A one-time lawyer trades in his legal practice
to nurture and harvest wild medicinals

Ginseng, goldenseal, black cohosh, skull cap, snake root … Eastern Ohio’s Bruce Buren makes a decent living off of what most farmers dismiss as weeds and wasted land.

By Jason Witmer

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.

United Plant Savers
http://unitedplantsavers.org/

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
Email: info@unitedplantsavers.org

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 of Columbus.

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 built.

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 cotton sheet.
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

Farm-at-a-glance

Woodland Farms of America
Glenmont, OH

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.