by Ann Armbrecht
Mountain Rose is the go-to source for bulk medicinal herbs by most herbalists in the US and a generous supporter at herb conferences and of United Plant Savers. What started out as mail-order part of Rosemary Gladstar’s herb shop in northern California more than 20 years ago is now one of the nation’s second-largest distributors of organic dried herbs. I spoke with Shawn Donnille, Vice-President and Co-Owner about sourcing and sustainability issues this past November. Below are from my written notes from the interview.
This interview is part of my ongoing research for the Sustainable Herbs Project. I am seeking to understand the issues involved in sourcing medicinal plants from multiple points of view – not as an investigative journalist trying to uncover secrets or reveal bad information. It isn’t typical for anthropologists to share selections from interviews during the research process. Because I feel like this is important information that might be interesting to a lot of people now, before I complete the project, I am posting these selections. They should be read as research notes from a larger process of trying to understand the issues involved in sourcing medicinal plants for a large market, rather as a finished piece.
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Ann: Can you talk a bit about sourcing? Where does Mountain Rose buy its herbs and how do you find good partners to do so?
Shawn: Mountain Rose has two departments that handle this: Procurement and Purchasing. Procurement is responsible for farm contracts and development of sources etc. The Purchasing department focuses on buying manufactured products bought from 3rd party vendors. These products are all certified organic, cultivated without chemicals, or produced from sustainable sources.
Procurement is the more difficult of the two because there isn’t a lot of empirical knowledge about growing, drying and harvesting medicinal herbs in American farming communities. It’s different from growing soybeans or corn. There’s lots of information available. There are textbooks and extension agencies to explain growing these crops. With Boneset, California poppy, plants like this, people don’t know how to grow them. So, we rely on a few herb farming experts with whom we have longstanding relationships.
Europe has much better farm development because they’ve been growing medicinal plants like this for years. They have a rich history of cultivating herbs and they understand the conditions needed, soil types, etc. They also have specialized equipment for specific herbs such as harvesting chamomile that just aren’t available in the US. Unfortunately, there isn’t a strong enough market for this equipment, so it is not available.
We work with two of our largest US growers, testing the soil and climate to see if they can grow new herb crops for us. The availability of seed stock is a primary challenge, so there is usually a several year investment just producing the seed. Fifty percent of the time it doesn’t work. We worked with a farm in Washington to try to grow a few Appalachian herbs, but the crops didn’t take. Bringing woodland crops into production has been especially challenging and we are reaching out to forest farmers in Appalachia to pilot trial these crops for us.
Mountain Rose has 15 contracts with small producers growing on less than 100 acres each. We like to contract out to an entire operation so that all of the acreage is growing crops for Mountain Rose. Sometimes we’ll pay half of a contract in advance, which could be half of $50,000-60,000 worth of botanicals to help the company get set up, to buy the machinery, etc. That’s pretty much unheard of in the industry. But it is really hard to find good partners who can provide what we need. Some farm contracts fail. People will contact us and say, “Hey, can we grow borage for you.” And Mountain Rose will go out and visit and discuss growing and harvesting and timing and drying.
We’ll say, “Give it a shot.” But the growers then find that it is really hard to do larger economical harvesting and drying and processing. It is especially difficult with something like borage which is prone to blight and blistering. However, we work very closely with the farmers to help them succeed by connecting them with select growers who know how to cultivate medicinals to coach the new farms along.
Moisture content is a big hurdle. It’s a fine balance between strong color retention and too much moisture. If there is too much moisture, mold and bacteria develop. If dried too fast, or too much, it can burn the material. Post-harvest processing is an art and a science that determines success and requires specialized equipment.
So another obstacle is that a grower needs a fair amount of money to put into the machinery needed. Growers often start with small drying rooms. But they soon realize they need to set up drying rooms with propane heaters and constant fanning and good air flow.
Our suppliers ship the herbs to us in the whole dried form and then Mountain Rose does all the processing. Some companies ask if they can ship the herb fresh and then we’ll dry it, we have to say no. The time in transit would be detrimental to the plants. It is essential to wash and dry on site to maintain viability and microbial specifications.
Drying is the biggest challenge. Lots of growers decide it is easier to ship it fresh to extract companies. They don’t have to worry as much about mold and bacteria problems.
Cultivated and Wild-Collected Herbs:
Ann: What about wild-collected herbs and how do you measure sustainability?
Shawn: Most of the herbs we purchase are cultivated: 75-80% cultivated; 15% wild-harvested; 5% is woods grown: all of the Appalachian plants.We are also working with the new PCO Certified Forest Grown project for Appalachian herbs.
Rebound is key for measuring sustainability. In New England, plants don’t rebound quickly so you can’t harvest as much. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, Cascara rebounds really well. Oregon Grape Root not so much. So for a 40-acre plot we would harvest ¼ say of Oregon Grape Root. But with Cascara, a weedy tree that rebounds really well, we would harvest more, say half.
This is all certified by Oregon Tilth. We take soil samples, test pesticide residues, and check to determine how much to harvest, how much to retain. Mountain Rose is working with PCO Certified Forest Grown and will introduce herbs with this certification in 2015. PCO Certified Forest Grown gives the kind of oversight that Oregon Tilth provides. They go where plants are harvested, see how harvested, soil sampling, etc. to see if herbicides have been applied, etc.
Ann: Can you talk about quality and testing some?
Shawn: We test everything that comes in. We have a vigilant lab that verifies the identification of each plant coming in. We look at microbes, possible contaminants and adulteration. We partner with several accredited labs that also specialize in spice crops and medicinal plants. One problem lately has been DDT. It’s in the soil from 30 years ago. We occasionally have to reject products because of unacceptable levels of DDT, as well as other contaminants.
Ann: Your herbs are really reasonably priced. How do you control cost?
Shawn: We control cost by having deep relationships with our growers stemming 15 years or more. We also buy freshly harvested material in bulk at the time of harvest direct from the farms in the regions of the world where the plants are grown. We do our own handling and packaging, we control all of our own production, and we do this all with strong vendor relations to help control costs.
Ann: Can you explain how testing works?
Shawn: We quarantine our shipment and examine for any obvious defects, and then do military sampling in a sterile room according to our sampling SOP. We take the square root of the number of containers plus 1, produce samples from these containers, and create a composite sample for testing. Many potential problems are caught at the sampling stage. We have highly specialized techs who sort through the material as soon as it arrives. Sometimes we’ll get what they call “hot spots” say in the sample of calendula from Egypt, we’ll find low levels of microbial contaminants. Then we have to determine if that is just one bad sample, one spot where there was contamination? From air drying? Is it just in that sack? If a sample tests positive for contamination, we test again and also send it out to a 3rd party to confirm.
Good Relationships and Trust:
Ann: Can you talk a bit about your suppliers?
Shawn: It takes years to develop a farm relationship, for every thirty that work, there are many that fail. So when we have a good relationship, we do all we can to keep it.
Ann: It sounds incredibly complicated, managing so many different plants from so many different sources.
Shawn: Yes, I always say I’m going to come back as a used book seller!
Ann: Work with something inert?
Shawn: Yes! We have 300-400 different botanicals and that requires having a relationship with the suppliers. We’re not selling widgets. We’re working with plants that have to be grown by people in clean environments.
Ann: Clean. That’s also such a complicated issue. Can you talk a bit about what is clean?
Shawn: First, it has to be visually clean, no extraneous matter. We reject a lot of products because of contaminants, etc. Lots of stuff we don’t even put through the 2nd round of testing.
Second: clean means free of the stuff you can’t see: lead, pesticides, etc. On average, one in every 15 or 20 herbs get rejected. We do this because we are protecting the customer but also protecting our reputation. We are getting a reputation as a hard customer, difficult to sell to, which is good, that’s what we want.
“Not a single wild ingredient:”
Shawn: I hate having to use woods grown/simulated crops. My goal is to not offer a single wild ingredient, unless we can source from a project like PCO Certified Forest Grown. I oppose going into the woods because it is disrupting things. At my core I want to leave wild, wild. Unlike lots of herbalists, I don’t think of the woods as the great gathering ground for folk medicine.
Ann: But then aren’t there other problems that come with cultivation, like mono-crops?
Shawn: Yes, mono-crops are a big deal and a problem. But herb production tends to be very diverse. Our largest farm cultivates 113 acres and they grow around twenty different items. There is not one acre of one thing. Our international growers rely on companion planting and mixed agro forest for spice production.
It’s tricky. We had a contract with a farm in the Pacific Northwest to grow nettles exclusively for us, thousands of pounds, but our customers weren’t used to it. The nettles were almost a lime green and our customers were used to the deep, dark amber color brew. Customers complained, thinking the quality was off. But it is all about perception. That is what matters. So we went back to Europe for nettles.
“Grow your own” is a really important message we try to put out. “Don’t buy from us.” We encourage people to grow their own herbs and not to harvest from the wild. There are too many of us to go to the woods and harvest. GROW your own. Our goal is really to empower people and to respect the diversity and sensitivity of wild lands.
Grow medicine, don’t harvest. That is also our objective as a company.
And so a big goal of ours now is to develop more domestic herb farms. We have a new domestic farm manager who is working with six more farms of 50-100 acres in the prototype phase. They are seeing what plants grows best, needs the least weeding, needs different fertilizers, etc. For the next 5-10 years, this is their big focus. We are trying to be creative in how to encourage people to grow for us, working with extension services etc. to identify growers. We know them in NW, not so much elsewhere and so we are working hard to find them and help them get started.
Ann: Why do you think it is important to move toward more domestic sources?
Shawn: We want to enhance medicinal plant products in the US to develop these cash crops here and help transition farmers into diverse organic production. Plants that are meant to grow here, such as aromatics, leafy spices, and medicinal roots in particular. We will continue to rely on our foreign farmers for plants that are indigenous to their regions. In the past with overseas farms, we just didn’t have as intimate an understanding of what was going on. However, we have been traveling and visiting our overseas farms more and more over the last 7 years which has been immensely helpful, as well as through our working partnership with Fair For Life and developing and sponsoring our own IMO projects with reliable farming communities.
And also, for hemisphere pride: we want to employ Americans and keep the money here. And also trade laws/tariffs/civil movements all affect sourcing and having domestic sources helps protect us from that.
Thank you, Shawn!
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