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Chinese herb growing business looks to stimulate farming

The Roanoke Times
PILOT A nonprofit hopes a fledgling Chinese herb growing consortium can stimulate the chi, or life force, of farmers across the region.
Over the past two years, the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine has leveraged state grants to train and out fit growers to help meet the rising demand for herbs traditionally used to treat a variety of health complaints.
Last year the program signed up 25 growers, who planted 13,000 herb species. This year the number of growers doubled to 50, with about 30,000 plants in the ground.
The center employs a certified Chinese medicine practitioner, who now can prescribe some traditional medicines grown with in a two-hour drive of the practice. In the next few years, herbs produced by those same growers could be sold to practitioners across the mid-Atlantic.
"The whole idea is to connect the practitioner who's working on you, the grower who's growing the herbs and the supplier of the herbs," said Rob Glenn, president of the center's board and leader of the project. "This is not an experiment. There is a market. We know many of the herbs will grow here."
Several medicinal herbs have been growing on the center's Floyd County grounds since 2006. But the education, plant testing and crop processing and sales infrastructure was missing. In 2014 the center formed the Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium, and now, Glenn said, "we've got all that connected."
A green gold mine
Established a decade ago, the center houses a clinic and offers classes, such as yoga. Three years ago, the center's board hired Glenn, owner of consulting firm RG Research in Blacksburg to work on restructuring its operations.
Glenn, 58, of Fairlawn, formerly owned Issues Management Group, a firm that had ties to the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
After looking at the center's finances and services, Glenn said he realized he'd "found a gold mine."
He began talking to the state Tobacco Commission. The commission awarded the project $152,660 in 2015 and $196,062 this year, according to documents obtained through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The grants require the consortium to expand its program to 10 localities in Southwest and Central Virginia by 2018, according to the documents.
A third grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission is in process, but agency spokeswoman Wendy Wasserman said she couldn't immediately provide details. Glenn said the consortium has requested $125,000 from the ARC. A private donor has matched the total grant funding awarded so far, he added.
The money has gone to buy farming and processing equipment and develop infrastructure that will benefit all the growers in the consortium, said Naomi Crews, one of the project directors. She and co-director Adam Fisher grow seedlings and produce seeds for sale to the growers.
The program allows participants to get started with no upfront costs, which appealed to Robert Vaught, of Check, who joined the consortium this year. The retired Fairfax County fire fighter moved to Floyd County to be near family, and wanted to find a way to make his land pay.
So far, Vaught said he's planted six varieties of Chinese herbs on about a quarter of an acre, without any upfront cost. The seedlings and seeds were charged to his consortium account, and he can use profits from future harvests to pay off the debt, he said.
Crews and Fisher give guidance on which plants will do well in particular locations and help trouble shoot grower difficulties. When the crop comes in, the grower hands it off to the consortium, which takes care of the rest.
"If I had five acres of tomatoes, I wouldn't know how to sell them, "Vaught said. "The consortium offered a network that would market it and sell it ... and they're 15 minutes away. That aided my comfort."
Vaught said his own research suggests he could make $15,000 to $25,000 per acre, per year with the right mix of herbs, including root crops. "I'll let you know in two to three years," he said.
Glenn's projections suggest an herb grower could make up to $116,000 within five years in the program. He said recently that he believes that number may have been low. The center, a tax-exempt nonprofit, also is expected to benefit. Projections show its profits at $62,380 this year and rising to $488,775 annually by 2024.
A growing industry
Demand for medicinal herbs is growing, said Virginia Tech plant biologist Greg Welbaum, who teaches courses in the subject and is researching new cultivars of the Asian goji berry plant.
In 1992, there were about 5,000 Chinese medicine practitioners in the United States. A decade later, the number had risen to about 45,000, according to Welbaum.
Medicinal herbs and supplements already constitute a big industry. Between 2010-12, U.S. supplement sales were $32 billion, with $6 billion in herbs and botanicals, according to Welbaum.
China exports $2.3 billion in medicinal herbs annually, but U.S. practitioners are calling for more home-grown plants. It's estimated they are willing to pay up to 200 percent more for herbs grown here than they are for imports, according to Welbaum.
Nile Bachmann is a certified Chinese medicine practitioner and licensed acupuncturist, who runs the Blue Ridge center's clinic. He prescribes treatments and herbal remedies to relieve a host of maladies, including joint pain, headaches, allergies and stress for 10 to 20 patients per week.
"There's a lot of interest in getting herbs that are domestically grown," Bachmann said. "There is a perceived improvement in quality."
Practitioners worry about the age and potency of imports, as well as the possibility of contamination. There also are concerns about the overharvest of wild herbs in China, Bachmann said. For a growing number of medicinal plants, the consortium offers a more transparent production system and a fresher product, he added.
Tapping into that market could help U.S. farmers, including those in Southwest Virginia, where it can be difficult to make acreage profitable.
The nascent U.S.-grown medicinal herb industry has a lot of potential, but faces hurdles, Welbaum said.
Many Asian cultivars will grow in the Mid-Atlantic region but are not adapted to the climate, which can limit yields and increase costs, Welbaum said.
It's not an unusual problem with medicinal plants.
The project is just getting started, and some of the root crops won't be ready for harvest for another two years, Crews said. Until then, yields and profitability can't be reliably assessed. Crews said growers and project leaders will continue to learn together how best to make the consortium a success.
So far, the consortium recommends 16 different annual and perennial plants. Another 15 are being tested in the center's fields.

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