A new industry has taken root in the mountains with manufacturers making herbal remedies, soaps, salves and dietary supplements while farmers are finding new cash crops in native plants.
Now, a new industry has taken root in the mountains with manufacturers making herbal remedies, soaps, salves and dietary supplements while farmers are finding new cash crops in native plants.
“What makes North Carolina different is that we have so many different agriculture microclimates along with centuries of tradition in understory forest wild-crafting. Now, we’re trying to make Western North Carolina where wellness comes from” said Greg Cumberford, president of Bent Creek Institute, a botanical research group that has grown up at The North Carolina Arboretum.
About 100 supporters, economic developers, manufacturers and growers gathered Friday at the Arboretum’s educational center for the North Carolina State of the Natural Products Industry and Awards luncheon.
The event was hosted by the Utah-based United Natural Products Alliance and its new state chapter in North Carolina.
With its annual meeting outside Utah for the first time in its 23-year history, UNPA is looking to expand its base to other states and build political support for dietary supplements and other natural products.
In addition to lobbying in Washington, the alliance is looking for natural products companies to talk about their successes and regulatory challenges with their congressional representatives at the state level, explained Frank Lampe, the alliance’s communications vice president.
The natural products industry is already a $1 billion business across North Carolina, with much of its success centered in the rich biodiversity of the state’s Blue Ridge Mountains. At the Small Business Technology and Development Center, veteran business counselor Annice Brown said a third of her clients are working in natural products now. A series of partners provides business support and production help to new businesses, including Blue Ridge Food Ventures, which has a natural products manufacturing line.
With a grant funneled through AdvantageWest Economic Development partnership, growers and companies are finding ways to market themselves. In the past three years, 48 jobs have been created locally with 15 new natural product manufacturers. Some 1,487 farmers have been trained in growing native plants, and 44 acres of new production have been added, according to Matt Raker with AdvantageWest.
A Blue Ridge Naturally certification could help growers market their cultivated plants and claim premium prices, said Chuck Blethen, president of the N.C. Natural Products Association and a Marshall vineyard owner who raises native muscadine grapes.
Wisconsin farmers get only about $25 per pound for their cultivated ginseng while North Carolina growers could claim $1,000 per pound in 2013.
Getting manufacturers used to paying a premium for certified quality still remains a challenge, said Jeanine Davis with N.C. Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center.
“We’re still expected to get ‘Made in China’ prices. I can get farmers excited about growing these natives plants, but then we crunch the numbers and there’s still other crops that can make more money,” she said.
Natural Products Champions
The United Natural Products Alliance also honored three local people for their work in natural products at the North Carolina State of the Natural Products Industry luncheon Friday. The visionary award winners announced were:
• Jeanine Davis, an N.C. State University professor at the N.C. Mountain Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center in Mills River. Davis has been instrumental in helping growers branch out into new cash crops with native plants, such as ginseng, goldenseal, bloodroot and black cohosh.
• Edward Fletcher of Strategic Sourcing Inc. in Banner Elk. The company collects tons of cultivated and sustainably harvested medicinal plants that are used by manufacturers of plant-based pharmaceuticals. Fletcher learned his business from the roots up, growing native wildflowers in his family’s ornamental nursery, Gardens of The Blue Ridge, founded in 1892.
• Jackie Greenfield, a veteran biologist and educator, formerly with Gaia Herbs, the region’s largest botanical manufacturer. Greenfield has more than 25 years of organic expertise from running her own organic farm to conducting research at North Carolina State University on medicinal herbs and woodland botanicals.