Local Herbs

One of the most exciting and promising trends in the whole foods movement today is the local foods movement. I was first introduced to it at the Wild Food Summit on the White Earth reservation in May, where I met a group of people that had made a one year commitment to eating only foods grown or produced within a 250 mile radius of their home. They were about midway through the challenge when I met them and had managed to survive the winter…and then some. This experiment was truly revolutionary and created some great educational outreach opportunities, as well as the chance to deeply re-think the current industrialized food system and the power of the consumer. It also enabled them to make connections with local food producers and with the land itself in a more intimate way.WildHarvest

Since that encounter, I have been keeping a pulse on the swelling local foods movement both here in Viroqua, where I live, and on a national scale. Groundbreaking works like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan and the new release by Sandor Katz entitled “The Revolution will not be Microwaved: Inside America’a Underground Food Movement” are helping to encourage and document these grassroots efforts to challenge the industrial food complex. We are beginning to see the local foods concept becoming a progressive marketing strategy by savvy business folks. The movement is being touted as “beyond organics”, taking organic food to the next level.

This summer in the Viroqua Food Co-op, little green “local” signs began popping up all around the store, especially in the produce aisle, so that as you shop you could see exactly where your food comes from. If you have lived here long enough, you can even put faces on the farmers and local artisan cheese, bread and sauerkraut makers.

Yet somehow the movement hasn’t carried over into the aisle of herbs and supplements. There is a small line of locally crafted tinctures available, but that’s about it for little green signs in this department. The bulk dried herbs are still being shipped from Frontier’s warehouses, and the various herbal products imported from elsewhere.

The herb market is wide open and flourishing. We see new companies and new herbal products on the shelves each year, even finding their way into mainstream drug stores competing with pharmaceuticals. It is heartening to see people turning once again to this most ancient tradition of healing, but there is a downside to the growing herb industry that we need to be aware of. We are beginning to encounter some of the same problems that we see with our industrialized, mechanized food systems. Herbs become another commodity in the economic hustle rather than a common, abundant resource freely available to all. The herb market becomes wrought with many of the same problems we see with any large-scale, profit-driven industry:

  • Mass production of herbs, not necessarily organic, compromises the quality and value of the herbs. Warehoused herbs suffer a loss of potency in shipping and storage, which compromises their effectiveness and integrity.
  • Mass exploitation of wild herbs puts more and more plants on the threatened and endangered list each year. We see this here in the US with the plight of the Goldenseal, wild Ginseng and native Echinacea. Pop herbs from the rainforest and other exotic places also open the way for exploitation of indigenous peoples and habitats.
  • Environmental and economical costs of shipping and transportation of herbs soar as we seek our medicine from afar rather than in our own bioregions. Around 85% of herbs sold on the market in the US are imported from sources outside of the United States. Many herbal products that are imported long distances grow in reckless abundance all around us.
  • We lose connection with the growers, harvesters, and producers of herbs and herbal preparations, a vital link in a healthy community. Maintaining this connection ensures high quality and accountability by the suppliers. It also helps to bring the knowledge of herbal medicine back into the hands of the people, rather than relinquishing it to specially trained professionals and profiteers.

With the rising popularity of herbs and natural health care products, we are constantly in danger of the drug corporations co-opting the market, driving out small, ‘backwoods’ suppliers and controlling the sales and distribution of herbs with heavy regulations and licensing requirements.

Knowledge of the herbs used to be common to all, intricately woven into the daily lives of primitive and land-based cultures, as familiar as the menu at McDonalds is today. It was a natural, organic wisdom in times when people lived by the grace and mercy of the land. Supermarkets and drugstores are a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the world. Specially trained medicine people were equipped to handle unusual or crisis situations when all else failed, but routine health care was always in the hands of lay people, usually housewives and mothers.

Today herbal medicine has a certain mystique associated with it and very few people make their own cough syrups and healing salves, or feel comfortable formulating a tea mixture for common ailments.  Yet on the other hand, there are a lot of dicey legal ramifications involved in prescribing or even recommending herbs to people. The trend seems to be always towards licensure and regulations which inevitably create a knowledge gap between the professionals and the common people. This eventually robs us of our cultural heritages and folk traditions. Obviously there are numerous medical conditions that need competent and specially trained professionals, but any family doctor will tell you that much of what comes into his office could have easily been handled at home.

The most radical local herb movement would be empowering people to go out into their own backyards to harvest and make their own household remedies and first aid herbs. You don’t need a laboratory to prepare effective herbal remedies. Any kitchen will do. Harvesting herbs and preparing home medicines for food, first aid and basic comfort needs should be as normal and natural as gardening and cooking dinner. We need to demystify the art of herbal medicine-making and bring it back into the kitchen.

Making healing salves, tinctures, syrups and teas is simple, fun and fulfilling. You don’t need special ingredients for most preparations. A few afternoons spent in the field and in the kitchen can supply a family with basic first aid and home comforts for years to come. It’s so easy even the kids can help!

What are needed most in the realm of modern-day herbalism to bring it back to a local, community level are teachers! There are books and information about herbs abounding, but there’s a serious shortage of experiential knowledge, apprenticeship opportunities, and hands-on sharing. We need to remind ourselves of the story of the hungry man who was not fed by telling him about fish or selling him a fish, but by teaching him how to fish. This should be the way of the herbalist, the responsibility of everyone who has been gifted with this knowledge.

For a new renaissance of herbalism to truly have an impact on the health of the people, it needs to be put back into the hands of the common people. The ultimate mission of an herbalist in today’s world should be to restore the broken relationship between the people and the plant kingdom.

In the meantime, since the traditional apothecaries and herb shoppes have evolved into drugstores supplied by multi-national pharmaceutical companies, community co-ops have been filling in the gap for those of us not fortunate to have a local herb supplier or knowledgeable enough to harvest our own. It seems only a matter of time before the little green “local” signs appear on the herbs and herbal products as the local herb movement catches up with the local foods movement and we are able to celebrate our own unique bioregion as a source of whole healing herbs as well as amazing foods.

The Coulee Region, and the Upper Midwest in general, is a rich treasury of plant diversity. Fully one-third to one-half of the bulk herbs, tinctures, and herbal pills at our co-op grow in relative abundance in our local fields and forests. This potential niche market could serve as an inspiration to revitalize the ancient art of herbalism in our communities. The farmer’s markets could serve as another local venue for an herbal entrepreneur.

Perhaps a local herb movement could piggyback on the local foods movement. Imagine a local herb challenge where you commit to using only local herbs and locally produced herbal products for one year…..you would really have to sharpen your skills as an herbalist and scour the nooks and crannies of the region for friendly backwoods suppliers!

We stand in the gap between our ancestors and our future generations. We need to recognize the trend of industrialized herbalism for what it is and bring herbalism back to its roots.


“Stand in the ways and see,
And ask for the old paths,
where the good way is,
And walk in it;
Then you will find rest for your souls.
Jeremiah 6:16