Guest Post by Sally Rappeport
More frequently than ever before our patients express concerns about pesticides in the herbs we sell to them. As practitioners we need to both educate ourselves and support various efforts that counteract these concerns. In China, regulations are slowly emerging but perhaps not as quickly or as effectively as we might prefer.
In the US, there are several farming endeavors that are being established around this country that are expanding the scope of possibility for us to choose where we source our herbs.
More needs to happen, but as a practitioner who has been aware of these issues for 10 years, it is notable to see how much is in the ground at this time. Most significantly, these efforts will not be able to continue growing without our demand for the final products – the herbs.
Multiple issues are involved in growing Chinese herbs “locally”. We know that different herbs grow well in different types of soil, climate, and geography. The processing of the herbs is crucial to how we use them; and the medicinal properties can change depending on multiple factors. In addition, evaluation of the medicinal properties comes into question. There are a few experts in this country who have been figuring out ways to address these topics during the last decade (and longer). These include Jean Giblette at High Falls Gardens and Peg Schaeffer in California, author of The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herbs who together formed Local Herbs. There you can find a list of Chinese herbs that grow in North America and farmers can find information on how to begin cultivation.
Why local herbs? Local has become a catchword for the “locavore” food movement that I support in its intentions since there are such positive effects in having better access to quality food. Living in a metropolitan area, the neighborhood food coop considers local within 500 miles of NYC. For most of us practicing in the US, local herbs will not necessarily be grown that close, but it will be far nearer than imports from China. More importantly, local is referential to the farmers. Agribusiness is not going to be interested in the small scale nature of our market. However, independent farmers and family farms are looking for markets that are outside of the realm of agribusiness and they are developing more and more interest . This potential market can only develop if the practitioners create a demand for it. That’s us!
In California near Peggy’s farm in Sonoma County, there is an herb exchange for practitioners and farmers but in most of the country, this is not an option yet. However, featured in the High Falls Garden 2014 Autumn newsletter are two projects located in southern Virginia and Chicago which were spearheaded by local practitioners in direct contact with farmers. There is also another farm project in Nevada that has been supported by Peggy Shaeffer. In Virginia 9 farms planted herbs in 2014 as part of the Appalachian Medicinal Herb Farmers Consortium with 20 other farms hoping to join. In Chicago, Inner Ecology, an herbal formulary, has co-sponsored winter workshops for farmers interested in growing Chinese herbs.
In addition, several Seattle area practitioners have helped to develop the Northwest Asian Medicinal Herb Network. A workshop for pda credit for clinicians on Descriptive Sensory Analysis and Organoleptic Evaluation occurred in April 2014. What’s that you may ask??? Well, for us, concern about evaluation of medicinal efficacy for plant material grown outside of China is one of the major issues of domestic herb production. The conventional ways of evaluating medicinals involve checking for pesticides and heavy metals as well as biochemical analysis. These methods are important, but we are also aware of their limitations. We know that since the Shen Nong Ben Cao, Chinese herbs have been evaluated through the senses: taste, smell, touch and sight. For most of us, our skills at organoleptics and descriptive sensory evaluation are far less developed than in ancient times because we seldom need to rely on them. With the potential growth of local herb harvests, we will need to develop our abilities to evaluate herbs – in terms of their quality as well as their temperatures and tastes.
Besides developing our organoleptic skills and building relationships with farmers, I think another way of supporting the growth of Chinese herbs in the US is by encouraging the herb distributors that we currently buy our stock from to invest in this movement. Perhaps initially we can ask them to support conferences and workshops that we become involved in. And lastly, we must financially support the endeavors of those advocating for us like High Falls Gardens. Without our (tax-deductible) contributions, they can’t show that Chinese herb practitioners are behind them when they apply for grants from foundations, government,etc..
Sally Rappeport is an alumnus of Sharon’s Graduate Mentorship Program and adores studying classical Chinese medicine. Her clinic is in Park Slope in Brooklyn, NY. In 2006-07 she interned with Jean GIblette at High Falls Gardens and witnessed the cultivation of Chinese herbs through the seasons from germinating seeds to gathering the harvest. Since then she has tilled a small patch of land behind her Crown Heights brownstone.