Richard Alan Miller likes to tell the classic story of one of the first farmers who came to him for help.
He had 400 acres in Iowa in corn, which was infested with burdock. He had tried everything — spraying, everything — and he couldn’t get rid of the stuff. The bank was threatening him with foreclosure.
He came to a workshop I’d given at Charlie Walter’s Acres U.S.A. conference in Kansas City, and got in touch with me. When the bank heard I’d been hired to consult, the banker gave him a one-year stay of execution. I advised him to: sell half his land; sell half of his capital equipment; and then I had him get rid of his noxious weed — which was the corn! — and grow what nature wanted him to grow, which was the burdock!
I helped him sell all his burdock crop to Asian markets in Chicago, at two dollars a pound fresh (I advised him that he’d only get 60 cents a pound dried), where they couldn’t get enough of it for kim chee and fresh vegetables. After the first year, he was out of foreclosure. After three years, he owned his own land outright . . . and he started buying back his old land, and putting it into timber for his grandchildren!
Miller’s consulting does not always result in such dramatic conversion, but it has brought financial stability to many other small- to mid-size farmers and would-be farmers throughout the U.S.
His game plan: replace the twenty billion dollars of botanicals imported into the United States for use in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and food production with locally produced products grown, processed, or manufactured in the US.
I’d seen Miller’s book, The Potential of Herbs as a Cash Crop, and copies of his one-time monthly journal, The Herb Market Report. But my impression of herbs was the fresh bunches sold in the grocery for 89 cents; or little cottage industry potpourris and dried herbs sold at crafts fairs. But that’s not what Miller’s work is about.
I’m publishing this here on the PRI website because I believe Miller’s ideas could provide a solution for how to live in the cash economy for permaculturists, as well as all small farmers. An abundance of food from food forests is fabulous (well, I love mine), but for the moment, we still have to live in the cash economy and come up with funds for annoying things like building repairs and taxes, not to mention putting the kids through college. Once your food forest is well-established, a small amount of acreage put into botanicals and herbals as a cash crop could turn out to be the key to survival in the cash economy that lets the great permaculture experiment continue. But doing this still holds to the permaculture principle of growing and eating locally, and growing what’s appropriate for the land and climate. And as a consumer, it would mean getting fresher, less-transported ingredients in any medicinals and other products I might buy in the market. I would guess that many of these crops are already grown by permaculturists, but the critical key is how much and which varieties to grow, how to prepare them for market, and who to market them to. And Miller is an encyclopedia when it comes to those questions. He started out running an herbal tea company in Washington, and got to know the business from the inside.
So bear with me for a moment, while I introduce his ideas. I hope they help permaculturists who might be struggling with how to survive and be viable in the cash economy we are still in for now.
New Crops, Old Markets
Another farmer with whom Miller consulted is Bill Hicks of Yakima, Washington. An insurance salesman and urbanite, he’d never been a farmer; interested, he came to a Miller workshop. On ten leased acres, he started with a crop of catnip. The first year was a failure, though since he’d only invested seeds and his own labor, it wasn’t too much of a loss. The next year, he raised a successful crop and got a contract from Yakima pet food manufacturer which had previously imported all its catnip dried from Germany. The three succeeding years all produced excellent crops, pre-sold, and the main work is in the summer months.
What’s most amazing about these crops is that many of them are common weeds, like chickweed (Stellaria media), of which forty tons a year are used for the iron in multi-vitamin tablets, again mostly imported from Germany. "Chickweed," Miller notes, "could be a winter crop on fallow ground, even in snow areas, especially strawberry fields where pesticides are now sprayed to get rid of it."
Or take comfrey, though comfrey is a bit of a bad first example, since it had a bad name as a crop. Much talk had been going around for awhile about how easy comfrey is to grow (it gives a higher yield per acre than alfalfa) and how valuable it is as a cattle feed (it has two amino acids that are missing in alfalfa, making them a "whole food" when combined). But for ten or so years, while rumors ran wild, nobody knew how to dry it. It has a very high mucilage, containing some 87% of its weight as water. Miller, however, discovered that a kiln (hop kiln or cone kiln or plywood kiln) does the job quite well, and was able to market around a thousand tons of comfrey pellets a month to a feedlot in Osaka, Japan.
Comfrey is also a bad first example because about 200 acres of crop is needed to make the processing machinery worth purchasing. Miller would like smaller farmers to get together to deal with such economies of scale, but he’s got plenty of ideas for smaller farmers.
I asked Miller to pretend that I was a "small farmer" coming to him for help. "That can mean anywhere from two to 200 acres," noted Miller. (Miller terms one-quarter to six to ten acres "gardening", for which he agrees there is a growing place in the economy, although he has preferred not to work on that scale.) "One crop almost any small farmer could make a living off of is sage, largely imported from Mexico, Turkey, and Greece as an antioxidant for meat-packing," Miller advised. "For California farmers, I might recommend growing licorice root, used in lozenges and cough syrups as an anti-bacterial, and as a sugar substitute for hot chocolate mixes, and currently grown mostly in the Mediterranean area; Californians could also do well with lemon verbena, used in potpourris and perfumes, also mostly grown around the Mediterranean.
"For a South Dakota farm, I might recommend garden-variety marigolds, fed to poultry in vast quantities for coloring chicken eggs and meat, and imported almost totally from Mexico and Peru. In Nebraska, besides burdock, borage would be a good crop: the Omega-3 fatty acids found in its oils are in great demand for the medicine doctors have you take when your cholesterol level is too high, and it still comes mostly from Germany. (Sunflower seed, safflower seed, flax seed, and pumpkin seed are also in great demand for their Omega-3 fatty acids.)
"How about New York?" (Stop laughing. New York state is still the largest exporter of apples in the country. Yes, there are farms in New York, even though most of the rest of the produce sold in Manhattan comes from California’s Central Valley.) "Valerian root, used in vast amounts for valium tablets, still comes mostly from Bulgaria; bergamot (Monarda fistulosa or M. didyma – bee balm, another common ornamental) is imported from Europe for anti-fungal agents used in medicines, as well as a flavoring agent. Ginseng is another idea for New York."
What about more problematic areas of the country? For cold Alaska, white and black spruce cones used in potpourri sell well; "one manufacturer bought 20,000 pounds one year at about a dollar a pound – they had not been previously available at all." For dry Arizona, good crops include sesame seeds ("one candy manufacturer alone buys twelve truckloads a year; bakers also use vast amounts") currently imported from Central and South American countries; and psyllium, which will be discussed later. For problematic Hawaii, with its variable weather and hordes of pests, Miller might recommend lemon grass, which is available in anti-rust cultivars. "Its fresh shoots are immensely popular in Thai cuisine, its leaves are used in herbal teas, it’s used dry as a flavoring agent, it’s distilled for oil, and in California, two hundred acres of it are being put up like a hay crop and sold for $1000 a ton, ten times the price for alfalfa hay." Lemon grass is raised almost totally outside the U.S., in Guatemala, Ecuador, India, China, Mexico. Hawaiian farmers could also do well with gingers (the less well-known varieties like kha ginger are popular wherever they’re available) and with cinnamon, not Cinnamomum eylanicum from Ceylon, known as korintji, the traditional crop, but Chinese Cinnamon, C. cassia, also called tung hing, whose bark is sweeter and has a higher oil content and better flavor."
"There are probably two hundred possible herb crops in any given region of the U.S.," notes Miller. Some of them have well-established markets. Dried flowers are sold to the U.S. in vast quantities by the Dutch, all from seeds grown here. Miller was called on to consult in the flower seed growing area of Idaho, between Boise and Twin Falls. "A Dutch company had put up for bid a 4000-acre wildflower seed-growing contract and it was breaking up the community. I helped organize some sixty growers to fulfill the contract on two to fifty acre plots." Then he helped them move into processing and selling the flowers themselves right here. Dried flowers (statice, baby’s breath, etc) are big business, and are a good crop in many areas. "A client had 4000 acres in turf seed in Hubbard, Oregon, including rocket larkspur which she was growing for the seeds. The rocket they grew for flowers the first year was so superior to what the market had been importing that one warehouse in Buffalo that had bought three cargo containers from Holland is now buying twenty acres from them."
Some of the herb crops are relatively new. Psyllium (plantain seed hulls), for example, is in enormous demand by U.S. cereal manufacturers for inclusion in high fiber cereals, yet it is mainly imported only from one small section of India, whose farmers grow it only as a sideline. Farmers in Arizona and New Mexico as well as wetter places, could grow vast amounts of psyllium to meet the 50,000 plus acre demand. "A 50 to 200 acre site would work fine – simple grinding is the only processing required."
Starting a New U.S. Tradition
Why aren’t farmers growing these things? "We’re the only country in the world that’s not growing its own psyllium – England and France grow it," Miller shakes his head in amazement. He attributes this in part to habit, since the pharmaceutical manufacturers and other users of botanicals had become used to getting their ingredients from out of the country, even with higher transportation costs and poorer quality; and to the European herbal tradition. "The botanicals market in Europe is more than ten times that of U.S markets. Population is denser there, and more people use herbal products, and individuals tend to use higher amounts. For example, herbal tea drinking is quite common, unlike among coffee-crazed Americans; homeopathic medicine is more known. Four hundred tons of peppermint goes into teas sold in the U.S. in a year; in Germany, in the same year, one of five buyers alone buys 5000 tons of peppermint, imported from Bulgaria." (Germany, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Thailand, Indonesia, and India are the main sources for European botanicals, most of it traded through Germany.)
Miller has offered his services to farmers as a consultant and broker. He advises what crop might be right for your area and your problems, which variety of the crop to grow (very important!), and how to process the crop; then he matches you up with the markets he’s hearing from. His fee is 10% of the sale value of the crop. Foragers too use his services, selling mushrooms, cones, dried leaves, moss, and other wild commodities to a whole new array of markets.
For land with special problems, unfit for standard crops, botanicals can also be a boon. "Salty soils can grow a range of new grains, from plants such as saltbush, saltwort, Palmer’s grass, and pickleweed, as well as certain sages." Farmers who have grown a crop too long in one spot in their clay soils and now have verticillium wilt which prohibits growing of tomatoes and other vegetables might do well with fenugreek, a new crop which fixes nitrogen, has a seed which can be used to make a maple-type syrup, and may even be marketable for produce (as it’s used in India). Watery soils may be right for kelp or nori (seaweed) farms. Rocky soils (especially the otherwise problem serpentine soils) may be great for flowers, accenting colors.
Even successful farmers may benefit from looking into botanical crops, says Miller. As permaculturists know well, intercropping, planting an additional crop in with another, can draw additional value from the same piece of land, and sometimes add pesticide or other benefits at the same time. Miller has advised macademia farmers in Hawaii to intercrop with thyme or pyrethrum, both with insecticidal properties. "Where nematodes are a problem, pyrethrum or marigolds might be a good intercrop. Red clover and corn is another good combination. For deep shade areas, say under almond or walnut trees, how about pennyroyal? Vineyards might benefit from interplanting with spearmint, which raises the sugar content of the grapes."
Pyrethrum is an especially hot crop, since there have been world shortages for the newer natural insecticides. "Even 40 acres would be a good size for a pyrethrum crop; Safer and Johnson Wax import all they can get from Kenya."
Another grower, Tom Johnson of South Dakota, was getting by raising animal feeds on his alkaline soils, when he came to Miller’s workshop. Gradually he started to add several new crops, basil, marigolds, comfrey, and others. Then, in a partnership with Miller and the governor of South Dakota, a prototype flower head harvester was designed and built, that can be used with red clover heads, chamomile (used for teas, sedatives, potpourris, and hair conditioners, and generally imported from Egypt, Bulgaria, Argentina, and other parts of the former USSR), and pyrethrum. "A typical Kenya hand-picker can harvest fifty pounds of pyrethrum a day; the Flower Head Harvester, which is about to be produced by a major tractor manufacturer and fits on the front end of a header bar, harvests 10,000 pounds a day."
Even waste products are being put to use by Miller’s clients. Smokey Lake Seed Repository, one of Canada’s larger seed repository, that raise seed for reforestation projects, was more than happy to have him take away the cone "waste product". The douglas fir, lodgepole pine, and ponderosa pine cones are now sold by Miller to companies who use them in potpourris and wreathing products.
Miller peppers his conversation with much discussion of small growers taking on the big conglomerates, building unions of growers, providing locally-grown commodities to markets, agreed-upon ethics, decentralization, the high transportation costs that go into food costs, and keeping money in the community. "I want to be, you know, like Don Genero, not teaching like Don Juan, but provoking, raising questions . . ." He still sees a strong market for growers of: dried flowers and pods, sesame seed, flax (for the oil), comfrey, new mint varieties, all kinds of crops for "ethnic" markets, and a host of other products.
Got an extra couple acres (or spaces for an inter-crop)? If you have any questions, maybe we could get him on here to answer them.