Over the past 200 years humans have cleared roughly a third of
the world’s woodlands, and forests continue to disappear at
a rate of 78 million acres per year. Most of these become agricultural
fields because farmers view them as wasted land.
For more on native plants and wildcrafting, check
out the United Plant Savers web site. Bruce Buren told
us that “UPS does a good job of getting out some
or most of the rules of ethical wildcrafting …
it’s what drew me to become a member.
Tel. (740) 662-0041 Fax. (740) 662.0242
In Glenmont, Ohio, however, Bruce Buren is demonstrating that
forests can be economically valuable. On a sunny autumn evening,
under a canopy of maple trees, Buren scrambles along a leaf-matted
deer trail pointing out plain, stunted-looking vegetation. Though
they appear to be little more than weeds to the untrained eye, these
ginseng plants can be worth $360 a pound.
The owner of “Woodland Farms of America,” Buren harvests
and sells medicinal herbs and has become an organizer for locals
who are interested in entering the business. He lives with his wife
and daughter on top of a steep, forested hill, 70 miles northeast
From plastic plants to forest dirt
Five years ago, Buren was working as a lawyer and sitting in an
office next to plastic plants. Colleagues had given these to him
because their previous gifts of live plants had wilted. They were
quite surprised when Buren decided to give up his law practice in
Dayton, Ohio and moved to the country to become a farmer.
The transition began when Buren’s father, who had been living
on the property, passed away. Buren began making increasingly frequent
trips to take care of the property. “I started coming down
here and taking care of the place on weekends,” Buren said.
“Then I started taking off Fridays to come down and take care
of the place. And then I started taking off Mondays – Fridays
and Mondays. Then I said ‘wait a minute, what’s going
on here and why?’”
Buren’s family had lived on the 80-acre property in Glenmont
for five generations. He grew up hiking forest trails with his grandfather,
who taught him about the medicinal plants that his ancestors had
used because they had little access to a doctor. Wanting to change
his lifestyle and to raise a family, Buren eventually decided to
move into the old house on the property that his grandfather had
Though his former colleagues still wonder how he is able to manage
live plants, Buren grows almost all of his family’s food and
makes his living selling medicinal herbs. Buren harvests plant such
as ginseng, goldenseal, black and blue cohosh, skull cap, lobelia,
wild strawberry, spice bush, Indian hemp, clover, coltsfoot, trillium,
heal-all, jewel weed, snakeroot, chestnut, and hawthorn.
Buren has a unique philosophy when it comes to producing his crops.
Rather than planting them in fields, he encourages plants to grow
where they are already growing. “I let the plants tell me
where they want to grow,” he said. “That’s where
they’re going to grow the best, the easiest. I don’t
have to do much. I plant the seeds and they’re going to grow
because that’s where they grow.”
Buren's keys to
success: little meddling and a killer Memory game
Buren helps plants re-seed themselves and watches over plants
such as ginseng for up to seven years before they mature. Buren
also clears out alien plant growth, such as multi-floral rose and
Japanese honeysuckle, which can choke out other plants. He helps
balance his woods by cutting back wild grapevines. Though native,
grapevines sometimes become too prolific and pull large trees over,
causing a loss of shade, which many herbs need.
Rather than focusing on killing pests, Buren develops native habitat
so that predators feed on each other and maintain a healthy ecosystem.
“You don’t want to do away with all the bad bugs,”
he said. “If you do away with bad bugs you do away with predators.
If you do away with predators then there’s nothing to stop
them from coming back in force.”
When planting, Buren assumes that pests will eat some of his garden
and that the deer will eat some of his herbs. He plants enough so
that he doesn’t have to worry if a percentage of the harvest
is lost. Buren firmly believes that trying to get too much out of
land isn’t good for it. “One farm can only produce so
much,” he said. “You can overload the soil and overgrow
it. But you’re going to throw something out of balance and
after a while it’s not going to work.”
Buren harvests most root-plants in late fall or early spring, when
the plant has died back and most of its sap and nutrients have gone
into the root. Plants are difficult to identify at this time so
he relies largely on his memory of plants from the summer months.
“You have to know the forest well to do this,” Buren
acknowledged with a grin. Though he admitted that learning to identify
plants takes a lot of time and effort, he recommended Peterson’s
Field Guide as an excellent resource for beginners.
When harvesting roots, Buren gently digs around plants to pry them
loose. As he does this, he replants a piece of each root to replace
what has been taken. If the order is for dried roots, he scrubs,
chops, and rinses them. Then he dries them for 7-10 days on loose-weave
Buren harvests the stems and leaves of plants before they flower,
because they loose value after full bloom. He picks them in the
morning after the dew has dried but before the sun has evaporated
essential oils. Using sharp shears, he cuts them at an angle to
help the plant heal and to aid in the prevention of disease.
Buren usually harvests bark in early spring, when leaves begin to
bud and the sap begins to rise. Looking for the green, inner bark,
Buren takes a strip from the trunk and then applies pruning compound
to the wound. At other times, he simply cuts a new branch into pieces.
This is less harmful to the tree, and more sustainable, but some
buyers won’t accept products harvested in this manner because
they believe it doesn’t offer the most potent product.
Medicinal plants are fragile and Buren stressed that safe handling
is critical. Because plants mold easily, he only harvests when he
has orders, doesn’t harvest when plants are wet, and stores
them in a well-ventilated space that is free of pests. He keeps
them in a shaded spot because sunlight will deprive many of their
value. He packs plants in cardboard boxes lined with clean paper
and occasionally uses icepacks.
Buren has developed a niche supplying small herb quantities to herbalists
and naturopathic doctors. He spends a lot of time advertising by
telephone, email, mail, attending conventions, and finding plants
whenever receiving requests. Because his plants are of good quality,
he is gaining many customers by referrals from others and his business
is doing well. “Its enough to support you economically,”
Buren said. “There’s a good market out there.”
The moral is let them lie where they may
Increasing awareness of how herbs are grown has driven demand
and prices upwards, also helping Buren’s business. In the
past, almost all herbs were considered organic and wildcrafters
harvesting plants from the side of the road or using unsustainable
practices often filled the herb market. Recently, customers (and
certification agencies) have realized that pollutants are damaging
to medicinal plants and that some harvesting practices have endangered
plant species. “It used to be that some of the organic certification
places would accept wild crafting as organic because everybody had
it in their mind that wild crafting was going out into the pristine
wilds and picking this stuff,” said Buren. “And that’s
just not the case.”
New laws now regulate the harvesting of herbs such as ginseng, to
insure that species survival isn’t threatened. Buyers now
have plants tested for chemicals and the chemical composition of
plants before accepting shipment. They also require producers to
submit details of the harvest site and harvest activities. Buren
noted that some ethnic groups, such as Chinese, pay extraordinarily
high prices for plants that meet strict standards and are grown
in native habitat.
This is another reason Buren encourages plants to grow where they’re
already growing. “There is value in where they have developed,”
he said. “It took a long time for them to develop there and
the dosages are based on the past when they’re grown in native
habitat. So when you take them out of native habitat, and if they’re
producing constituents at different levels, then the dosages are
going to change.”
Buren told the story of a doctor who was in India and learned
about a plant that was effective against Hepatitis B. When the doctor
tried to grow the plant in the U.S., however, the medication formula
wasn’t effective. Studies showed that in the native soil there
was a microbe that attacked the plant, causing the plant to produce
the chemical compound that was effective against Hepatitis B.
“When you take these things out of their native habitat you
don’t know what you’re doing,” Buren said. “There
are some studies going on now that suggest that in the native habitat
plants have to compete and that competition gives them the constituent
and characteristics that they have that make them effective.”
Buren expressed distrust over commercial Echinacea growing, where
farmers strip everything out of the field except the Echinacea.
Buren’s efforts at producing quality plants have been rewarded
by positive laboratory results. “They said, send us some samples
and we’ll see if it’s as good as what you say,”
Bruce said. “Then they came back and said ‘wow, whatever
you guys are doing you’re doing right.’ So that was
nice confirmation.” Along with his efforts to harvest plants
from their native habitat, Buren credits his good location for the
quality of his plants. He is well protected on top of the hill and
there are no farms nearby that might contaminate his land.
Go Big is not an option
Woodland Farms of America
Size: 80 acres
Operation: Sustainable wildcrafting
of forested lands
What is harvested: Ginseng, goldenseal, black
and blue cohosh, skull cap, lobelia, wild strawberry,
spice bush, Indian hemp, clover, coltsfoot, trillium,
heal-all, jewel weed, snakeroot, chestnut, and hawthorn
Buren is working with local farmers to organize a cooperative
to help farmers supplement their income by harvesting medicinal
plants. One of his biggest challenges is convincing people that
what they consider unproductive land is actually worth something.
“A lot of farmers can’t think past a corn, hay, soybean
rotation,” he said. “Everything else is just weeds.”
As Buren explained, however, there are over 120 native herbs in
the region, many of which are in increasing demand. Because most
herbs cannot be mass-produced, large corporate farms do not heavily
influence the herbal market. More stringent standards and loss of
habitat have left the market looking for new sources. Buren estimates
that many farmers have several thousand dollars worth of unutilized
medicinal herbs on their land. He has received an offer for green
American Ginseng roots at $360 per pound, and has passed on to others
$250,000 in orders for various herbs in the past year—orders
he couldn’t fill.
Larger buyers usually want large quantities and Buren often gets
requests for more herbs than he has available. He has recently talked
to one herbal company that is looking for farmers to grow 300,000
acres of specialty crops like borage. Another was looking for 5,000
pounds of dried dandelion root, milkthistle seed, and Echinacea
angustifolia root. Buren is encouraging small-time growers, who
don’t have the time to spend marketing as he does, to pool
resources so that they can market to larger companies.
Buren feels that medicinal plants can revolutionize small-time farming
and blur our categories of “crops” and “weeds.”
“To me, herbal farming is a very special endeavor,”
Buren said. “It is humbling to learn that the indigenous plants
that we have been taught to look at as weeds actually have far greater
nutritional value and medicinal value than the horticultural selections
we have been taught to value.”
Buren is demonstrating that forests are much more than wasted land.
Our woodlands are precious for many reasons and, managed sustainably,
can be economically valuable as well.