Minnesota is available. All of the species selected are perennials, with the exception of dandelion which is a biannual. The tops are harvested on all the varieties except for dandelion, valerian and licorice. The root is harvested the second year for dandelion as well as valerian and the third year for licorice.

Critical harvesting and growth habit information was needed. Transplants were started in February-March in the greenhouse of an established grower. Licorice starts were purchased from Richter’s in Canada. These plants were transplanted in the field the week of May 20, 1997. Six rows of each species of plants were planted in rows fifty feet long. The rows were hilled on 22” centers and the plants were 18” apart. There were 200 plants per bed. The beds were close to 1/100th of an acre in area. The exception was dandelion. Since dandelion readily seeds itself everywhere, the seed packets recommended direct seeding, and seed was relatively cheap and readily available, I direct seeded very heavily. Since it may be important to know whether direct seeding may be appropriate (eliminating the time and expense involved with transplants) a row of seeds were also planted on both sides of all the transplants.

The plots were weeded at least twice and mulched with old hay both in the summer and late fall. The tops on wormwood, catnip, pennyroyal, and motherwort were harvested and dried. Samples sent for analysis.

An additional garden area was established containing herbs for culinary and fragrance. This garden contained herbs such as sage, rosemary, tarragon, basil, lemon balm, sorrel, and lavender. With some of these herbs essential oil extractions were done. Using steam distillation, at a local cosmetic firm, the locally produced plant material was tested for both quality and quantity of the plant’s essential oils.

Harvesting and processing equipment, including a cutter and a leaf stripper, also went through the initial stages of development, but time did not allow for testing in 1997.

Larger planting areas were planted in buckwheat, rye to prepare them for larger scale plantings in 1998. The area prepared was about three acres.

A decision needed to be made of what was to be planted for the larger scale planting 1998. Using the observations and data of the plant characteristics collected in 1997, catnip was selected. The characteristics considered were ease of planting, harvestability (preferably using cutter created in 1997), sustainability (ability to withstand Minnesota winters), demand in the market and personal preference (since I will be spending more time with the plants than I will anything else). I felt a fit was critical. Catnip came out as the plant of choice with red clover as a rotation crop.

Red clover was chosen as a rotation crop not only because of its ability to fix nitrogen in the soil and it’s humus building properties, but also the flowering tops could be marketed as a medicinal herb.

In February 1998 growing benches where established in the house basement. The benches were light with florescent tubes and the heat supplemented with a portable electric heater. Twenty flats were seeded with catnip seed. 2600 catnip plants were transplanted from these flats, the third week in May, directly into the field. Also the third week in May, a plot (.40) acre was direct seeded into catnip. This was done to compare the cost and labor involved with transplants to direct seeding. Red clover was also established on ground prepared in 1997, not used for catnip in 1998.

Winter/spring of 1998 additional work was also done on equipment. Including restoring and mounting an engine to be used as a power unit for the leaf stripper and restoring an Allis G (in June) to be used for plot cultivation. The cutter/harvester was tested; with additional modifications, proved useful for the clearing of weeds and the harvesting of red clover, catnip, and a plot of alfalfa.

A very well attended field day was held in June. With over sixty people in attendance, there were people there with a broad diversity of interests. There were other growers, university personal, managers of cooperatives, practitioners of herbal medicine, department of forestry personal, Extension personal and many people who use herbs, but have not seen many of them.

The catnip transplants were lightly harvested in August. Some catnip by hand and the remaining larger part by the use of the cutter. In late August, I reseeded the direct seeding of catnip because few plants came from the spring seeding. I used radish for row markers so I could cultivate without having to wait for the catnip to get established. In due time I had weeded and cultivated the radishes/catnip. This was done two weeks after planting and again one month after planting.

October I again worked on the thresher/leaf stripper continuing to refine the leaf stem separation process.

There have been many people involved in making this project a success, both private and public.
- Bob Olson, Extension – Bob was instrumental in the initial stages of grant process with the MSDA. He told me of the availability of the grant money and he helped me with the budgeting on the original proposal. He also helped with the field day by drafting and printing the fliers used for the mailings.
- Sue Christan, Organic Growers and Buyers Association – Sue helped by allowing an article to be puclished in OGBA newsletter and by referring me to other organizations.
- John Krantz, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources – John helped by the initial letter of referral and by offering technical resources in marketing and production.
- Richard Miller, consultant – Richard helped by writing up my original business plan and by offering suggestions when called by me with specific questions regarding equipment specifications or plant propagation techniques.
- Barbara Lutchworth, purchaser, Frontier Cooperative – Barbara assisted me in the selection process of the plants to be studied, this included price quotes and quantities needed. Frontier also provided quality analysis. I want to thank Barb for her patience and understanding when contacts could not be completed as understood.
- Janika Eckert, Johnny’s Selected Seeds – Janika helped with the initial selections, growing information and plant trials including Minnesota naturalized vs. commercial varieties of catnip and nettle.
- Jeff Adalman, “The Herb Man”, Adalman’s greenhouse – Jeff was invaluable help by supplying the transplants necessary for the initial planting’s and continued support and comradeship in this business of herbs.
- Jonathan Chaplin, Bio-engineering, University of Minnesota – Continued help in the design of a leaf stripper both in brain and brawn.
- Dennis Melgard – Supplied most of the materials necessary for building the field cutter as well as the leaf stripper.
- Gladys Soberg – Mother, strong support by giving me a place to be, help when I most need it and for being a patient sounding board. By far the most important on the list.
- There are many, many others who have helped me along the road many of which I know even know, who have supported this project.

The results were many, varied and some surprising. Although probably not the most important I will start with a summarization of the demonstration plots.

Species, characteristics, planting ease, sustainability, yield, personal preference
- Wormwood, upright character; good yield; machine harvestable; few competitive weeds; strong bitter smell, good, excellent, good, low
- Dandelion, biannual; low growing; difficulty with grass competition, poor, medium, good, medium
- Skullcap, low growing, good some self seeding pretty flower, good, low, low – low yield hard weeding and hand harvest
- Valerian, good *needs disease diagnosis, poor, none, low
- Motherwort, upright growth few weeds, excellent, good, high, high – machine harvest
- Catnip, upright growth; a mint; a local native, fair – needs plenty of moisture *needs disease diagnosis, fair , good/fair, high – machine harvest
- Pennyroyal, low growing and a mint, easy, fair – winter kills than respreads diminished demand, medium, low
- Licorice, in pea family; harvest in third year; harvest root, difficult, poor – compared to horseradish once established, it’s there, none, high

This was quite a diverse group of plants. All with different habits and characters. I am guessing that the licorice and valerian would have done better in poorer, better drained soil, possibly on a slope instead of on a drainage area.

Feasibility studies such as this are important before doing large scale plantings. All of the species involved in this study are types that I had never grown before. Many I had not even seen before. I feel fortunate that I found one, catnip that is suitable to me for larger scale plantings. This study should be continued to find other species that would be suitable for Midwestern conditions.

I recently received a listing form a company calling for the contracts for some 128 different types of botanical. 58 are additions to last year’s list. Many are familiar plants such as alfalfa. They want the leaf. Others are very unfamiliar such as Yerba Santa. Some they want leaf, others root, and on others they want the flower.
The production of the finished product for this market is a fairly specialized field. The products include oils for aromatherapy, bulk botanical, skin care products, shampoos and this may also include pet products.

The initial setup on this homestead was for the production of bulk herbs. The demonstration plots were for the expressed purpose of determining which herbs to grow and what was necessary for processing the material to the form that companies are willing to buy. Generally to be further processed, if necessary, and then distributed.

The steps necessary for the growers:
1) Prepare the ground for planting.

Preferably the year before planting, plow or chisel than disc or field cultivate the ground. Plant in late May or early June buckwheat (after last killing frost). Mid July after buckwheat starts blooming work the buckwheat in and reseed. Again when the buckwheat starts to bloom work the buckwheat in.

The things to keep in mind while you are doing this:

Drainage is critically important for many herbs. Try to improve drainage and at the same time moisture retention by working the ground as deep as you can and at the same time try to keep dilution of your top soil with the subsoil to a minimum. I find this difficult if not impossible, but bear it in mind. I often use a moldboard plow with the moldboards removed as form of a heavy duty chisel.

Remember this is more gardening than farming. Hand work is often involved so you want to do anything now to make your work easier later. I noticed a marked improvement in plant growth with the addition of organic matter in between field operations. Seed germination seemed to be improved and hoeing was made easier when came to clean up between young plants. The additional weed seeds introduced by using old hay was more than overcome by the increase in soil tilth especially on the clay knobs.

Try to pay attention to the types of weeds that are trying to re-establish themselves as well as what is established in the fence lines, wooded areas, drainage areas etc. These weeds may provide clues to what weed problems you may have in the future as well as prospects for types of plants to grow in the future.

Your situation will be different from mine. My old homestead situation offered a wide diversity of plants (weeds) when I originally started, by far more than I could note. I seem to notice new weeds all the time. I know the names to only a few. You may seem to be attracted to plants that I do not even notice.

I say this because the ones that seemed to workout the best in the trials were the one that were here originally, motherwort, dandelion, tansy etc. The seed trials that I did in cooperation with a seed company showed that my native nettle proved equal, if not superior, to current domestic varieties. This years catnip trials showed that my local catnip, although more highly variable, rated high enough to use for commercial production. These were the only two types tested. Keep in mind that some herb seed is quite valuable, certified organic is a plus. It may very well be that your best seed is already on plants you already have.

Most of the reasons you are working more ground is the production of commercial quantities.

2) Contact your Organic Certification Organization. Although commercial grade of some botanical may be sold. The prices and quantities needed will be substantially less. The prices may be enough less to hardly make harvesting them worthwhile.

3) Contact potential buyers of herbs. A good way to find out who is buying herbs is at a local food cooperative. A cooperative that handles herbs. Look at the label on the jars. Another source is herb seed companies. The buyers will want to know what you have and how much you have. The buyers will want a sample. With this in mind buy a sample of what you hope to produce. Harvest what you have and try to process match the sample. Have the sample ready before you contact potential buyers. Both of you will want to work for long term relationships.

There may be several species that you may want to offer but you do not know much about them. Even if you think you know something about them, before you do any large scale planting, plant some small lots of them. It is well worth the experience in harvesting, drying and processing. A small greenhouse, hot frame and some other area for starting seeds and cuttings would be useful, as well as a drying room.

Drying as method of preservation is a critical step in the herb business. My experience has been with a drying room. In the first years this room was not sealed. Last year (1997) I insulated it and lined it with plywood. It was well worth the time and expense. The dimensions are approximately 14’x24’. There are four (4’) shelves along each wall. This will hold about 500 lbs. of green (wet) material. This is ventilated with an exhaust fan, creating a slight negative pressure or a vacuum. It takes 3-5 days to dry most plant material. The first day I run fans, often with no heat. If the weather is clear and dry I will leave the doors open. Second day I will turn on some heat (70-75 degrees) to help disburse the moisture coming off the material. The third day is (80-85 degrees) and it is left at this temperature until the stems are crisp. The room should be at 15-20% humidity.

Since most of my plant material is sold as a tea cut, the leaf is now removed from the stem and the leaf is run through a home made cutter sifter. At this point the material is ready to be boxed. A representative sample sent to the buyer and with their okay sent out.

The prices paid for bulk botanical may run as low as 2.50 for oat straw (top 1/3 of the green plant, cut and sift) to at times $100.00 a pound for wild crafted woods grown ginseng. The demonstration species prices had a median range of about 3.75-4.00 lb. cut and sift (c&s).

The average of the weights (c&s) in the planting year for the plots for valerian, wormwood, pennyroyal, motherwort, and catnip was 10 lbs./200 plants. My cost for the plants was 20.00/200 plants. 10 lbs processed plant material @ $4.00 = $40.00/1/100th acre (amount of an acre planted per plot) so this left $20.00/200 for other overhead expenses. I viewed this as paying for my transplants, land rent and leaf processing costs. Since this is expected to be a perennial, some of the establishment costs are expected to be spread over the life of the plants. This would be expected to be mainly labor costs.

The plantings, harvesting and maintenance cost dropped considerably in the field plantings. Transplanting time average 200 plants per hour and because of the addition of the cultivator tractor, 3 min/200, and then 3 min/200 for hand weeding, 34 min/200 machine harvesting.

In the demonstration plots after 4 hours/200 plants/plot per operation could be expected. This illustrates the importance of the use of technology. Often when I am in the time consuming process of developing equipment to do my work I may wonder if it is worth it. This example illustrates it often is worth it. And another difference is I soon tire, the tractor does not. I believe that only in use of simple technology may we compete with the low labor costs offered by other countries. The bulk herb import prices establish the prices paid in this country. The two main ways to compete is through technology to keep quality up and labor cost down and through being certified organic so they buyers know that our product is chemical free.

I will continue my work in the development of low cost technology, not only the field production area and into the processing into teas, but also into the area of oil extractions.

In my some twenty five years of growing experience I have never had severe disease problems. But several of the demonstration plots have been plagued in the last two years. This disease wiped out my valerian, licorice, and severely affected my catnip. Even the experts have difficulty diagnosing whether it is even fungus, bacteria, or a virus. I suspect that this disease is associated with the planting area, although well drained; it is an intermittent drainage area.

This problematic disease highlights the importance of doing a personal study of the plant before doing my large plantings. To be sure, I would not like to have had acres planted and contracted and then have this happen. I will try these varieties over in a higher, well drained area. Although the ground may be less fertile, the plants may be happier.

There are many scales of operation in this business. There is one woman I talked to that basically does not do anything but handpicks red clover blossoms. She puts out a quality product and gets premium prices. Since she picks wild clover, she has no planting expense or harvesting expense and she can do this while raising her young children. Others have substantial greenhouse operations basically just selling 100’s of different kinds of potted herbs. Others make products using the oils. Ginseng growers in Wisconsin have acres devoted to the growing of one single type of plant, ginseng. It has been estimated that two people out of five take herbs in some form. It is time that more producers get involved.

In 1997, my project was mentioned in various extension and university newsletters. This attracted the attention of several government agencies as well as the public media.

I was interviewed for a radio telecast as well as a couple of magazines.

In 1998, press releases were sent out by extension, the University of MN, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for my field day in June. As well as assuring a very good attendance for my field day I also was featured in at least three newspapers. One, Pioneer Press, the St. Paul paper, is a very major paper.

I also go calls in response to articles published in magazines.

I received as many calls the day following my field day from people saying they just was my field day announcement published and I was planning on scheduling another. Most people I asked, after the field day, if they would be interested in coming next year if I had another field day said they would be.

Being published in the Greenbook 98 as well as the promotion efforts produced for my field day were very effective at getting my project out in public view.

Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) sends a copy of my Greenbook article across the country to people calling their office. I have received phone calls from people with questions urging me to carry on my “ground breaking” work. It has been stated, that after over 1,000 hours on the web you (I) are the only sauce they could find and that was from a referral from ATTRA.

The University of MN is in the process of forming a “Natural Therapeutics Consortium”. This “consortium” will involve producers, such as myself, as well as practitioners, researchers and others involved in the industry. This hopefully will be funded in part by MISA (Minnesota Institute of Sustainable Agriculture) as well as the MSDA.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.