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A Conversation with Medicinal Herb Farmers Jeff and Melanie Carpenter

In their new book, The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer, Jeff and Melanie Carpenter offer a business guide and farming manual on how to successfully grow and market organic medicinal herbs. The Carpenters cover the basic practical information any grower needs to get an organic herb farm up and running, including size and scale considerations, soil and plant conservation, growing and cultivation methods, harvesting, processing, business planning, and much more.

The Carpenters demonstrate that incorporating medicinal herbs into existing farm operations can not only increase revenue in the form of value-added products, but also improve the ecological health of farmland by encouraging biodiversity and permaculture as a path toward greater soil health. Check out the Q&A below for a conversation with the authors about their herb farming business.

For more information on The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer, read this review from the Herbal Academy of New England and listen to an interview with the authors on Sustainable World Radio.

6 Questions with Jeff and Melanie Carpenter

How did you get into medicinal herb farming, as opposed to other more traditional crops?  

J&M: We got into medicinal herb farming after previously owning an herbal products business and finding great difficulty sourcing high quality, locally produced bulk herbs for manufacturing our products.  We also started realizing that instead of being inside manufacturing and selling herbal products, that we had a greater desire to work outside with the land, growing and selling bulk herbs to other people who were seeking high-quality, locally produced herbs for their own products.

How many different varieties of herbs do you grow on your 30-acre farm in northern Vermont? You mention in your book that the herb market tends to fluctuate depending on certain health trends. What herbs would you say are the most popular right now?  

J&M: We grow over 50 species of herbs on approximately 10-15 of our 30 available acres.  The most popular herbs on the market these days tend to be what are known as “adaptogens”. These herbs, such as ginseng, tulsi, and rhodiola help people adapt to physical, emotional and environmental stresses.  Herbs that support healthy immune and nervous system function such as echinacea, garlic, and elderberry are also popular.  Herbs used externally for skin care products and aromatherapy applications are also seeing rapid growth in the herbal marketplace.

Most people are familiar with herbs like lavender, peppermint, and echinacea. What are the medicinal benefits of a few less commonly known plants and what value-added products might they be used in?

J&M: A favorite value-added product for people who live in winter climates is elderberry syrup. This delicious remedy is easy to make, highly effective at helping to combat cold and flu symptoms, and a great way to use fresh berries. For active people prone to muscle soreness, a great herb is arnica. Many people use the homeopathic preparations, however, it is equally effective to make a medicinal oil of the blossoms by filling a jar with fresh blossoms, covering them with olive oil and letting it sit for six weeks. After six weeks strain the oil and use topically.  Another value-added product that is experiencing popularity is bitters. Many herbs like dandelion, angelica, and yellowdock have bitter flavors and carminative attributes that help to stimulate digestion. These and other herbs can be tinctured using vodka to make a delicious aperitif.

Do you have to be an herbalist to be an herb farmer?  

J&M: One does not need to be an herbalist to be an herb farmer, but it is helpful for farmers growing crops to be marketed for use in medicinal herb products to have at least a rudimentary understanding of what the crops they are selling are to be used for.  When people ask us direct questions about their specific health issues and how our herbs may be able to help them, we refer them to health care practitioners such as herbalists and naturopaths for specific diagnosis. We assume that most of these practitioners refer their patients who want specific advice on growing and purchasing medicinal herbs to come to us for advice.

What are the main differences between growing herbs for medicinal vs. culinary purposes? Is it in the variety selection, cultivation, harvesting, processing, all of the above?

J&M: There are definitely differences between growing culinary herbs and growing medicinal herbs. For example, most of the culinary herbs that are in common use are grown as annuals whereas most medicinal herbs are perennials. Most culinary herbs are hybrids, meaning they were bred to carry specific traits such as high yields and concentrations of aromatic flavoring compounds. Most medicinal herbs are plants that have been selected from the wild for their healing properties and have changed little if at all in the last several thousand years humans have been using them. Those hybrid culinary herbs tend to be more susceptible to pest and disease issues due to the fact that in breeding, much of the plants natural resistance to these issues has been compromised.  Medicinal herbs being more on the “wild side” have evolved for thousands of years to be resistant to many of these challenges so we see less disease and pest pressure.  There are many similarities in the cultivation, harvesting, and processing practices, but the marketing aspects are generally very different.  Culinary herb production is fairly widespread and therefore price competition tends to be high. Medicinal herb production is less common and therefore there is much less competition in the marketplace which usually translates into increased profitability for medicinal herb producers.

What do you find most rewarding about the work you do?  

J&M: The most rewarding thing about our work growing medicinal herbs is working outside with nature to grow plants that bring health and well-being to people. Working in concert with the natural world allows us so much variety in the work we do that it is rarely predictable or repetitive. While we work incredibly long hours during the growing season, we have much more down time in the winter to rest, recuperate, and prepare for the next season.

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