The Viability of Growing Organic Medicinal Herbs as Alternative Cash Crops for Wisconsin Farmers

2008 Annual Report for FNC07-681

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2007: $5,747.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:

The Viability of Growing Organic Medicinal Herbs as Alternative Cash Crops for Wisconsin Farmers


My work activities began shortly after receiving the funds in May with seeding flats in the greenhouse. Fourteen of the twenty-six crops to be studied were planted. The starts were maintained with strict organic methods until ready for transplant into the field at the beginning of July. The flats required water two to three times daily depending on the weather. A month after germination most crops required fertilizer. The starts required on average eight to ten weeks before being ready for transplant into the field. The three acres of the nine acre field which was spread with a thick layer of leaf mulch in the previous fall was rotary tilled with a tractor pulled tiller shortly before the starts were transplanted. The remaining acreage was planted with a cover crop of buckwheat at the end of June.

The transplanting was done with a tobacco transplanter. This required three people. One person to drive the tractor, one to sit on the transplanter and one to follow and fix misplanted starts. The transplanter watered in the starts. No watering was required the rest of the season. Each 1/10th acre bed required anywhere from 500-1000 starts depending on the spacing required. Leftover starts were maintained in the greenhouse for another two weeks. Starts that died in the field were replaced with the leftovers. Over the following two months the beds were mechanically cultivated, flamed and hand weeded. Most beds required two mechanical cultivations followed by flaming or hand weeding or a combination of both.
A small harvest was taken from most crops except for multiple year root crops. The harvested flowers and herbs were dried in a small drying shed. The herb harvests were hung to dry. The flower harvests were spread on screens. All harvesting was done selectively by hand or with the aid of hand tools. Once dried, the herbs were packed into food-grade plastic bags. These small harvests will be sent as samples to perspective buyers throughout the winter. This will help me establish a potential customer base before the season begins. Throughout this whole process I kept a detailed log of all activities as well as observations of plant germination and overall growth.

The following is a list of how I allocated the funds from the first grant payment: Transplanter operation costs - $200
• Organic certification costs (MOSA) - $550
• Dehumidifier for drying shed - $1200
• Organic start soil / flats - $500
• Organic herb seeds - $125
• Organic clover cover crop seed - $150

Most herbs should be started here in the Midwest in the middle of March in order to be ready for transplant by the end of May (no more threat of frost). Since these crops are mostly perennial, the first year’s yield is small to nothing. The first year is an establishment year for the herbs and therefore they may be started later in the season. The two advantages of a later start and transplant into the field is no greenhouse heating requirements and less weed competition once transplanted. I wasn’t able to begin my project until the grant funds were available at the beginning of May. The greenhouse no longer required heat once the herbs were seeded. Greenhouse heating from March through May can be costly in the North. Weed seed germination in the field had slowed by the time the herbs were ready for transplant. This made for less intensive weeding than what is required for early season transplanting when weed seed germination is at its highest. The establishment year of the herb beds can be less expensive and require less labor for weed control if seeding is delayed. Some herb starts can be transplanted as late as September and still establish themselves enough to over-winter in the Midwest.

Many herb seeds are very small and some require special treatment before planting. The experience of large scale seeding this season along with observations of %germination for each crop will help make future seeding more effective. Once the starts were in the ground I noted observations of plant growth and weed competition for each crop in my project journal. The only water requirements for the crops were during transplanting. We had a good rain shortly after transplanting followed by an extended dry period. All crops planted this season grew well without disease or pest problems. They all appear to have established themselves enough to over-winter. All of the crops were very hardy and were not affected by the first few frosts. It took a few heavy frosts before any noticeable plant damage. This was well into November. Herb crops have a much longer season than vegetable and grain crops. Next year, yield data will be kept for each crop. Detailed results for the germination, growth and yield for each individual crop will be listed in the final report.

Some crops grew large enough to harvest a small yield from. I experimented with different harvest methods and will continue to experiment and improve upon harvest methods with next year’s first major yielding season. I will include this information in the final report. The following is a list of crops established this season: black cohosh, boneset, calendula, German chamomile, elecampane, fennel, feverfew, hyssop, lemon balm, marshmallow, motherwort, skullcap, valerian and yarrow. The remaining twelve crops to be studied will be seeded in the greenhouse in March. This will give the remaining crops a long enough growing season next year for a moderate yield. I will also be able to compare and contrast the differences in growth and weed control needed to maintain plants started in March versus May.

Next year’s work will begin with seeding the twelve remaining crops in the greenhouse in March. These crops should be ready for transplant into the field at the end of May. Mid to late April I will begin cultivating established crops. I anticipate having to cultivate each crop from last season at least twice in the spring. Some crops will also require flaming and hand weeding.

Shortly before transplanting at the end of May, I will be planting red clover into the remaining 5 ½ -6 acres of the 9 acre certified organic field being used for the project. The clover will serve a dual purpose by enriching the soil for future herb beds as well as yielding medicinal flower tops (a very marketable medicinal crop).

Throughout the winter I will be converting a large metal shed into a controlled environment drying shed. The little harvest from this season was dried in a small shed without dehumidification. Some crops, depending on the weather, had issues drying properly. Maintaining a controlled environment with dehumidification and proper air movement will create ideal drying conditions. This is especially important when drying medicinals in order to preserve the medicinal constituents as well as odor, color and flavor.

I anticipate my first harvests around the end of June. Throughout the remainder of the season different crops become harvestable at different times. Most crops have multiple harvests during the season. Flower top crops require harvesting every four days once flowering begins. Whole herb crops usually yield 2-3 harvests. Root crops require 2-3 years of growth and won’t be ready until the following season. The harvests will be dried and packaged whole in food-grade poly bags stored in burlap (to keep out light). Customers require different mill specifications depending on what will be done with the herb. An herb being used for tea will be milled to the appropriate particulate size for tea. An herb which will become encapsulated in gel-caps will need to be milled to a powder. I will mill the herbs to customers’ specifications with a hammer mill.

This winter I will be constructing a web site for Midwest Healing Herbs. The site will be a tool to market and sell the herbs. The site will also contain a link to a page explaining the grant project in detail. I will post the final report on this link. I am also planning a field day for the middle of summer ’09. I will be doing this with the assistance of a U.W. Extension agent. In addition, the extension agent will be constructing literature on herb farming for the U.W. Extension to disseminate into the farming community and U.W. agricultural studies programs. This literature will contain information on the grant study and use Midwest Healing Herbs as an example. I plan on obtaining a booth for the Organic Farm Conference held in Wisconsin every year as well as the National Small Trade Show and Conference. My booth will have literature and photos of the project and also samples of the final product.