Davis Farmer Ahead of the Medicinal Herb Boom
By Jeannette Warnert, University of California public information representative
Lois Richerson was just ahead of the boom. Before popular magazines espoused Echinacea and television talk shows raved about St. John's Wort, back when supermarket tea aisles were still stocked mostly with the ordinary black variety, Richerson was quietly researching farming opportunities for medicinal herbs.
For years, 12 acres were leased to growers, on the condition they were committed to low-input farming.The Richersons converted two acres into wildlife habitat, digging a pond and populating its banks with California native trees, shrubs and grasses. "We have all sorts of water birds: mallards, blue herons, egrets and green-backed herons. The pond is stocked with bass, catfish, blue gills and turtles. We have frogs and raccoons," Richerson said. "One of our goals is attracting quail."
Richerson's plans for the farm crystallized during a trip to Oregon. Although she was received coolly by her long-established northern neighbors, Richerson was moved by what she saw and learned. She soon joined the United Plant Savers, a medicinal plant conservation group, extending her devotion to conservation of California native plants to include medicinal plants that are over-harvested in their natural habitats worldwide.
Richerson returned to Yolo County convinced that her farm's size and location, the marketing climate, her personal commitment to sustainable agriculture and her desire to embark on a new career all lent themselves well to initiating medicinal herb production. Her first hurdle was a lack of production information. While some could be scoured from the UC Small Farm Program's library at UC Davis, the Internet, books and conversations with fellow farmers, Richerson realized early on that she would have to collect most information herself. To that end, a computer consultant with a penchant for farming works closely with Richerson to carefully monitor each herb's development and maintain a computerized database that includes the plants' germination conditions and rates, planting and fertilization dates, pest issues, harvest time, production costs, and yield. The project may eventually result in an herb production handbook.
This year, Richerson is testing 108 different herbs to determine which will fare the best on the farm and in the marketplace. Most are started from seed in two six-foot-tall germination chambers. Ordered from a company in North Carolina, the chambers provide proper humidity, heat, and light to germinate seeds in as many as 48 flats each using minimal energy. Once germinated, the seeds are moved to the greenhouse. But even state-of-the-art equipment doesn't eliminate germination problems.
"All the herbs have different germination needs," Richerson said. "One needs to be cool for two weeks, then warm and wet, then cold again. I have one of those great, big restaurant refrigerators to provide the cold climate."
The potting soil presents another challenge. Last year, Richerson created her own "live soil," teaming with micro-organisms, by mixing peat, vermiculite, and perlite with her homemade compost. This year she tried a commercial organic soil, with disappointing results. Next year, she plans to try a new compost recipe suggested by another farmer.
The organic farmers' live soil stands in stark contrast to the conventional sterile soil most often used in commercial nursery production. Having a large population of "good" compost microbes in the soil leaves fewer niches for pathogens to inhabit, keeping their numbers low naturally.
"It actually strengthens seedlings if they are exposed to a small amount of pathogens," Richersen said. "It's like inoculating them. Then they can better fend off pathogens later on."
Even so, seedlings do damp off. To control this, Richerson is experimenting with chamomile tea - not to calm her own nerves, but to spray on the plant. Organic production's biggest nuisance, she said, is weed control. "We spend way over 50 percent of our time on weeds."
With a mixture of success and frustration, she's tried hoeing weeds, flaming, mechanically cultivating, spraying with vinegar, and smothering with paper mulches. Next she'll be experimenting with a new porous fabric mulch that can be rolled onto the planting beds, and then, when the season's over, rolled up again and stored for the next season.
Nourishing the herbs has proven less vexing. Many, she said, evolved in "lean" natural soils, so they require little nitrogen fertilizer. She uses cover crops, such as vetch, bell beans, cow peas and Austrian peas, and compost made on the farm with horse manure, straw bedding, wood shavings, and other organic matter. Gypsum is applied every year. She calls the calcium sulfate input, which causes a chemical reaction in clay soil that improves its tilth, the "perfect additive."
Many medicinal plants are trees. While Chinese eat Gingko Biloba fruit, Richerson said she is growing the trees for leaves, which are said to relieve symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. "I hope to plant six acres of trees," said Richerson, who also grows Elderberry trees for their flowers and berries, and Chasteberry trees for their berries. Marketing her product is yet another venture. Richerson canvassed phone books and periodicals, and talked to friends and fellow farmers to compile a list of 130 local herbalists. She had six enthusiastic responses to her first direct mailing. "They're very excited about getting fresh, organically grown herbs," Richerson said.
A second mailing will follow when Richerson has determined what she will sell this year and at what price. To determine pricing, Richerson is analyzing her expenses. "There is information on pricing of dried herbs, but for fresh herbs there is no certain market," she said. "The herbs will be expensive because so much hand labor and research are involved."
So far, the enterprise has not generated income, but Richerson has no lofty aspirations. Rather, she hopes to cover her costs, fund her continued production research, provide a living wage to her employees, and pay for her own time. "I just want to support my lifestyle," she said. "I want to live among these wonderful plants."