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Locally grown herbs finding their niche

By Karen Brown
Globe Correspondent / September 5, 2011

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CONWAY - Almost everything Joanna Miles consumes comes from a local source. The 34-year-old stay-at-home mother gets her vegetables from one nearby farm, her meat and grains from another, her milk from a local dairy. And this summer, she learned that the locavore movement has come to medicinal herbs.

That’s how she ended up at Goldthread Herb Farm, a picturesque three acres in the foothills of the Berkshires, choosing from an assortment of herbal tea, hydrosols, oils, and tinctures that originated in its lush fields.

Miles, who lives in Easthampton, filled her bag with clary sage to calm her premenstrual moods, California poppy to help her sleep, and dried nettles for calcium - all of which she could have bought at a retail store.

“I really wanted to see the ground, see where they grew,’’ she said, “to talk to the people who make it, see the care and the love they put into it. And to support the growing efforts.’’

Miles is just the sort of consumer William Siff had in mind when he bought this certified organic farm six years ago and started what he calls a Community Supported Medicine program - a variation on the better-known term Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA.

Siff’s goal is to get his medicinal herbs into the consumer’s medicine cabinet the same way that vegetable CSAs get local produce onto the kitchen table.

Fifty to 75 people invest in a share of his harvest every year, he said, each paying $150 to $225 for three pick-ups a season - about 20 percent less than the retail price. Instead of kale and lettuce, they get calendula and skullcap - usually packaged for internal or topical use.

“They treat all manner of what you would typically see at the individual or family level in the course of living your life in New England for a year,’’ Siff said. “Colds, flus, allergies, coughs, sleep and stress, minor skin things.’’

While Goldthread was among the first farms to launch this CSA model, the American Botanical Council reports a growing number of herbal farmshares across the Northeast and, to a lesser extent, beyond. Some sell their medicinal herbs at farmers markets or by mail order, and others, like Goldthread, invite consumers to pick up directly from the farm and learn there how to use them.

Siff, a tall, fit 39-year-old, is an acupuncturist and practitioner of herbal medicine who also runs a retail herb apothecary in Northampton. For years, he bought his remedies from producers as far away as California and China.

“It didn’t make much sense, considering the fact there’s a lot of fossil fuel usage getting them here,’’ Siff said. “You can’t ascertain quality and freshness at the level you can when you do it yourself, when it’s locally sourced.’’

He decided to start his own herb farm - not just for his own clinical use, but to reach a growing market of people frustrated with Western health care.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes for Health, found that 17 percent of Americans use some form of plant-based medicine, and the American Botanical Council reports that sales of herbal dietary supplements total about $5 billion a year.

Joanna Miles says the appeal of herbs, for her, is that they are designed to keep people healthy, not just treat them when sick.

Taking herbs “is self-empowering, because people can do it at home by themselves,’’ said Siff, who said he has not been to a Western doctor in 17 years. “They don’t have to run to the doctor every time they get a sore throat or a cold or cough. It’s basically the revival of what we call folk medicine.’’

Not that he expects his customers to forgo all pharmaceuticals. “But they’re looking for alternatives. Herbal medicine tends to be, if used right, something that not only deals with symptoms but strengthens underlying tissues of the body.’’

On a recent pick-up day, Siff - in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals - led customers through his fields to see the plant versions of what they got in their shares. He passed wild jagged stalks of stinging nettles - good for arthritis and joint pain, he explained - and moved onto tulsi, a member of the basil family.

“Feel free to scratch or smell it,’’ he told them. “If you drink it every day, for a period of time, weeks to months, it will help to essentially enhance your energy, help you to sleep deeper, and resist the negative effects of stress.’’

Next was California poppy, an antispasmodic for the nervous system, Siff said. Take a dropper full of the tincture, he told them, “and then wait until you feel relaxation. Anywhere from every 30 to 45 minutes to an hour, do it again, until the pain is at a level where it’s tolerable. The thing with herbs is you have to monitor how it’s affecting you, moment to moment, hour to hour.’’

But even with this educational piece, some herbal experts question whether medicine - natural or otherwise - should be marketed the same way as eggplants and broccoli.

“Are you just supposed to take whatever medicinal herbs are being grown? Because that seems like an odd way to use medicine,’’ says Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, a Georgetown University plant pharmacologist affiliated with the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “You wouldn’t go into a drugstore and ask for the drug of the week.’’

Siff points out that many people keep standard Western pharmaceuticals on hand, such as decongestants or aspirin, so why not do the same for herbal medicine?

Fugh-Berman, however, worries that untrained consumers may not know how to use the herbs properly, especially since the FDA does not regulate herbs for safety or effectiveness. And while she says many common herbs - such as chamomile or lemon balm - are benign, others can be problematic if taken in high doses, or with prescription drugs.

“If it’s strong enough to be pharmacologically active,’’ Fugh-Berman says, “it’s also strong enough to have some side effects.’’

On the other end of the debate, some question how well herbs work at all - and whether taking them could delay more effective Western treatment.

Dr. David Kroll, a pharmacologist at North Carolina Central University who studies medicinal herbs, thinks consumers should be aware that the quality and potency of plants can vary greatly from farm to farm. He also points out that major clinical trials have shown little to no benefit for some popular herbs, including echinacea for shortening the duration of colds and ginkgo for memory enhancement.

“There’s this beautiful emotional connection to the land, particularly if you’re buying from a farmer who’s local,’’ Kroll says. “But I think that it is just as much of a crapshoot as far as whether the herbs will have a desired effect when purchased from a farm, relative to a retail outlet.’’

Many of Goldthread’s shareholders say the herbs make a difference for them, but the appeal goes beyond efficacy.

It’s about seeing the farmworkers, many of them herbalism students, poring over each individual yarrow stem or pulling petals off each chamomile flower.

“I have a lot of respect for people who do this kind of work,’’ said Meredith Marcoux of Greenfield, who uses medicinal herbs for herself and her dogs. “I’d like to see this flourish.’’

Karen Brown can be reached at kbrown@admin.umass.edu.

Other common herbs

Goldenseal, used for colds, diarrhea, eye infections, vaginitis, and canker sores. There is little scientific evidence it?s effective; studies are ongoing. Rare side effects may include nausea and vomiting.

Feverfew, used for fevers, headaches, stomach aches, toothaches, insect bites, infertility, and problems with menstruation. Study results are mixed. Side effects include canker sores, irritation of lips and tongue, loss of taste, and digestive problems.

Lavender, used for aromatherapy and in oils for the skin. There is little scientific evidence it?s useful for health conditions. Side effects are not a concern but lavender oil can be poisonous if taken by mouth. Lavender teas and extracts may cause headache, changes in appetite, and constipation.

SOURCE: National Institutes of Health/National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine