Natural Healing: Replacing Tobacco with Herbal Crops in South Carolina

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St. John’s wort is one of five herbs South Carolina tobacco farmers are considering for their fields.
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St. John’s wort is one of five herbs South Carolina tobacco farmers are considering for their fields.

South Carolina tobacco farmers are turning to herbs, but not to improve their health–they’re trying to hang on to their farms. Low commodity prices and reduced crop quotas have U.S. tobacco farmers worried, and South Carolina farmers are more worried than most. Three years ago, the Department of Agriculture cut flue-cured tobacco (the kind used to make cigarettes) quotas by 45.5 percent. South Carolina farmers, who grow only flue-cured tobacco plants, have been particularly hard hit.

Herbal crops may be just the remedy. Medicinal and culinary herbs are now sought after in a way the nation’s farmers never expected. Domestic sales of medicinal herbs exceeded $4.2 million last year. The South Carolina Research Authority has responded to the clamor of our health-conscious nation–and the plight of the South Carolina tobacco growers–by forming the National Nutraceutical Center (NNC). The NNC, based in Charleston, is a consortium that links researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina and Clemson University with tobacco farmers and nutraceutical companies. Its goal? To replace tobacco fields with acres of herbs and make South Carolina a center of herb development and cultivation.

With Americans’ huge demand for herbs, many U.S. nutraceutical companies have had to resort to buying them overseas, where quality may be uncertain.

“Some overseas sources have been found to be full of pesticides and heavy metals,” says David Gangemi, executive director of the NNC. “The danger of fraud is very real in this new and lucrative industry. There is a real need for scientifically grown and controlled herbal medicines. We want to meet that need with a certified, branded, organic product from South Carolina.”

The U.S. health market needs herbs; tobacco farmers need jobs. It may sound like a simple equation, but three years of research have already gone into the project, and years more are needed. James Rushing, postharvest specialist at Clemson University’s Coastal Research Center, is part of the team of horticulturists, entomologists, and plant pathologists working on the herb project. Their mission: to produce quality seeds, identify crop diseases and pests and treat them organically, find species best adapted to South Carolina’s growing conditions, and develop postharvest practices to preserve their active ingredients.

According to Rushing, researchers in Chile have found that the best commercial growers of medicinal herbs are former tobacco farmers. “Tobacco farmers already have greenhouses and drying barns on their property, and are used to intensive crop management,” he says.

But what herbs best suit the South Carolina soil and climate? The Clemson team has been monitoring five species in their trial fields: valerian (Valeriana officinalis), echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), and black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa).

Rushing says that feverfew grows very well in South Carolina. He believes that farmers can harvest two cuttings a year with excellent quality assurance. Valerian, a cool-season annual, doesn’t like Carolina’s hot summers, so it will be planted in early winter and harvested in late spring to avoid the heat. Echinacea has also done particularly well in the trials.

What do the farmers think?

If the Clemson team succeeds, the daisy-flowered feverfew and purple echinacea will replace thousands of acres of the familiar wrinkly tobacco leaf in South Carolina. What do the farmers think of the prospect?

“I’ve been pitching this idea for more than a year to our farmers,” says Greg Hyman, president of the South Carolina Tobacco Growers Association. Hyman is one of the ten volunteer farmers willing to devote an acre of ground to medicinal herbs and the labor it takes to plant, care for, and harvest them during the next year. He’s been working with the NNC and Clemson to recruit other farmers and keep the enthusiasm for the project running high. “Growing medicinal botanicals under contract with a commercial processor and wholesaler could save many of the state’s farms,” he says.

It’s a matter of economics for farmers to consider alternative crops, but according to Hyman, farmers as a group are resistant to change. South Carolina farmers, with centuries of tobacco farming in their blood, may be more resistant than most. The volunteer farmers taking part in the trials are those most willing to look to the future. Not surprisingly, they are leaders in the farming community.

“Tobacco is a tradition in the South, a link back to the beginnings of our country,” says Hyman. “Most of us have been growing tobacco all our lives, as our fathers and grandfathers did before us. We’re not ashamed of growing a product that has been legally and governmentally sanctioned for centuries. But we need to look ahead. And herbs are the way ahead for South Carolina.”

The fact that several of the large nutraceutical companies already have shipping or manufacturing plants in South Carolina is seen as a boon for growers. The South Carolina Department of Commerce supports the research: The government has set aside $72,000 to offset the initial cost of the 2001 plantings, in the hope that the farmers will make a profit by the end of the season. Leiner Corporation, a California-based company with a processing plant in Fort Mill, South Carolina, has tentatively agreed to buy the herbs that the farmers produce at a fair market price–if quality can be assured.

Carrying out the project

Growing the herbs organically, harvesting them in a way that maintains their active ingredients, and working with South Carolina farmers (ten this year, twenty-five next year, and fifty the year after that) to guarantee their quality is the aim of the project, according to the NNC’s Gangemi.

It will be a while before South Carolina herbs are on store shelves. But this spring, tobacco fields down south will have a new lease on life: crops that aid health rather than harm it.

American Herbal Products Association’s Herbs of Commerce, 2nd edition

(American Herbal Products Association, 2000)

Michael McGuffin, John T. Kartesz, Albert Y. Leung, and Arthur O. Tucker

In our researching and fact-checking processes at Herbs for Health, we often turn to the Botanical Safety Handbook, a publication of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA). Another AHPA publication, which will undoubtedly be just as useful, is the second edition of Herbs of Commerce.

The first edition of Herbs of Commerce, published in 1992, included 550 plants and was adopted by the Food and Drug Administration as the standard for naming botanical ingredients on supplement labels. This second edition contains listings for more than 2,000 plants currently in trade. Best for the intermediate to advanced herb enthusiast or professional, Herbs of Commerce lists plants alphabetically by Latin binomial (in section 1) and by standardized common name (in section 2). Botanists Kartesz, Leung, and Herbs for Health editorial adviser Tucker oversaw the review of the nomenclature.

The herbs’ binomials, common names, and botanical synonyms are listed below each herb. Also listed are the herbs’ Ayurvedic names and Chinese (Pinyin) names, if available. For example, we looked up Eleutherococcus senticosus. The standardized common name is eleuthero; the botanical synonym is Acanthopanax senticosus; the Pinyin name is ci wu jia (root and rhizome); and other common names listed are Siberian ginseng and Ussurian thorny pepperbush.

This book will be a helpful resource to have on hand at the magazine and is an excellent reference book for anyone seriously interested in herbs. It would also be an extremely useful reference for health-food store workers and for natural products business owners, for use in correct labeling.

Ordering information:

Hardback, 421 pages, $95 ($65 for AHPA members) plus $5 shipping.
Available directly from AHPA by calling (301) 588-1171 or faxing (301) 588-1174. Visit for more information.

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