HRB 635b was a field trip offered by Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH) for students in the Product Design tract of the Masters of Therapeutic Herbalism program. For one week the students traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, located in the Appalachian Mountains in the western part of the state. The students had the opportunity to visit various players in the herbal industry, getting behind the scenes tours and hands-on experience. The week was designed in a way that students got to see all aspects of the industry: growing the crops, natural product development, herbal schools, scientific research, conservation efforts, etc.
The trip that I participated in was September 5- 10, 2017. The learning objectives for this course were for the student to:
- Have developed awareness of diverse business models employed by herbalists in the herbal products industry.
- Have an introductory knowledge of the major components of an herbal products company including but not limited to cultivation, harvesting, processing, formulation, quality control, research and business (marketing, sales, and financial considerations)
- Have gained an appreciation for the range of sizes/scales of successful herbal products businesses
- Have gained a foundational knowledge of the principles of and ethical considerations surrounding sustainable sourcing (cultivated vs wildcrafted, etc.) of medicinal plants for commercial use
- Have developed an awareness of the importance of preserving natural plant communities and the pros and cons of sustainable wild harvest of medicinal plants
- Have continued to improve their plant identification skills, building on instruction from previous coursework.
In order to achieve these objectives, we visited local businesses and schools, participated in class lectures at the house where we all stayed, did research and homework assignments, and spent some time hiking and wildcrafting. Like many businesses, no cameras were allowed in most operational areas. I have included the photos that I was allowed to take.
Blue Ridge Food Ventures – This facility is a large warehouse, composed of multiple kitchens, that are used to manufacture food, beverages, and natural products. We were able to tour the facility and see how other small businesses owners rented certified kitchen spaces in order to meet Good Manufacturing Processes and regulatory requirements of their industry. This was particularly helpful for those of us that were struggling with the logistics of maintaining a legally complaint business. The photos below were taken inside the front of the facility and showcase some of the products that are manufactured within the building.
Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine Director (founder), CoryPine Shane allowed us entry into his school.
We all took seats in his classroom as he shared his story. He held nothing back, telling us both the good and the bad that he experienced while building a career in a tough path. He offered wisdom and insight, answered questions, and let us all take a sneak peak into his apothecary, where Pine Herbals are crafted. Not only did I leave with a better understanding of the business side of the industry, but I purchased a pretty awesome bottle of Betony tincture, as well.
Gaia Herbs is spoken, almost in reverence, by many in the herbal industry. All I knew of the company was that they produced high quality herbal supplements – and that I liked their tea. Given the sheet scope and size of their operation, there was a lot to see and discuss.
We started our tour in the chemistry labs where we got to see millions of dollars in cutting edge equipment at work. No photos are allowed within the labs so you are stuck with this one of me in the lobby prior to entry. We learned about the extensive testing that Gaia conducts and got to ask questions of the Quality Assurance team at work. Our discussions of solvents, extraction methods, aseptic lab techniques, etc was easily an hour or two of our day. I have never been in such a nice, well equipped lab, so it was a bit mind blowing to think that it was a lab for a company in the herbal industry. This is when I first started to understand why herbalists root for Gaia.
Next we toured the production facilities. Since our phones were outside in the lobby, I did not get to take extension notes. We had a very good discussion of the various methods for creating herbal extractions. Gaia uses a percolation and their testing has show it to be more effective than other means of extraction. We got to see the machinery involved and ask questions before we proceeded to the area where the supplements were encapsulated.
Unlike many other herbal supplement suppliers, Gaia encapsulates liquid extracts. We got to watch capsules being filled, sealed, inspected, and boxed for delivery over to the packaging warehouse were they are put into Gaia’s patented plant-based bottles.
We spent the rest of our morning touring the farms (they have virtual tours on their website). I got to ask questions about the planting and cultivation techniques, how the crops are treated and harvested, proper climate, etc. It was informative and made me feel as if this is something I could do myself (on a far smaller scale). Additionally, we learned about Gaia’s
And now, for the photos. Imagine standing in field of echinacea and passionflower, surrounded by Gingko and Hawthorn trees, breathing in clean mountain air, with the aroma of relaxing herbs on the breeze. That is what a trip to Gaia is like.
Side note: One of the things we learned from Dr. McCoy was that passionflower (the more pink flower in the slideshow) is one of the only herbs found to have been nearly uniformly used by Native American tribes.
As a final, unexpected treat, Gaia treated us to lunch in their dining facility. The food was amazing and fresh but it was the sit down experience that was so memorable. we sat down to outdoor dining with views overlooking the grounds. Truly stunning imagery. We all thought the trip couldn’t possibly get any better and then Ric Scalzo, Founder and CEO of Gaia Herbs, pulled up a chair and ate with us. He generously let us ask him questions related to operations, starting a business, building relationships with suppliers around the world, and so much more. I cannot imagine any other reality where I would have the opportunity to ask a successful CEO to share all his secrets for building a business.
Herbal Ingenuity Located in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Herbal Ingenuity is a raw material supplier that takes raw botanical ingredients, directly from suppliers, and cleans, cuts, and treats the materials for the end customer. We were able to watch the quality assurance process as workers sifted through the materials, see the machines used for cutting, and ask questions of the staff throughout our time there.
North Carolina Arboretum & Germplasm Repository This part of the trip was the most surprising. When we were initially told we were visiting an arboretum, I was naturally quite happy. What herbalist doesn’t love arboretums? I was entirely unfamiliar with the Germplasm Repository and its unique, important work. Brace yourself, I’m going to gush – and try to respect the confidential nature of some of the work.
Straight from their site, “The North Carolina Arboretum Germplasm Repository (TNCAGR) leads a multifaceted effort to conserve, study and utilize native plants and plant organisms (endophytes).” None of the students were prepared for what we were about to see.
First, we got to meet Dr. Joe-Ann McCoy, the Director of the Germplasm Repository. I took four pages of notes while she spoke. I finally switched to voice clips while she discussed the plight of the Ginseng crop. She generously explained her work in creating voucher specimens, collecting and conserving seeds, encouraging the development of seed banks, researching, grant proposal writing, and conducting research and testing on endophytes – the organisms that live inside of plants. I took an entire page of notes on this alone and am absolutely captivated by topic. By this point in our trip I was already asking Dr. McCoy if took interns.
We got to look around the lab (slideshow below), see the equipment, and gain a greater appreciation for the scientific work being conducted.
The final part of our time with Dr. McCoy was seeing some of the plants being propagated and a lesson in ethnobotany. She was working with local tribes to propagate plants that had significant traditional and medicinal value to the tribes. Through the trust she had built with them, she had been allowed into a world few were part of. She had developed relationships with numerous native tribes, and was working hard to help them all develop their own voucher specimen collections and herbariums. This unexpected session of the trip was the most inspirational part of the entire trip.
I took very few notes on this part of the trip because we were hands on with the plants and exploring gardens and woods. We started this visit with a trip to North Carolina State University’s Mountain Horticulture Crops Research and Extension Center. We saw the offices where the staff worked and learned about the Alternative Crops and Organics Program, much of which is dedicated to medicinals. From there we hopped in some trucks and went off to see some of the crops.
The Asian herb garden was fascinating to see. We learned about the current issues in the industry with contaminated Indian and Chinese herbs. The soil in China is full of heavy metals and fecal matter has been found on many plants in India. For this reason many companies are turning to the United States to supply traditional Asian plants. The very unique ecology of western North Carolina is very similar to Asia so the plants can grow successfully without losing the medicinal benefits.
The second half of this trip introduced us to forest farming. We saw some very special and endangered medicinal plants growing in the woods and learned about the ethnobotanical connections between these plants and the local communities. We discussed sustainable harvesting practices, over-harvesting, and ethical issues. Below are some photos of Black Cohosh, Ginseng, Bloodroot, and Goldenseal. Additionally, we learned about the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition.
We ended our trip with a lesson from our instructor on sustainable wildcrafting and botanical identification. We visited a state park where we were able to hike and discuss the plants that we encountered.