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“Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.”

Sir Albert Howard, 1940
AN AGRICULTURAL TESTAMENT

In the late 1990s a group of medicinal herb growers came together.  They were concerned over the recent boom-and-bust in the herbal products industry, which left some U.S. and Canadian farmers holding products with no market.

After a year or two of teleconference meetings, the farmers drew some conclusions.

Herbs take on special properties by virtue of their place of production, and herbal practitioners have a good reason to value local herbs more than those produced elsewhere.

Herbs are living organisms with great capacity for adaptation, which express themselves differently depending on their environment and its foodweb.  An ecologically conscious style of production results in a more efficacious, nutritious herb.

What is ecological production?

The farmers, even though most were already certified organic, dedicated themselves to a special definition of ecological production upholding certain values.

  • The ecosystem affects the medicinal properties of plants, a basic principle understood by ancient peoples of Asia and North America.
  • A more biodiverse system, with higher levels of organization, supports a more complex expression of the plant’s capacities.
  • Biodiversity can be enhanced by the farmer;  small scale cropping systems are better suited to this goal.
  • No (or very few) amendments are added.  Fertility is maintained and enhanced through specific practices that recycle nutrients.
  • Wild-simulated medicinal plant cultivation involves a close approximation of natural conditions with minimal interference by the farmer.
  • Wild-harvesting on private rather than public lands is preferred.
  • Cooperative and local values support farmers, maintain the land, and build economies.
  • Sustainability, in localities all over the world, includes preservation of farmers’ knowledge.

Further, where the Asian medicinal plants are concerned, the farmers noted the following:

  • Many Asian herbs are very closely related to North American herbs or in familiar food plant families, and in any case are found in similar temperate zone latitudes.
  • If an Asian herb is grown in several likely ecosystems around North America, and the results compared, we can essentially “ask the plant where it needs to grow, to express the medicinal qualities we value.”

How can we assess differences in herb qualities?

Biochemical analysis can reveal the constituent profiles of medicinal plants, or test for contaminants such as heavy metals.  But it does not address qualities of terroir, a French term used in wine making to describe differences detectable by human senses which are influenced by the ecosystem the vines inhabit.  Traditionally, Asians have used their senses of taste, smell and Qi to assess herb qualities, and many are expert at it.

To figure out where to grow Asian herbs in North America, we need to learn how to perform herb quality assessment through a consensual, ordered process.  The Medicinal Herb Network in Minnesota is in the process of adapting an organoleptic protocol, used in the food industry for decades, to compare a range of samples to a standard item.  The technique is called descriptive analysis and yields replicable results using graduate students as tasters.  The Network is now developing a lexicon for Chinese medicinal herbs.  (Hassel C.A., et al. 2002. Using Chinese medicine to understand medicinal herb quality: An alternative to  biomedical approaches? Journal of Agriculture and Human Values 19: 337-347.)