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Medicinal herbs: a Carolina cash crop: growing our local farm economy.

When you think about agriculture in North Carolina, you probably don't think of fields full of echinacea, California poppy, or valerian. You might conjure up images of tobacco, soybeans, livestock, or specialty vegetables. That image may very well be changing. Medicinal herbs are poised to offer a bit of healing to the struggling fields of North Carolina agriculture. An innovative project based at North Carolina State University's Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher, NC is creating a network of medicinal herb growers across the state and connecting them with buyers throughout the region. This is giving a boost to North Carolina's struggling farm economy and building the regions natural products industry all at the same time.

In March of 2004, the Medicinal Herbs for Commerce project selected seventeen farmers across the state to receive technical assistance, seed, and a small grant to produce at least one acre of California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), or valerian (Valeriana officinalis). Farmers kept detailed records of their production methods and experiences as part of a research endeavor to assess the potential of medicinal herbs to be a viable alternative crop for North Carolina. This year, thirty additional farmers will be selected to participate in the program. Many participating growers are current or former tobacco farmers. Most have never produced medicinal herbs before. Although not all of them are certified organic producers, they are encouraged to follow the National Organic Program standards with their herb crops. With the support of NCSU faculty and staff, these farmers are exploring herbs as a way to diversify their farms for increased economic viability. This year, growers will refine their techniques of production, cultivating, drying, and post-harvest handling so that the bioactive constituent (medicinal) content of the plants and yields per acre are maximized. Some are exploring additional herbs such as Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), and German chamomile (Matricaria recutita).

Farmers involved in this project are compiling valuable information about techniques best suited for the variety of growing conditions across North Carolina. A farmer producing Echinacea purpurea in the mountain region has a different set of environmental conditions to contend with than a farmer producing the same crop in the coastal plain region. That means the methods they will employ throughout the production and harvest process will vary. This is particularly true when it comes to drying the herbs. Although some medicinal herbs are sold fresh to buyers, many buyers are looking for dried product. In order to meet this requirement, many participating growers have used bulk tobacco drying barns to dry their herbs. Information on methods for commercial production and handling for many of these crops hasn't previously been documented for this area, and the experience gained by this project is already proving useful for other growers.

Like many others, North Carolina farmers face difficult times, whether due to the changing dynamics of tobacco following the recently passed tobacco buyout bill, or simply due to the ever-increasing challenge of making a profit as a farmer in the global marketplace. High-value specialty crops like medicinal herbs, may present an opportunity for farmers to diversify their operations for increased profit. This, in turn, helps keep our farming communities and working landscapes intact.

Regional buyers of herbs have played an integral role in the project by offering invaluable advice to the growers and purchasing the crops produced. Medicinal Herbs for Commerce also works closely with the NC Natural Products Association, a non-profit education and research organization supporting NC's natural, products community. Together, these partners are creating momentum for a strong natural products industry in North Carolina.

Medicinal Herbs for Commerce is part of the North Carolina Specialty Crops Program, a cooperative program between the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NC State University and the Marketing Division of the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The project is funded with grants from the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission and the Golden Leaf Foundation, with assistance from the NC Rural Center. Visit www.ncherb.org to learn more about this innovative program. To find out how you can be involved in the growing natural products industry in North Carolina, visit www.ncnaturalproducts.org and consider becoming a member of the North Carolina Natural Products Association.

NC Farmer's Medicinal Crops You can grow them too!

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

Part used: Flowering aerial parts and root

Medicinal use: Used as a mild sedative in the treatment of anxiety and insomnia

Growing tips: Direct seeding works best for this annual or short-lived perennial plant. It does not transplant well and does not tolerate disturbance of the taproot. It thrives in dry conditions with full sun and well-drained average to poor soil. Space 4" apart in full sun, and be careful when cultivating/weeding near it to minimize root disturbance.

Harvest tips: Pull entire plant out of the ground, clean lightly to remove soil and other debris, and dry immediately or use fresh. Several harvests of the aerial parts are possible by cutting plant back by about forty to fifty percent and then waiting for re-growth.

Purple coneflower Echinacea purpurea)

Part used: Aerial parts or root

Medicinal use: Used to stimulate the immune system, treat the initial stages of cold and flu symptoms, and has antiseptic properties. Traditionally used to treat snakebites.

Growing tips: One of three Echinacea species used for medicinal purposes, (the others are Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea pallida), this herbaceous perennial can be propagated from seed, transplants, or divisions. It has a fibrous root system and can tolerate high heat and dry conditions. It prefers a well-drained alkaline soil in full sun but does not compete well with weeds. Space 12-18" apart.

Harvest tips: For use of the aerial parts, plants are cut either in leaf or bloom stage and dried immediately using constant airflow at a steady, high temperature to lock in the color. Two or three aerial part harvests per season can be expected. For root harvest, dig root in the second year of growth, clean well and dry at a lower temperature in order to allow them to dry from the inside out.

Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora)

Part used: Aerial parts

Medicinal use: Used as a sedative in the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, nervous irritability, and some forms of depression. Also used for headaches, as a diuretic and as an antispasmodic.

Growing tips: This herbaceous perennial plant likes moisture, fertile soil, and cooler temperatures, so plant in a low-lying area with full sun or partial shade with 8-12" spacing. It can be cultivated by seed, cuttings, or root divisions, and spreads like mints.

Harvest tips: Harvest when it begins to flower, clean soil and other debris off plant, and dry immediately. One cutting in the first year followed by two cuttings in consecutive years can be expected.

Libby Hinsley is the Assistant Coordinator for the Medicinal Herbs for Commerce Project at North Carolina State University's Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Fletcher, NC. You can reach her at 828-684-3562, x157 or libby_hinsley@ncsu.edu.
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Title Annotation:herbal healing
Author:Hinsley, Libby
Publication:New Life Journal
Geographic Code:1U5NC
Date:Jun 1, 2005
Words:1181
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