Demonstrating Organic Wild Crop Utilization and Certification as a Profitable Model for Enhancing Overall Farm Sustainability in the Missouri Ozarks

2008 Annual Report for FNC07-669

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2007: $17,736.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:

Demonstrating Organic Wild Crop Utilization and Certification as a Profitable Model for Enhancing Overall Farm Sustainability in the Missouri Ozarks


Our budget with this project basically falls into three categories:
• Performing wild harvests documenting man hours and economic returns (Continuing)
• Scientific testing of Value Added Products (To be performed)
• Presenting Results and teaching about The National Organic Program's Wild Crop Certification (To be performed)

We received SARE funds for the project in mid-June 2008. Two properties were certified organic wild crops in September and one organic processing certificate was issued in late December 2008. Certification has proved to be challenging to participants for a number of reasons. That part of the project continues.

A decision was made to focus on the actual economics of wild crop harvesting over the specifics of certification. There is very little information about the value and yields of wild plants species in our regions. Certification enhances value but basic data about potential returns is generally not available.

Our project indentified several information gaps that need to be filled in order to realize the full potential of wild crops in a site specific sustainable manner. This was addressed in the wild crops certification of 120 acres belonging to two land owners in conjunction with a restoration ecologist developing a sustainability harvest plan for witch hazel herb.

While the project leader had previously been certified organic and wild crop organic on another farm, this SARE project had among its goals to address sustainability in the certification process. While sustainability is a criteria of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), the code is not specific about how to determine or audit that criteria. The project leader chose to incorporate international sustainability guidelines for the collection of wild plants into system management plans (the International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants [ISSC-MAP]).

Those guidelines, reviewed and modified for inclusion into the organic harvesting plan provided:
1. The plant population would not decrease because of the collection.
2. Neither methods of collection nor the quantities harvested impair the plant species’ ability to regenerate.
3. Sustainability of a certain harvest quantity was determined by an independent expert. (We hired a restoration ecologist to assist with our yield per acre targets.)
4. For each plant/part of plant a detailed description of the collecting methods was included – used for witch hazel and expanded to St. John's Wort.
5. For each plant/part of plant there is the need to define how much of each plant/of the whole population can be collected without endangering the whole plant population.
6. The collection does not damage other plants nor encourage erosion.

Understanding international criteria, we attempted to create a semi-fool-proof system for our wild harvest sustainability documentation under the certification that included:
Before and after harvest photos
GPS coordinates for daily harvest records
Log of daily man hours per harvest area (this is key to determining whether the yields are reasonable because people can only harvest so much per man hour)
Hired a restoration ecologist to determine sustainable harvest yields projected of plant species, impacts on water shed and other species in the habitation.

For 2008, we targeted 500 lbs per acre of witch hazel on site that represented a forest sustainably managed for dead, diseased and dying timber for the last 60 years. Witch hazel populations were intact and had never been harvested. This target ended up being highly conservative and four times that material could have been removed without compromising the sustainability.

Where certification issues interfered with harvest, we determined that documenting the harvest man hours and monetary returns were more important than the value added by certification. These were hickory nut harvest, yarrow and Monarda fistulosa harvests.

Document Production Practices by Collecting Information Related to Labor Costs and Estimated Yields per Acre, Site-Specific:

Certified Organic Wild Crop Witch Hazel
647 wet lbs of Witch Hazel were harvested over the course of 20 man hours from 3 acres of certified organic forest, for an average of 32 lbs per man hour. This raw material was distilled at a rate of 8 lbs per gallon and was used to create a total of 60 gallons of witch hazel hydrodsol.

Of this, 60 gallons, 45 gallons were stored in food grade high density plastic containers. 15 gallons were stored in low food density containers. The 45 gallons in high density plastic became rancid between the distillation and the organic certification being issued. The 15 gallons in the low density food grade containers were fine and rapidly sold at $75.00 per gallon.

Man hours associated with value-added production included: processing raw material for distillation, loading the unit, monitoring quality, decanting, clean up and record keeping. This would account for approximately 4 hours per run and a yield of 4 gallons per distillation. In short, 1.25 man hours produced $75.00 of product absent other costs like distilled water, packaging, gasoline, and marketing. Without certification the going market value on the witch hazel hydrosol would be about ¼ of the return. Certification is paramount to receiving sufficient value to launch a wild harvest operation.

Wild Harvested Yarrow Floral Water
220 wet lbs of yarrow flowers were harvested over the course of 30 man hours from approximately 1 1/2 acre of uncertified land for an average of 7.33 lbs per man hour. This raw material was distilled at a rate of 8 lbs per gallon and was used to create a total of 4 gallons of yarrow hydrodsol and 1 oz of essential oil.

Man hours associated with value-added production included processing raw material for distillation, loading the unit, monitoring quality, decanting, clean up and record keeping. This would account for approximately 4 hours per run and a yield of 4 gallons of floral water and 45 mils of essential oil in the distillation. This floral water was offered in 1 pint containers at $12.50 ($800.00) and the essential oil was sold in 1 mil vials for $5.00 per vial. Approximately 1/2 ($100.00) of the essential oil was sold with the remainder going for personal use and free samples to potential clients. Total gross value $900.00, 7 man hours. This product was popular and certification was not paramount to selling the material. The value of the harvest was purchased from the farm at $1.50 per pound. Approximately 198 lbs of material was frozen and has not been distilled.

Hickory Nuts
12 man hours were spent collecting 327 lbs of shagbark hickory nuts on approximately 3 acres. From these nuts, approximately 35 lbs of hickory nut meats were produced and sold for $12.00 per pound. The nut meats were obtained in the course of watching football on Saturday and Sunday. It took approximately 2 hours to shell one lb of nut meats. These nut meats were sold at $12.00 lb for a gain. However, not all the nuts were processed into nut meats and the ratio of raw nuts to nut meats runs about 3.5 lbs to 1.

Monarda fistulosa
63 lb of flower heads were harvested over 8 man hours. Distillation has not been completed. The material has been frozen for future work.

Certification and Value, Issues Discovered:
One species, witch hazel, was chosen because of the global demand, absence of certified production land, market demand and the ease of documenting the value of that particular wild harvest. Hamamelis virginiana is indigenous to the United States. Extensive research revealed on a global scale there is but a single certified organic witch hazel plantation production operation in France. That operation is incapable of producing the volume of certified organic witch hazel distillate being consumed in the U.K., Australia, France and United States. Certified organic witch hazel distillate has been exported from the U.S. over the last few years, without there being sufficient certified acreage to account for the level of production. This is especially true given the drop off of American land certified for herbal and botanical production addressed below.

Looking at the research data on all certified acreage in the U.S for herbal production, we discovered it had declined substantially, down 95% from 1995 - 2005.

Uncertified and illegally harvested wild material is entering the supply chain as certified material in part because the inspectors do not understand how to audit "wild crops" or botanicals. This was an important discovery that in part drove our project to focus first on site specific collection data before certification. Without baseline data on wild harvests, inspectors have no tools for auditing the validity of certification.

It is very difficult to audit yield per certified acre without some type of hands-on experience with botanical harvesting. People engaged in the botanical industry understand the lack of first hand knowledge by inspectors and exploit it. This puts a legitimate operation at a distinct disadvantage. To this end, we did file a complaint with the USDA NOP based on a failure of a certifier to audit a certified wild crop producer.

We will be doing the phyto chemical analysis on the floral waters. However, given the product spoilage that we attribute to the containers, chemical testing will include product that was stored in the high density plastic containers as well as product that was stored in the low density plastic containers.

We are working toward additional farms certified for wild crop production. We do again see the documentation of overall value and man hours from the wild harvest as an important objective regardless of certification status.

The National Network of Forest Practitioners, one our partners in this project, had to move its annual meeting from September 2008 until May 2009. Project reports will be presented at that meeting, together with a field day and tour of the distillation facility.

We will be presenting project results to the Second World Agroforestry Congress at a dinner as part of a Farmers Show and Tell in Columbia, Missouri at the request of Dr. James Chamberlain, Research Scientist, Non-Timber Forest Products, Coordinator, Research Group 5.11 and Dr. Mike Gold. This is an exciting opportunity and while not included in our plan, certainly one we intend to take advantage of.

Our results have been shared in general discussions with people engaged in the organic certification profession. Those discussions have been limited ways of detecting organic fraud and the need for better criteria in developing "sustainability" guidelines. We have also done a "meet and greet" event in St. Louis. There will be four additional "meet and greets" over the next year.