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Workshop Will Teach How to Produce Quality Medicinal Herbs

ALBUQUERQUE - Medicinal herb growers and alternative medicine practitioners can learn techniques for testing and improving herb quality during a March 19 workshop in Santa Fe.

Agricultural specialist Charles Martin discusses herb trials at New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde with field day participants in August 2003. Martin is organizing a March 15 workshop in Santa Fe on growing quality medicinal herbs. (03/12/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

Quality is critical in medicinal herbs, but many growers mistakenly focus on yields, said Charles Martin, an agricultural specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, which is sponsoring the event. Martin is conducting research on about 40 herbs at NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde.

"With many crops, growers don't worry about chemical compounds in the plant, they concentrate on yields," Martin said. "But medicinal herbs must develop certain chemical compounds to be useful. We want to show growers how to maximize those compounds and test plant quality."

With traditional crops, growers try to reduce environmental stress to encourage growth. In contrast, herbs often require stress to improve quality, Martin said.

"Many herbal plants produce antibacterial and antiviral compounds as a defensive mechanism to boost the plant's immune system in response to stress," Martin said. "Those compounds are often effective in humans as well, creating medicinal uses for people. So in some cases, you want to stress the plant by overwatering, underwatering or other techniques to increase its medicinal qualities."

Yerba mansa, for example, generally grows in wetlands where infectious pathogens force the plant to produce compounds that boost its immune system, Martin said. "With that herb, lots of water is best."

At the workshop, NMSU plant physiologist Rolston St. Hilaire and biochemistry student Sal Sias will discuss plant chemistry, plant stress and medicinal herb compounds.

Herbalist Todd Bates will discuss benefits and disadvantages of gathering wild herbs instead of growing them. "Some plants are too difficult to grow, but herbalists need to avoid overharvesting to prevent endangering native stands," Martin said.

Jean Giblette, director of High Falls Gardens in New York, will discuss techniques to grow Chinese medicinal herbs in the United States. High Falls began testing about 40 species last year.

Gabrielle Wagner, a local distributor of herbal skin care products, will discuss challenges faced by herbal retail businesses. Daniel Gagnon, owner of Herbs Etc. in Santa Fe, will show how to test herb quality by smell and taste without ingesting plants.

Illinois-based chiropractor William Hammond will show how to test muscle responses to medicinal herbs. Finally, Martin will discuss networking opportunities that allow herb growers and alternative medicine practitioners to increase profits.

"We want to encourage direct marketing arrangements, like community-supported agriculture for medicinal herbs," Martin said.

The free workshop runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Cooperative Extension Complex at the Santa Fe County Fairgrounds, 3229 Rodeo Road.

For more information, call Martin at (505) 852-4241. If you are an individual with a disability who is in need of an auxiliary aid or service to participate, please contact Patrick Torres in advance at (505) 471-4711.