Another New CSA and a Change of Herbal Heart

herbal medicine

Autumn has come to the mountain just as spring did – one ay it was perfectly clear, close to 80º and comfortably into the mid-60s at night, the next it was barely up to 60º at mid-day and into the high 30s at night. Not only are we seriously behind in the necessary wood supply for heat, I’ve been having to scramble to bring in the remaining peppers and last of the tomatoes. Poplar leaves are already yellow and dogwoods are getting a ret tint on their leave to complement their quickly ripening bright red berries, and the crisp air fills with leaves whenever the breeze blows.

Luckily autumn is my favorite of all seasons. In three weeks from now the lush greens of summer will have turned into impossible corals and day-glo oranges and deep reds and yellows bright enough to light up the night. The smell of leaf-fall is heavenly even though it means endless raking in November, a necessary task to ensure resistance to spring fires. And of course the usual foot-deep winter covering once I’ve cleaned out the garden terraces and tossed the remains of their summer bounty on the compost pile. But it’s raining right now, so I’m shivering inside not daring to use any of the scant locust we have left from last year’s wood supply before nightfall, when it’ll really be needed.

In my last post I talked about a new centralized organizational outfit for connecting CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture farms] and ass orated organic suppliers with customer bases in their area via the internet, for promoting healthy, local food and food products and changing the way we eat. In my wanderings about the web, I discovered another kind of CSA that sounds like something right up my alley.

It’s called Goldthread, and it’s a CSA they say should properly be called a “CSM” because it offers community-supported medicinal herb shares. The Goldthread farm is located in western Massachusetts, and its herbal preparations are made in small batches at the farm in Conway and an apothecary in Florence. A share basket may include a combination of carefully dried bulk herbs, small bottles of tinctures, essential oils, herbal honeys and compounds, often accompanied by fresh culinary herbs and garlic.

“Grassroots medicine” sounds like a good idea at this current point in history, as my ‘customer’ base has only been increasing over the past few years as western medicine’s allopathic treatments have become far too expensive for most people to use, joblessness has stripped what little insurance coverage people once did have, and the state slashes Medicaid to the bone so that no one new gets on the roll until someone dies. Last year my elderberry tincture (for colds and flu) saved nearly a dozen people – one of them an ER nurse – from work and time loss due to viral respiratory infections. My ginseng tincture hasn’t been made yet, but three new ‘customers’ have requested some, asap. If I had money to invest in some cute little dropper bottles and labels, I could probably make a little income on the side just with those. Then there’s the black cohosh, the Japanese honeysuckle, the goldenseal, the dogwood and spiceberry tonic, and MUST get started on the autumn end of my skin lesion salve that takes a year to produce…

Problem is, I use those little quotes around the word ‘customer’ because I’ve just never charged anybody real money for my simples and remedies. People have long said I could, but all of my herbalist ancestors believed – and taught – that doing it for money was antithetical to the effort at healing. That was so ingrained in me that it’s been difficult to even begin thinking about charging money. But now that my grandson has put so much energy and effort into learning from me, and helping me greatly in managing the medicinal crops, I see that earning a little money on those efforts isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Now that grandson is in ‘business’ with me as apprentice-in-training, making a bit of money for his college tuition is where I’m aiming my thoughts for the next year. Both in producing the concoctions and in planning for more medicinals next growing season. We’ve already transplanted what will be an entire grove of elderberry that was threatened by a road-widening project, and nettle so we’d have our own on-property supply. We’ve transferred the ginseng to new, deeper beds much better protected from deer and tromping disc golfers than where they were before.

We probably won’t be a CSA like this farm in Massachusetts is, as there are plenty of needful folks just here in our area who tend to trouts the old herb-lady more than they trust whatever allopathic doctor’s on duty today at the urgent care center for $400 a pop just to walk in the door.

So wish us luck, and I’ll be sure to report back on whether or not this change of heart on the healing plane works out. Stay tuned!

January’s Ice & Ills

herbsThis has been the coldest January in my neck of the woods for so many decades that not even the record-keepers can recall a colder one. Despite what we considered very clever precautions in the week before last’s super cold snap (negative temps), we ended up with a busted pipe in the basement wall anyway, forgot to drain out the exterior faucet pipe after we’d turned it off and drained the hose, then filled the tub and jugs and bottles, turned off the pump from the cistern and opened all (but that one) faucet to give the water room to expand as it froze in the incoming underground pipe. Ah, well. Needed to re-solder that darned thing anyway, I guess.

Back to single digits tonight as I type this, going to remember to drain that one this time too. Then we’ll use the tub water to flush and the bottled water to drink and cook and wait for the ground to unfreeze again. Which, if it doesn’t warm up significantly, may be quite awhile. Sigh.

Meanwhile, the family has managed to escape various winter bugs, viruses and even flu this year (knock on wood), thanks to the ample happy elderberry harvest this past summer. Unfortunately, one of the grandsons thinks he has developed walking pneumonia – and has the chest rattles to place it well below bronchia – but won’t have the money to get it diagnosed or buy the prescription until next month when his student loan finally gets credited. We can’t afford to cover him up front either, though I did get a $5 “raise” on my Social Security check this month. Big Whoop. Now I can get the ‘better’ cat food… (another grumble, for another time).

What is “Walking Pneumonia,” you may ask, and what does it mean? First, pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs, and its pathology no matter what qualifier you put on it is just that simple. The complications come from the various causes, the multiplex of symptoms, and variety of treatments. Millions of Americans get pneumonia every year, and not all of them have the flu. Cough, fever, chills, difficulty breathing, general weakness, light-headedness with activity, skin rashes… the symptoms are myriad.

Wild Herbs Endangered By Poaching

wild_herbs[Slide show of poachers from Mountain Express]

My southern Appalachian homestead was originally purchased more than twenty years ago as the high country standard of “13 acres more or less, graded.” That means they took an overhead map (probably one from the USGS with elevation lines), put a 1-acre grid over the top of it, and counted the acres within the boundaries. The fact that it is so steeply graded means there’s a bunch of land that if flattened out, would add greatly to the total acreage. We have walked the land a lot, and the true number is nearly 25 acres, most in thick stands of third-growth temperate hardwood forest. There are a few scattered giants, trees that are at least two hundred years old, but the rest has been logged and/or burned more than once since white folks drove the Cherokee west.

There were large stands of wild ginseng and black cohosh growing on the rich tilth of well-shaded hillside when we got here, and I began the project of re-planting and managing (against invasives) of these valuable medicinal herbs. To a lesser degree we’ve got a smaller stand of introduced goldenseal in the bottomland of the smaller creek across the ridge, and we also occasionally tend collections of other marketable wilding herbs fancied by herb dealers and shop owners. September is the big month, when in my region the roots and herbs are gathered, dried and taken to one of the itinerant licensed herb dealers servicing the region.

As the herb season is in full swing in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, an age-old problem has reared its ugly head as the price for ‘sang (and black cohosh, an at-risk medicinal) has skyrocketed. Poaching.

Last season wild-managed ginseng topped $800 a pound, definitely the “gold standard” among wildings in these parts. It takes a lot of roots to equal a pound dried, and they must be kept intact enough for the dealer to determine their age. Some years ago when wild American ginseng first made it to the endangered plants list, restrictions were imposed to the ability to sell your crop. Wild roots are not marketable at under 5 years or over 15 years. This was done in hopes of salvaging the truly wild stands from poachers, who aren’t shy of who’s land they’re stealing from.

Illegal harvesting of ginseng has become so rampant that the U.S. Forest Service cut the number of 3-pound national forest harvesting permits by 75%, but as much as 90% of diggers don’t bother with permits in the first place.

“Dramatic declines of wild ginseng populations over the past decade suggest previous harvest levels are no longer sustainable,” Forest Supervisor Kristin Bail explained in a June 20 press release announcing the changes. “It is in everyone’s best interest to further limit the amount of the harvest to help ensure the plant’s future sustainability.”

So it is increasingly falling to us rural landholders, if we have the ability and conditions, to preserve this plant to the best of our abilities. Both for our own income purposes as an annual cash crop with careful management, and as preservation of a valuable botanical in its native areas. There are definite plusses for committed homesteaders in putting even the wild areas of our ‘steads into some kind of production that can help support our lifestyles. A good overview of the project comes from NCSU, Cultivating Native Woodland Botanicals.

Of course, poaching ginseng on either private or public land is a crime (punishable by fine or prison time, or both). Alas, it is a crime that is seldom prosecuted. Robert Eidus, licensed ginseng dealer and owner of the North Carolina Ginseng & Goldenseal Company, puts it this way…

“I’m allowed to buy from people who steal from other people,” adds Eidus. “It’s the last illegal, sanctioned business in America.”

Ginseng can be – and is in many places – grown in artificially shaded plots and usually sold young. Wisconsin grows about 95% of the farmed ginseng in this country, a $70 million crop for the state. But this ‘sang usually sells for a mere $18 to $24 a pound – nothing close to the $800+ a pound wild ‘sang is earning. If correctly managed there is no discernible difference between forest-managed and truly wild ginseng, though well-managed beds chosen for their thick tilth of forest floor will return larger roots than wildings that may have rooted in shallow tilth or in beds choked with sizable rocks.

Good managers never harvest a root without planting a few small young roots or several seeds. It takes two years for the seeds to sprout, so it’s important to get them before the deer do when they ripen to bright red, and further to discourage deer from foraging where your ginseng is growing. But fear not – even if deer do eat your leaves and seeds one year, the plant will come back next year as long as the root is still in place.

Meanwhile, in my area the N.C. Ginseng Association is actively recruiting homesteaders and landowners for development of more forest managed ginseng crops. Other herb companies in areas where ginseng grows are organizing the same sort of thing, which might offer newcomers to the idea of forest farming some valuable knowledge and physical help to get started. You may end up having to police your own crops for poachers, though, so a little tidbit of wisdom I was taught back during my childhood by a wild ‘sang manager in eastern Kentucky should be kept in mind.

“Don’t tell people about your crop.” Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have a dog either. Good for keeping poachers, deer AND bears away! Do give it some thought, consider if your land is suitable for ginseng. And/or black cohosh, goldenseal, spikenard, elder or any other of the increasingly valuable botanicals marketable these days.

Useful Links:

Cultivating Native Woodland Botanicals
Botanical Bandits
WildGrown: NC State wildcrafting survey
Cultivation and Marketing of Woodland Medicinal Plants
NC Ginseng Dealers 2013/14 [PDF]