The 377-acre Catawba Sustainability Center in Roanoke County is a diversified farm with cattle, vegetables and orchards, all common for farms in this region.
But there’s also activity in the forest, under the tree canopy, where medicinal herbs like goldenseal, ginseng and black cohosh are growing in these so-called marginal lands.
Adam Taylor, manager of the Catawba Sustainability Center, dislikes that term. Forested lands are useful, just not for traditional agricultural products like livestock and crops.
Demand for medicinal herbs is on the rise. John Munsell, a professor and forest management extension specialist at Virginia Tech, said the herbal products industry has grown for 17 years straight. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven even more interest to those medicinal herbs thought to alleviate respiratory problems and provide a boost to the immune system.
With that in mind, the Catawba Sustainability Center, a former dairy farm that now serves as a “living laboratory” under the supervision of Virginia Tech, is developing a program to help forest farmers cultivate and market medicinal herbs. The project was awarded an Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development grant from the state last year that was matched by Roanoke County for a total of $40,000.
When there’s a significant increase in demand for a particular type of medicinal herb, more people will go out and harvest the plant from the wild, reducing the native population, said Katie Trozzo, food systems network and outreach specialist.
“In most cases these species are already a little precarious,” she said. “When the demand increases it’s always kind of an indicator to people who are watching the sustainability and thinking about the ecosystems that we need to explore and support ways of fostering cultivation and propagation.”
Trozzo was brought on to build an herb network. In that role, Trozzo said, she will educate farmers on medicinal herbs, help them to navigate production and harvest and ultimately “get these products to market in a way that is also honoring the plants and the sustainability and the stewardship of the land.”
She expects to work with people with varying levels of interest, from those who are simply curious about exploring medicinal herbs to farmers who hope to make medicinal herbs a revenue-generating part of their operation. They will also help landowners to steward existing wild populations in a sustainable manner.
Trozzo said the network will coordinate and host in-person and online educational training, bringing in resources and speakers, and support farmer peer-learning groups. Taylor said they hope to start that programming later this fall.
The project pairs well with Trozzo’s work coordinating the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition, particularly its whole farm planning curriculum.
“We look at a whole farm approach, and agroforestry plays into that. It’s looking into the places people often don’t look, so into their woodlands,” she said. “It’s also looking at ways that trees can support field agricultural production and help create more crop possibilities and diversity and sustainability.”
Taylor, the manager of the Catawba Sustainability Center, pointed to the highly diversified farm as an example of the whole farm approach. With medicinal herbs, farmers can generate revenue from forested areas not suitable for conventional agricultural methods, making the most of all their land.
“Most people, especially in this region, have some type of forest acreage that they own,” Trozzo said.
Medicinal herbs have a longstanding cultural legacy in the region, Munsell said, noting that central Appalachia is a “hotspot” for such non-timber products and provides a significant portion of what’s sourced into the global market. But the vast majority of product on the market currently is wild harvested, he said, rather than cultivated.
As the industry grows, it’s trying to get a better handle on the impact to the plant populations. Munsell said the “intentionality” of the forest farming model, in which plants are grown on purpose by a particular person, builds traceability and chain of custody into the process, for which companies are willing to pay more.
If companies want to continue offering products made from medicinal herbs, they need to think long term, as it takes years for the plants to mature. Prioritizing sustainability allows them to “build up some certainty in terms of future supply while you’re also working on doing better by consumers,” Munsell said.
Taylor said more of the companies making powders, tinctures and teas from medicinal herbs are seeking product that is certified forest grown — and they’re willing to pay a premium for it. As more companies head in that direction, Trozzo said, it creates more incentive for farmers to cultivate medicinal herbs.
Those involved in the project at Catawba are also studying medicinal herbs planted in raised beds in a propagation station on the property, which will be expanded thanks to grant money. There, the plants grow under a false canopy meant to mimic what’s offered by the trees, rooted in a mixture of topsoil, compost and sand.
In that controlled environment, Taylor said the team has observed anecdotally that the medicinal herbs grew more rapidly in their first year than they’d be expected to in the wild. The plants take years to mature, so speeding up that process is beneficial.
Taylor said one of the biggest hurdles for farmers interested in cultivating medicinal herbs is access to rootstock, the underground part of the plant that can be propagated for new growth. The network expected to grow out of the Catawba Sustainability Center will address that by offering what’s being grown at the center.
While farmers will tend to and harvest the plant, the network is meant to help on the beginning and tail ends of that process. Taylor said it would get members of the network started by providing rootstock and, after the herb is harvested, aggregate the product and assist with marketing.
The goal is to partner with Appalachian Sustainable Development, located in Duffield, which already offers a variety of services to forest farmers cultivating medicinal herbs in its region.
The Appalachian Harvest Herb Hub was launched in 2017. Katie Commender, agroforestry program director for Appalachian Sustainable Development, said it assists farmers in a number of ways. The hub provides access to equipment needed to process the product on a commercial scale and aggregates supply from numerous farmers to meet volume minimums established by buyers. Importantly, the hub also helps with marketing medicinal herbs, for which it receives a 10% sales commission.
“We’ve worked over the past five years now to develop premium price markets for sustainably grown forest botanicals and then also high quality, local field-grown herbs,” Commender said. “So we have a decent network both domestically and internationally for buyers who are really looking for sustainability and are willing to pay premium prices for that.”
Many of the species in demand are at-risk, Commender said, identifying overharvesting in the wild and habitat loss as threats. Companies recognize this, and are starting to shift toward purchasing cultivated, sustainable products.
The herb hub primarily works with herbal product manufacturers who turn raw botanical ingredients into value-added products like tinctures, salves, lotions and teas, she said.
Commender said one of the biggest challenges right now is demand outpacing supply for a number of different species. A partnership with the Catawba Sustainability Center could help to alleviate that pressure.
“The CSC could serve as like a satellite location where farmers in the Roanoke Valley area could bring their product and then CSC could bring it to the herb hub so that those farmers from even farther away can access the markets that we have,” she said.
With the network the Catawba Sustainability Center plans to establish, Trozzo hopes it can build on the work done by Appalachian Sustainable Development.
“They’ve been putting down these really awesome roots and now Catawba is tying into what ASD has done,” she said. “So it’s really been this beautiful collaborative effort and evolution and blooming and blossoming.”
The project was awarded an Agriculture and Forest Industries Development grant from the state last year that was matched by Roanoke County for a total of $40,000.