Ecological Agriculture and Chinese Medicinal Herbs Grown in North America

By Jean Giblette

In the past three decades, several groups of North American farmers and practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine have explored the production of Chinese medicinal herbs. Such a goal is ecologically feasible, and desirable for the conservation of medicinal plants, but imposes socio-economic challenges for development. This report will describe the approach and methods used for domestic production, and the reasons for these choices. Finally, the advantages offered by Chinese medicinal herb production, both ecological and economical, will be outlined.

Why grow Chinese herbs in North America?

Traditional Chinese medicine has taken root in the United States, Canada and Mexico, among 100 countries throughout the world.1 In the U.S. (where it is known as Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine or East Asian Medicine), the new health profession developed over a 50-year period as an alternative to, and distinct from, Western medicine. With national certification under the U.S. Department of Education, licensure in 46 states,2 and over 30,000 licensed practitioners, this health care alternative has become a popular choice even though patients have paid fees without insurance reimbursement until very recently. Professional training has been accomplished in 50 graduate schools, separate from the existing university system.

The interest in Chinese medicinal herbs derived from the success of this health profession but also as an outgrowth of the organic agriculture movement. Both social movements began about 1970 and were “grass roots” in origin, involving voluntary associations of patients, farmers and other citizens who shared an idea that medicine and agriculture should do no harm. They questioned the overuse of pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals. Traditional herbal medicine and organic agriculture were seen as more holistic and healthier alternatives to large-scale, profit-seeking industrial systems.

As botanists have known since the 18th century, the plants of eastern Asia and eastern North America are closely related.3 To grow Asian versions of native medicinal plants seemed within reach. The varieties of habitat found in both continents are similar. Loss of habitat for wild medicinal plants is a worldwide problem, particularly in industrialized nations. Widely dispersed, farm based production using strict ecological methods that approximate the quality of wild plants is needed for species conservation.4

Practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine and their patients share a deep concern over herbal quality. The U.S. profession has relied upon trusted sourcing agents who import herbs from China and sell only to professionals, yet the supply chain seems increasingly fragile. Confusion exists over what constitutes herbal quality, how production methods affect the results and, even if products are certified organic, whether to trust the certifiers. Domestic production addresses these concerns because it seems to offer more transparency and local control.

Ecological agriculture goes back to its origins

The organic farming movement was inspired by a few earlier investigators, among them Franklin H. King. Dr. King was a scientist sent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a mission to China, Japan and Korea in the first years of the 20th century to learn how their soils could retain fertility despite continuous farming over many centuries. Farmers of Forty Centuries was published in 1911 and has never gone out of print.5

In a remarkable example of cross-cultural exchanges of knowledge, one hundred years later Dr. Shi Yan interned on a small Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in Minnesota, then returned to China to establish the first CSA in 2008. Among her many other accomplishments, she helped to translate and publish Farmers of Forty Centuries in China.

It is now widely acknowledged that China originated ecological agriculture, along with the most highly developed and documented system of herbal medicine in the world. At present, however, much if not most medicinal herb production in China uses conventional methods including monocropping and agrochemicals. (Many herbs are still gathered from the wild.)

Meanwhile, organic medicinal herb farmers in North America produce crops entirely without chemicals or synthetic inputs. For example, ginseng is being wild-cultivated in forests without tillage or disturbing the soil, without fertilizer or any synthetics, and in polycultures with companion plants. Individual smallholdings scattered throughout the Appalachian Mountains area are pioneering the wild-cultivated methods. The results are indistinguishable from wild ginseng roots.

More exchanges of knowledge are needed. The struggle to sustain high standards, small family farms, and resilient, economically viable communities is shared by the United States and China, among other nations. The North American experience with ecological agriculture is highly relevant to attempts to solve common problems.

After the U.S. federal government regulated organic agriculture, large corporations began to use their political power to weaken organic standards to gain profits. This led to a counter-movement known as “local” agriculture, meaning that a buyer could seek out nearby farms and get to know the farmer and his/her practices, in preference to relying solely upon official certification.

Next, innovative farmers sought to redefine organic standards using words that distinguished their practices beyond the mere refusal to use chemicals. At present, informed citizens understand that ecological agriculture means more than no chemicals, it is also an intensive series of practices to restore and build soil.

Scientific advances around the turn of the century spurred this awareness. Scientists began to understand that the microbiome—all the microbes in the soil, air, and in human bodies—is far more extensive and complex than was previously acknowledged. Agriculture and medicine are just beginning to grasp the implications of these findings.

In agriculture, the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides greatly reduces the microbial diversity in the soil, as well as in the surrounding habitat and groundwater. Reduced biodiversity means that the plants are not getting the nutrition they need. Poor nutrition leads to disease, and farmers respond with more chemicals.6

In the human gut, microbes break down food and make it assimilable, thereby playing a major or even primary role in nutrition. Scientists are finding more diseases that result from imbalances or lack of diversity in the gut microbes.7

Therefore, all traditional perceptions regarding soil, plant, animal, and human health—including the need for great diversity and balance in the ecosystem—are being confirmed by 21st century science. We need more organisms under the ground than above ground.

Ecological agriculture is now regenerative agriculture

Today there is a worldwide movement toward “regenerative” agriculture that seeks to rectify the harm caused by conventional agriculture. Farmers are literally healing their lands – by reducing soil erosion and sedimentation of rivers, lakes and streams, also increasing wildlife habitat and the ability of the soil to hold moisture and thereby withstand drought. They also sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide in soil organic matter. Regenerative agriculture encourages plant roots to go deep into the soil. Reforestation brings water up out of the ground and releases it into the atmosphere, thereby increasing rainfall and cooling the earth.

Regenerative practices include:

  1. Minimal mechanical disturbance (tillage), also known as “no-till”

    Tillage destroys soil structure. Mycorrhizal fungi exude a glue-like substance that aggregates soil, to provide homes for the microbes and open spaces for water infiltration.8 Tillage also reduces organic matter in the soil and increases weed pressure. Use of synthetic fertilizers kills the soil fungi.

  2. Continuous coverage of the soil

    When the sun shines on bare soil, moisture is lost, and when soil temperature reaches 60°C the microbes begin to die. Cover crops or living mulches are used extensively to assist water infiltration and keep the soil cool.9 Cover crops can be chosen for different functions in the particular plot or field, for example, to transfer atmospheric nitrogen to the soil.

  3. Increased biodiversity directly proportional to soil health

    Monocultures decrease soil health by reducing variety and balance in the microbiome. Combinations of multiple species of cover crops can be used to improve biodiversity in pastures. Mycorrhizal fungi connect different species of plants, increasing the nutrient flow among plants and microbes.10 Intercropping, planting adjacent rows of different plants, or planting crops among trees, is an excellent way to increase biodiversity. Crop rotations help prevent pest infestation.

  4. Maximal living root systems (perennial plants) on the farm

    Deeply rooted plants open up the soil to air and water. Herbaceous perennial plants, shrubs and trees insure a continuous presence of living roots. The more photosynthesis takes place, the more solar energy is being cycled, and the more carbon stored in the soil.11

  5. Animals necessary for crop production

    Integrating livestock into the operation means that animal manures are available for the fertility cycle. Grazing pressure stimulates plant growth, breaks up compacted soil, and preserves biodiversity. Rotational or “mob” grazing concentrates the animals on one section of pasture for a short time and then moves them to another, insuring that the grasses regenerate.12

Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are an environmental problem dangerous to animal and human health. Too much phosphorus is released into the environment from concentrated manures. Animals should be on pasture where their manures become available to dung beetles and other scavengers then are quickly broken down by microbes and integrated into the soil.

Chinese medicinal herb production is regenerative

Most Chinese medicinal plants are herbaceous perennials, understory vines, shrubs or trees and do not require tillage. They can be planted in intercropped rows, orchards or forests without disturbing the soil. They can be a component of windbreaks, hedgerows, ponds or other functional features in the landscape.

In the United States, farmers are working from a carefully chosen list of 150 Chinese herbs desired by medical practitioners. There is a plant for every habitat. Most of the species offer ecosystem benefits such as additional biodiversity, food for pollinators, shade for understory plants, ground cover, deep roots and carbon sequestration.

Most farms do not specialize in medicinal plants but add one or two crops to diversify their operation. Perennial crops are seen as complements to annual vegetables or pastured animals. Farmers want to preserve the farm for their children and grandchildren; they recognize that Chinese medicinal herbs have been valued for thousands of years, and will hold their value for decades to come.

Although often they must wait 5, 10, or even 20 years before the plants yield a harvest, some farmers can afford to wait. If they are working in a group or cooperative, many of the costs of production can be shared. It can be more important to a farmer to have an assured market for a product than to make a quick profit. If the cooperative covers the cost of marketing and sales, the farmer is relieved of a considerable burden.

Chinese herbal medicine is based on traditional formulas, or combinations of herbs. The challenge thus presented is to market an array of related products rather than a large volume of one commodity. This challenge is yet another reason for a cooperative approach to production, and thus presents an opportunity to avoid competition among farmers.

The local movement in agriculture has shown farmers that direct marketing yields the highest return. They sell direct to customers at farmers’ markets, through Community Supported Agriculture, on farm stands or farm stores where customers come to pick up and pay. For Chinese medicinal herbs, marketing agricultural products directly to licensed herbal practitioners is the way for farmers to get the highest return.

Ecological production of Chinese herbs is feasible but will take another decade to develop in North America. Groups in Canada, the United States and Mexico are now trying to find financing to coordinate production and support the farmers. In China, farmers need public support to regenerate their soils and produce food and herbs of the highest quality without synthetics. It is hoped that the recent North America experience can inspire China, just as China inspired the organic movement in North America. More scientific and cultural exchanges are needed to find solutions to common problems.

1 World Health Organization, 2013. WHO traditional medicine strategy: 2014-2023, p. 22

2 National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, Washington DC

3 Boufford DE and SA Spongberg, 1983. Eastern Asian – Eastern North American phytogeographical relationships: A history from the time of Linnaeus to the twentieth century. Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard. 70:423-439.

4 Giblette JM, 2006. “The role of cultivation in conserving medicinal plants,” in Call E (ed) Mending the Web of Life: Chinese medicine and species conservation (Washington DC: IFAW and AHPA-ERB Foundation), pp 251-264.

5 King FH, 1911. Farmers of Forty Centuries (Emmaus PA: Rodale Press, reprinted 1973).

6 Berendsen RL et al, 2012. The rhizosphere microbiome and plant health, Trends in Plant Science 7(8): 441-502.

7 Quigley EMM, 2013. “Gut bacteria in health and disease,” Gastroenterology and Hepatology 9(9): 560–569.

8 Rillig MC, 2004. Arbuscular mycorrhizae, glomalin, and soil aggregation. Canadian Journal of Soil Science 84, 355–363.

9 Wittwer RA et al, 2017. Cover crops support ecological intensification of arable cropping systems. Sci. Rep. 7, 41911.

10 Yang Gaowen et al, 2018. How soil biota drive ecosystem stability, Trends in Plant Science, 23(12).

11 Yang Yi et al, 2019. Soil carbon sequestration accelerated by restoration of grassland biodiversity, Nature Communications 10, 718.

12 Clark AE, 2004. Benefits of re-integrating livestock and forages in crop production systems, Journal of Crop Improvement 12(1); 405-436.

*Jean Giblette has grown Chinese medicinal plants at her farm in the Hudson Valley of New York, USA since 1993. She is a founder and on the Board of Directors of High Falls Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to medicinal plant conservation, research and education. She has written or coauthored numerous articles including papers in the last two New Crops volumes published by Purdue University. Contact her at