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Researchers, farmers eye herb production in North Mississippi

Oxford — Herbal tea or echinacea anyone? Herbal products are increasing in popularity, and the University of Mississippi wants to help state farmers do more to cash in on the trend by developing a cottage industry in Mississippi with agricultural production of medicinal plants.

Dr. Charles Burandt, a research assistant professor for the Ole Miss National Center for Natural Products Research at the School of Pharmacy, said a lot of in- demand medicinal crops grow well in Mississippi — and are saleable for good prices in the herbal market.

“The herbal market has its ups and downs, and it is on a slight upswing right now,” Burandt said. “For several years, it was a very strong market. It then went down somewhat. Now the prices are up on the types of crops we have been growing in Mississippi.”

The research done by Ole Miss is important on several levels. First, it is establishing which herbal crops grow well in the state. Echinacea, an immune system stimulant that is one of the most popular and recognized herbs, grows well in the state.

Other crops that have been grown and sold include barley grass, wheat grass, boneset, catnip, skullcap, feverfew, Joe Pye weed, lemon grass and passion flower.

Marketing the crop

Growing an herbal crop is one thing, and marketing it is another. So it is important that the herbal crops not only grow well in Mississippi, but also have other advantages.

“We’re looking for something we can produce at a certain time of year that other people can’t, in ways other people can’t and, most importantly, herbs that are high quality,” Burandt said. “We want plants that grow the easiest at the least cost and have the best market margins.”

Quality is extremely important in plants humans are going to eat, so herbs need to be clean and have good chemistry. Because of the research done by the National Center for Natural Products Research, herb growers in North Mississippi have an edge. They can provide proof of the high quality of their herbal crops.

“Warranty, standardization and quality are things we have emphasized in all of our Mississippi production,” Burandt said. “Our growers have been given better prices because their quality is exceptional. Quality here has been well received by buyers.”

Although herbal products are increasing in popularity, one reason they aren’t in more widespread use in conventional medicine is that the quality can vary. There are no required governmental testing and quality controls. In some cases, herbal products aren’t even properly labeled.

“I have seen quality that is all over the place and unsubstantiated claims,” Burandt said. “If you get into developing and selling a retail product, all measures of quality such as color, time of harvest and chemistry should be indicated. Then you have something you can attest to regarding the constituents in it and the quality.

“The chemistry aspect of herbal crops is something we can do very readily. We have a professor up here who works on the chemistry of medicinal plants. That can vary, but doing the chemistry will give you a good standardized product. Our experience is if crops are grown under reasonable care, plus they are processed and stored correctly, you will have good chemical profiles.”

While there are good prices out there relative to the cost of production, there are challenges to building the agricultural production of medicinal plants in Mississippi. While growers have produced tens of thousands of pounds of crops, to move to the next level is going to require more capacity for drying, storing and marketing the herbs. A grower’s cooperative has been formed to receive and market the herbs, and adding better drying capacity is a top objective.

From research to production

“Some of the problems we are still struggling with are drying these plant materials, handling and processing them,” Burandt said. “We have plants that could be harvested right now, but if the rains keep coming, you can’t get your material dry. And then you end up with a poor quality crop. A problem in Mississippi is the variable climate when plants mature.”

The state can’t have hundreds of farmers providing herbal materials if there aren’t facilities to dry, store and market the materials. Burandt said right now they are looking at a drying system that could be used for larger volumes. The medicinal plant industry in Mississippi is now in transition from primarily research to production. Brokers are needed to purchase and market the crops, and an infrastructure needs to be available to herb farmers in the same way as cotton gins are needed by cotton farmers.

The target group of people being served by the efforts to develop agricultural production of medicinal plants in Mississippi is smaller farmers. In North Mississippi, typically farms are small. Herbs are high-management crops that take a lot of care; these aren’t crops you can walk away from after planting, and then come back several months later to harvest. But the benefits are that there is not a lot of capital expense for equipment, and the crops can provide a farmer with good additional income for the effort involved.

“These are not commodity crops,” Burandt said. “They are crops that can give you high margins, good returns on a small amount of acreage.”

But there is also a learning curve involved. Many of these plants have never been cultivated before. The way they perform in one area may be slightly different than another area. Only individual farmers can tell with their particular soils and conditions how the crops are going to do.

The vision for developing the industry in Mississippi includes going farther than just production into producing value added products such as herbal extracts, teas and capsules. That would provide more jobs and economic value, but also requires an investment of capital. But such an industry in Mississippi could get a boost by being affiliated with Ole Miss.

“We’d like farmers to get a chunk of those retail prices,” Burandt said. “The best way to do that is have entities in the state to ensure quality from production to a retail product. Then you have an excellent product that has backing by a major university, and state entities that help with the marketing of your retail product. Consumers need to be sure they know what they are getting, that they are getting the plant listed on the label and it has been stored and processed correctly. Claims to chemistry need to be substantiated.”

Burandt said from the field to the bottle is the best way for herbs to be handled. That way the herbs haven’t been stored a long time, perhaps losing potency before being processed.

“There are ways of assuring quality,” Burandt said. “Some plants store and some don’t. With some the chemistry hangs around, and with other it dissipates. I would like to see herbal medicine be more reliable in terms of quality. Many of these herbs have a therapeutic effect, but you need quality so people who take them can anticipate the effect they are going to have.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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