We have a 100 acre hay farm surrounded by a large, privately owned forest. We are 25 miles from the nearest town of Gainsville with a population of 625.
We have four acres of irrigated, terraced, intensively grown, medicinal plant seed gardens. We are certified organic and biodynamic by the Demeter Association, and maintain our fertility with farm generated compost and mulches.
We maintain a small livestock operation to harvest and fertilize per production acres with rotational grazing using electric fencing. We have one shade garden in production and are preparing another ¼ acre of golden seal production for the fall of 1998.
Our best land is in the river bottoms, but because of flooding we must use the upland hay fields for increasing our production of Astragalus. Most of our land is on an east facing slope, so we have had to take measures to prevent erosion.
We have spent some time investigating the markets for this particular plant and think that it can be an excellent commercial crop.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
The growing season of 1999 was very successful here at Elixir Farm. With the unusual weather conditions we were able to maintain our plantings with irrigation and survive the extreme drought. Under normal weather conditions we may have to water in a one month period during August. This was our biggest success.
Also during this growing season we were able to erect and build beds in a ¼ acres shade garden and install irrigation by August. We were cautious about planting in this garden with the severe weather conditions.
During this season we were able to plant an additional ½ acre of Astragalus membranaceous, our experimental field crop. We will continue to develop new ground over the winter.
The grant received from SARE enabled us to maintain our new plantings and to purchase a root digger to harvest the existing 1/6 acres of Astragalus. There were five plots of Astragalus in which we were able to collect some root harvest information.
One of the primary experiments here has been to grow medicinal herbs with a minimum amount of intervention on the soils with exceptions of materials derived from the farm itself, which include compost, green manures and crop rotations. The native plants we have chosen most often fall within the range of acid loving plants. The Astragalus is an exception. Although it was willing to grow in our soil, it showed that an increase in alkalinity would have increased production weights and longevity of the plants.
Because of this evidence we will be able to make substantial changes as we go forth in our future plantings.
In 1999 we were able to make a contract with Green Mountain Herbs for the sale of the root at $17.50 per pound, dried weight. Although this did not seem like much for the effort of hand gardening, it could be adequate for a crop that was done with mechanical means.
On our hay farm we already have most of the equipment that was used in the root harvest. We used a sickle bar mower to cut the woody stems from the plants and a rake to move them off the beds.
The root digger was custom built by a small manufacturer in Canada, Willsie Equipment, who has modified a potato digger to dig deep roots up to 18 inches. This was very time efficient and the digger performed well in our sandy soils. The only inconvenience was that the older beds were not planted with this type of harvest in mind. A minor amount of root was lost due to the tractor bogging down in already dug earth.
During the year we had two workshops here at Elixir which were very well received. A total of 25 farmers and gardeners came on site and stayed a period of three days to learn about herb growing.
We would like to continue to work with SARE on this specific project. I think that with a few more years of learning to build fertility in our worn out soils we will be able to produce and sell a root that could be profit making.