Organic Row Cropping of Threatened Medicinal Herbs for Market in the Northeast

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2001: $3,825.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $3,850.00
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Jeffery Carpenter
Zack Woods Herb Farm

Annual Reports


  • Additional Plants: herbs, native plants


  • Crop Production: cover crops, multiple cropping, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, networking, on-farm/ranch research, technical assistance
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, marketing management, feasibility study, agricultural finance
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Production Systems: general crop production
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, employment opportunities

    Proposal summary:

    Current Issue and Proposal

    “At the same time as 80% of the world’s population depends on traditional medicine systems, chiefly herbal medicine, the accelerating need for phytomedicines, pharmaceutical drugs, and other industrial applications has caused over-exploitation of medicinal plants, resulting in genetic erosion and threat of extinction of many source plants harvested in the wild.”

    -Conclusion from the First World Congress on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants for Human Welfare, Netherlands, 1992.

    This project will investigate the agronomic and economic feasibility of cultivating 9 species of medicinal plants that are considered threatened in their native environment due to overharvesting and loss of habitat.

    By examining if these plants can be successfully grown in the Northeast on small farms using traditional, organic row-cropping techniques, we will explore the possibility of supplying the booming local medicinal herb market with cultivated alternatives to wild harvested species. By doing so, we intend to demonstrate alternative land use methods for small dairy farms in the Northeast faced with the uncertainty of the future price of milk, thereby helping to perpetuate the rural, agricultural landscape our region is known for. We also hope to ensure the future of our diverse native medicinal plant populations.

    Although humans have used medicinal plants since the dawn of civilization, relatively little information has been gleaned on their propagation and cultivation. There is virtually a wealth of information available on vegetable growing, animal husbandry, forestry, and other “farming” methods but medicinal herb farming is relatively “new” and therefore little has been written that’s of much use. It’s up to those of us in the experimental stages of these “new” cultural techniques, to share the knowledge that can only be gained through trial and error.

    Fortunately, the Northeast’s climate, geology, topography and soil types are ideal for growing most of the species of medicinal herbs that are valued in today’s market. We intend to demonstrate that there are alternatives to the more common, though not always profitable, crops grown in production in this region. In order to maintain our rural, agricultural heritage, we must ensure that our land remains productive enough to avoid losing it to the tides of development.

    I feel that our research will assist farmers in our region by demonstrating to them, the potential profitability of growing medicinal herbs with the land, equipment and techniques that most have already been using for years. This will also contribute to the health of our people by providing them with medicinal plants grown free of chemicals and contribute to the health of our ecosystem with cultural practices that nourish rather than deplete our land. We will encourage a spirit of cooperation rather than competition.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Project methods and Outreach

    Our farm is divided into 1/8 acre “beds” 50’ by 100’ with sod paths between each bed. The 100’ lengths make it easier for us to keep track of production numbers. For example, three rows of Echinacea spaced at 12” in the row gives us 300 plants. We plan to use these same field dimensions for this study. We feel that those who may benefit from our research will find it easy to extrapolate the data for their own planning purposes.

    The nine herbs we have chosen come from United Plant Savers (UpS) “at risk forum.” UpS is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the future of medicinal plants which are presently in decline due to expanding popularity and shrinking habitat and range. Fortunately, five out of the nine trial species are indigenous to this region. We have demonstrated in small trial beds that the other four species will grow here as well. We will be working closely with UpS during our research. Following is a list of the trial species and cultivation methods we will be employing.

    Arnica (Arnica chamissonis) is an herbaceous perennial traditionally used in homeopathic remedies for the relief of pain associated with mild trauma. We will propagate this from seed and will grow three rows at 12” spacing in the full sun. Plants will be banded with compost at planting to increase soil fertility.

    Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) is an herbaceous perennial traditionally used as a tonic for the female reproductive system. We will propagate this herb from root divisions and grow four rows at 24” spacing. This is a woodland herb but we have found that in this region it grows very well in full sun. We will incorporate compost at planting for additional fertility.

    Bloodroot (Sanguinarea canadensis) is an herbaceous perennial traditionally used in dental preparations to prevent plaque and has been used to treat basal cell skin cancer. We will propagate this herb from root divisions and grow three rows at 6” spacing. Bloodroot is a woodland herb and therefore will be grown under shade cloth, companion planted with Goldenseal, and mulched with straw to help keep weeds down.

    Pleurisy (Asclepias tuberosa) is an herbaceous perennial traditionally used to treat inflammations of the lungs. We will propagate this plant from seed and plant two rows at 12” spacing. This will be grown in the full sun and compost will be incorporated at planting to increase soil fertility.

    Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) is an herbaceous perennial traditionally used to strengthen the immune system. We will propagate this plant from seed and plant six rows at 12” spacing. This will be grown in the full sun and likes a soil of minimal fertility so no amendments will be added.

    Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis) is an herbaceous perennial traditionally useful for its anti-bacterial, anti-viral activities. We will propagate this from root divisions and grow eight rows at 6” spacing. Goldenseal is a woodland herb and therefore will be grown under shade cloth, companion planted with Bloodroot and mulched with straw to help keep weeds down

    Lobelia (Lobelia inflata) is an herbaceous annual traditionally used as an anti-spasmodic. We will direct seed six rows of this at approximately 6” spacing. This will be grown in the full sun and likes a soil of minimal fertility so no amendments will be added.

    Slippery Elm (Ulmus rubra) is a deciduous tree whose bark is used for its demulcent, mucilaginous properties. We will plant 100 seeds in a nursery bed and transplant successful germinators into nursery pots to grow on for a year until large enough for planting.

    Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) is an herbaceous perennial traditionally used for its immune enhancing properties. We will propagate this from seed and will plant two rows at 24” spacing. This will be grown in full sun and compost will be incorporated at planting to increase fertility.

    Measurment of results

    Seven of the nine species we will grow are perennials. Of these seven, four of the species won’t be harvested until the fall of their third year of growth. This is to ensure that their medicinal potential and marketable sizes are attained. During these three years, we will carefully observe and record any data we feel will be valuable to share. Some examples of the data we plan to collect are:

    • Plant health and vigor
    • Size attained after each year of growth
    • Pest damage with foliage damage ratings two times per season
    • Disease susceptibility with foliar lesion ratings two times per season
    • Weekly external observations such as: rainfall, irrigation, soil amendments, and general weather conditions observed
    • Soil tests
    • Yields after each harvest.

    We will also be meticulously tracking our equipment, material, and labor expenses. For tracking costs of production, we will use a system designed by our technical advisor, Richard Wiswall, that utilizes tracking sheets for each crop. This is a system that we used successfully in the summer of 1999 to track three species we grew. When we harvest the herbs, we will process and weigh the marketable material.

    After pricing the crops according to market value, we will factor the results of our input to obtain profitability results. Lobelia is the only annual we will grow for the research. Therefore, results from it will be available in the fall of 2001. Arnica, bloodroot, and black cohosh will be harvested after two seasons of growth. Goldenseal, pleurisy, indigo and Echinacea harvested after year three. The slippery elm trees will not be harvested during the research period but will be observed and data will be recorded each year for cultivation potential.


    We are fortunate to have many wonderful opportunities to share our results. I am currently on the board of directors for the Vermont Herb Growers Association. We publish a quarterly newsletter to which I will submit articles based on our research. VHGA also holds a fall conference that was attended by over 75 people this year. This event will be a good forum for us to share our research.

    The association hosted a “farmer to farmer” tour at our farm last season that was open to the public and was very successful. We plan on offering this tour again this season where we hope to share our research. NOFA-VT also hosted a farm tour open to the public at our farm last season. This was very successful and we look forward to the possibility of sharing our research during this event next season.

    My wife’s mother, Rosemary Gladstar who is also one of our collaborators, is the president of United Plant Savers. She holds many workshops both in Vermont and throughout the Northeast on the plight of our native species. These will also be good forums to share our research. We also plan to submit articles in UpS quarterly newsletter, NOFA-VT’s quarterly newsletter, and the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s newsletter “Cultivating Connections.”

    Last year my wife Melanie, spearheaded the 1st annual Hyde Park Herb Festival at our farm. This was attended by 35 people and numerous herbal educators, and will also be a wonderful forum in which to share our research. We are also looking into the possibility of having a local agricultural television show called “Across the Fence” film a segment on our farm where we will highlight our project.

    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.