Chinese Medicinal Herb Project Growing in SWVA

Jun 10, 2016

A few years ago, we told you about a project getting underway to encourage farmers to grow Chinese Medicinal Herbs in Appalachia.  Turns out the terrain here and climate here are suited for many of these ancient strains to grow and flourish.  Robbie Harris went back to the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine in Floyd, Virginia where the project began.  

Adam Fisher (L) & David Grimsley (R)
Credit Amy Avery-Grubel

“ This is Salvia Miltiorrhiza, one of the medicinal herbs that we’re growing.”

Zoe Slavin is transferring small seedlings from flats into pots at the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine.  

“Commonly this Salvia is known as sage and this is a specific Chinese variety. The root is actually the medicinal part to this plant.”

It’s volunteer day here and people are busy watering the seedlings and tagging the pots for the farmers who will pick them up to plant and raise on their farms. 

David Grimsley is the Director of the Appalachian Herb Grower's Consortium. He says, ”When they go out to the farms we really encourage our farmers to plant these herbs, water them in if they need it, if rain is coming in 2 or 3 days we tell them, ‘just wait, let the rain do it. ‘  Plant them on the margins of your fields, don’t plant them in your vegetable garden that’s full of nitrogen and everything you done to baby your crops. These plants are like dealing with wolves as opposed to dealing with dogs. You’re dealing with a wild plant and they want to survive with a struggle and that’s what really brings out the medicinal compounds in these herbs.”

Grimsley has been nurturing this project for 3 years, growing it from 9 participating farmers around here to 50 and creating an elaborate tracking system that can trace each plant not only to the farm but the bed where it was raised.

“We do not allow our growers to wash any herbs on their farm.  They harvest and bring them to our processing hub where we know that we have potable water, they’re following GAP regulations as they harvest, and grow these herbs in general. We then take it to the next level with our processing here and package it and sell it.”

Gap stands for Good Agricultural Practices  of the USDA.  

The new processing room is immaculate with stainless steel mesh drying racks just waiting for this year’s harvest, to begin in a few weeks.

Grimsley points to the racks. “We have two types of driers. We call this our cookie sheet drier…”

The dried herbs are packed in clear plastic bags for shipping, the flowering ones still hold their bright hues something practitioners of Chinese Medicine look for.

“This is Artemesia Annua.  As its Latin name says, it’s an annual crop and this is a really important herb that just received a lot of attention. A woman from China received the Nobel Prize for her work with Artemesia Annua during the Viet Nam war for staving off Malaria.  But this is also a very good Lyme Disease herb.

Herbal medicine has a long history but for most American farmers it’s still new turf. That’s why the program is designed to absorb any losses farmers might have, thanks to two rounds of grants from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

“ When farmers get herbs from us we’ve also designed it that they don’t pay any money up front.  We create a balance for them and as we sell the final product we minus out that balance and then they get paid. We’re able to sell our (plant) starts for $1 a start.

Grimsley says these herb plants create so many new seeds they can sell them for pennies. And that’s also part of what makes this project easy to propagate.  

“ I want this and open source kind of situation. This is one of our main principals in this project so as this project grows I want to be able to set up additional hubs especially to the west, within the Virginia Tobacco Commission region going toward coal country where people really need this economic boost”

The Appalachian Herb Grower’s Consortium recently got a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.  That will pay for powering the whole operation on solar energy and it will help it to grow even larger.

Take a tour of the herb garden during the Floyd Artisan Trail Tour  Friday June 10-12, 2016 Friday & Saturday 10am-5pm; Sunday 12-5pm