Perspectives Online

Project promotes herbs as alternative crops

Farmers like Richard Wren (above) in Person County are growing medicinal herbs, such as California poppy, shown below on the Warren Brothers farm in Lenoir County.
Courtesy Specialty Crops Program

For some North Carolina farmers, herbs such as California poppy, dandelion, purple coneflower and valerian may be viable crops.

That's what a project called Medicinal Herbs for Commerce is demonstrating. In 2005, the second year of the project, selected farmers across North Carolina are growing herbs with medicinal uses.

The project is part of the North Carolina Specialty Crops Program, a cooperative effort of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Marketing Division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It is funded with grants from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, Golden LEAF and the North Carolina Rural Center through the Land of Sky Regional Council, with assistance from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Plant Industry Division.

California poppy
Courtesy Specialty Crops Program
Medicinal Herbs for Commerce began in 2004 with 16 growers, said Dr. Jeanine Davis, Specialty Crops Program coordinator. Each grower agreed to produce a least an acre of California poppy, dandelion, purple coneflower or valerian. Davis said those initial growers sold nearly 5,000 pounds of herbs for nearly $25,000.

Growers involved in the project are provided everything they need to produce and market top-quality medicinal herbs - seeds along with agricultural, technical and direct marketing assistance. In addition to agronomic help, project staff help growers contact buyers and market herbs.

In 2005, 28 growers from across the state were selected from more than 100 applicants to participate in the project's second year. In addition, 14 growers from last year remain in the program. As was the case in 2004, Davis said, many are former or current tobacco growers. And this year lespedeza and camomile were added to the four herbs growers are producing.

Davis said that as the program grows, it is anticipated that more growers will participate to create a network of medicinal herb producers who can attract and support greater industrial investment by buyers, creating a self-sustaining economic structure.

"I think we're in the process of building a small industry with a reputation for high-quality herbs," Davis said. "We can't compete on volume or price - it's a global market - but we can provide consistent quality, certified organic herbs that are low in heavy metals and pesticides with consistent bioactive levels."

Davis hopes to work with growers next year to develop a cooperative or state growers' association that will market herbs to buyers looking for premium quality herbs.

- Dave Caldwell