When people hear about the “Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine” in Floyd County, they sometimes look surprised and ask, “What’s that doing here? Not only is it serving a local clientele, it’s also working to create a network of farmers raising certified traditional Chinese herbs to supply a growing sector in health care.
This past March, the Cleveland Clinic opened one of the first hospital-based Chinese herbal therapy clinics in the U.S. to offer patients what it calls a holistic approach to prevention and treatment of chronic disease. It’s difficult to get numbers from government health agencies, but studies suggest this may be one of the fastest growing sectors in medicine. And that means greater demand for one of its main modalities.
“So we have a lot of herbs coming up and most of these herbs have been established for the last 7 or 8 years and so a lot of these will be able to be harvested and divided this year,” says David Grimsley.
David Grimsley and Nate Sloane are pointing to what look like typical peonies growing in a garden at the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine, but the pedigree makes all the difference.
“As long you could have a paper trail a clear paper trail of where they came from and you know that they’re medicinal rather than just a cultivar,” says Sloane.
Sloane and David Grimsley are directors of a new project here; The Appalachian Medicinal Herb Growers Consortium. They’re working to cultivate a network of local farmers to join them.
“So there’s the native populace that’s a farming populous and then there’s a transplant as well that’s been moving in, in the last 20 years where there’s a little more open minded per se in terms of contemporary beliefs, or how would you phrase that?”
“Yeah, I feel like the people that move to Floyd County are generally well traveled so they’ve seen a lot of things. They’ve probably lived in a more metropolitan area. So having Chinese medicine around isn’t a new thing to them at all.”
But if it is one of the fastest growing areas in medicine, that’s partly because the percentage of Americans who use it is still small. To most people the whole idea of it is foreign. Let’s have clinical herbologist Sheila Guarngia explain how it works.
“So I could have 5 people with low back pain come to see me. Five people could go to see a western medicine practitioner for low back pain and the western approach is usually a series of plans and everybody with low back pain will go through that series. So first we try non-steroidal anti- inflammatories and when those don’t work we try muscle relaxants and when those don’t work, maybe a cortisone injection or nerve medications like nerontin or that kind of thing. In Chinese medicine when we look at the same case, those same five people, although they have the similar issue with low back pain, when we actually look at them more deeply, as individual people, we may find that one person has an excessive amount of heat in their system and another person is excessively cold. Someone else may be very tense in their muscles; someone else may be very exhausted and weak in their muscles. And the fifth person might have had an injury. In order to arrive at the proper treatment principle, we want to understand that because we want to choose our medicines appropriately for the person because we may have the same symptom but we have different people and we have to treat the person, not the symptom.”
Guarangia’s practice is in Roanoke and she gets her herbs from trusted sources, but there are only about a dozen in the US. Most still come from China. And many in this country are concerned about quality control, pollution, and over harvesting in China where medicinal herbs have been growing wild for centuries. She says despite the shortage Chinese medicinal herb growers around the country say is coming, she doesn’t want to see it become a large-scale operation here.
“In the hands of wise herbal medicine practitioners, we don’t need huge does or long treatments with herbs. When you pick them correctly they work very efficiently they nourish the body back to its own balanced state, and then you move on so it shouldn’t be where everyone’s needing gallons of Gogi berry juice every day kind of thing, straining the environment even further.”
Chinese medicinal herbs grow best in undisturbed land, in forests and meadows such as you see everywhere in Floyd County and throughout Appalachia. She thinks growing these herbs will help not only her patients, but the region as well.
“The species of plants require a certain environment and by catering to them we will create that environment and to some extent that environment can be healthier than the one we’re creating right now.”
Jean Giblette is a well-respected Chinese herb grower in upstate New York and a consultant to the Appalachian Medicinal Herb Growers Consortium at the Blue Ridge Center.
“The other benefit to Appalachia and actually the northeast is that we were never damaged by industrial agriculture to the extent that the midwest the far west have been. So we have many unused old traditional farms that are maybe in hay or pasture and those can be restored and configured so we can grow herb on them.”
So far, David Grimsley and Nate Sloan have gotten only one local farmer to sign on to grow certified Chinese Medicinal Herbs. But they say they’ve gotten a lot of interest from others around here. A similar project is underway in North Carolina. Meantime, they’re like a version of the cooperative extension, going out to area farms offering help if people want to consider joining. No easy feat, because it’s not possible to tell what the market is. Insurance does not cover traditional Chinese medicine so it’s hard to track.
“And you have to create your reality. That’s sort of the secret in life and I’m trying to teach my 5 year old that now that what you put in you will get back from the universe and I feel like I’ve done that and that's’ why I’m here,” says Grimsley.
Grimsley and Sloan will reap their first harvest this fall. They’ll collect the seeds and split the perennials to add 3 more gardens next year. Growing Chinese medicinal herbs and what they hope becomes a new industry in Appalachia.