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The importance of local, sustainable agriculture and bioregional herbs

Medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) — such as herbs, trees and mushrooms — are threatened by climate change as well as human activity, such as overharvesting.

Some MAPs are only found in geographic regions or ecosystems particularly vulnerable to climate change, which places them at risk. Arctic and alpine areas are experiencing some of the most rapid changes from global warming, and other ecosystems such as islands and rainforests are also being affected.

As an herbalist, I often think about where best to source organic herbs for my own products and for customers. Lately I have been thinking about the downsides of using herbs that are not local or regional.

First, let’s consider climate. According to the National Interagency Coordination Center, in 2020, 58,950 wildfires in the USA burned 10.1 million acres, the second-most acreage impacted in a year since 1960 (Federation of American Scientists, 2021).

Most of the fires occur in the Western part of the USA, and effect air and soil quality, in addition to actually burning the acreage where the plants are grown.

Then there is the issue of water — or lack of water — in those same western states. Other areas from which herbs are routinely sourced — Asia, India and Africa, for example — are also facing weather emergencies including droughts, torrential rains, fires and warming temperatures.

Sourcing herbs from these locations may not be possible in the near term, or sustainable long-term.

Secondly, let’s think about economics. Those of us who source organic herbs for our clients and customers have seen a dramatic increase in pricing in the last couple of years, as weather events have decimated wildcrafted and organically grown herbs. Unfortunately, this pattern seems likely to continue, which means that prices will increase for consumers as well.

We all want the best products we can get for the lowest cost. However, when we source products that we plan to use to improve or support our health, we also need to think about where that product comes from, how it has been grown, harvested and prepared for use.

That means we want products that are safe and high quality, which requires those growers/producers to participate in certification that increases their operating costs: It is not free to be organically certified, or to be compliant with FDA requirements for herbal product production. But these things do signify quality and safety.

Our weather/environmental reality has made me recalibrate my use of herbs, and which herbs I recommend for others. I focus much more today on herbs that can be grown locally — or at least regionally — both to decrease the possibility of climate effects preventing my sourcing of herbs, and to enable us to use what we can grow ourselves.

If you don’t have space to grow things yourself — which is always my primary recommendation — consider purchasing herbs and herbal products from local organic growers, harvesters or retailers who use their crops. This helps to avoid the environmental impacts of transporting products over a large distance (and the fuel required to do so), and hopefully decreases the influence of weather emergencies we are seeing.

It also allows your dollars to stay in your community or region, while you support small farmers and businesses in your area.

We are lucky to have some certified organic farms here in Wisconsin that focus on medicinal herbs: Four Elements Farm (Baraboo, WI) and Red Clover Herbal Apothecary Farm (Amery, WI) are two.

Although we don’t have any organic medicinal herb farms here in NEW, we do have some wonderful certified organic farmers who grow medicinal herbs that we use: Full Circle Community Farm (Seymour) and Olden Organics Farm (Ripon).

We also have knowledgeable farmers using organic principles, and foragers, such as FarmHer Donna from n.e.w. Turning Pointe Farm (Crivitz) who specialize in growing and foraging herbs and nutritive native foods.

I encourage you to look close to home not just for your food sources, but for your herbal sources as well. You might be amazed at the variety of herbs that grow in NEW, and the herbal uses for them…why look anywhere else? n

T. Heather Herdman, PhD, RN, FAAN is a nurse, clinical herbalist and aromatherapist, who believes that a combination of traditional (herbalist, for example) and allopathic (Western) health care practices provide the strongest possibilities for health and well-being. She is the owner of Sweet Willow Wellness and Sweet Willow Herbal Co-op (De Pere). She holds nursing master’s and soctoral degrees from Boston College, and and undergraduate degree from Unviersity of South Carolina. She has authored numerous publications in peer reviewed journals, and her academic interests include clinical reasoning, spiritualty, cultural health care practices, and intergrative heath care. Heather provides clincal herbal consults and customer blends herbal products for clients.

Federation of American Scientists (2021). Wildfire Statistics

“If you don’t have space to grow things yourself … consider purchasing herbs and herbal products from local organic growers, harvesters, or retailers who use their crops.”

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