Natural Healing: Replacing Tobacco with Herbal Crops in South Carolina

Turning away from tobacco

| March/April 2001

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

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.

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