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Local Growers Plant Chinese Medicinal Herbs

LAS CRUCES - Western herbs such as rosemary, lavender and echinacea bring in about $5,000 of the $30,000 a year that organic grower Jeff Graham earns from his pecan and fresh produce farm in Fairacres.

Agricultural specialist Charles Martin, left, and Oriental medicine practitioner Deborahlise Mota examine Chinese medicinal herbs at Formulations -- Mota's Albuquerque-based apothecary and herbal treatment center. Mota wants to turn her business into a comprehensive pharmacy for domestically grown and processed Chinese medicinal herbs. (06/07/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

But in a few years, Graham expects to earn more than $15,000 from herbs thanks to a new patch of Chinese medicinal herbs he planted this year.

"Chinese medicinals are really going to help my business take off," Graham said. "There's a huge market for them."

Graham is one of about 30 growers in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado who are testing Chinese medicinal herbs for the first time as part of a New Mexico State University project to develop a market for domestically grown Asian herbs.

"New Mexico has tremendous potential to be a big player in this market," said Charles Martin, an agricultural specialist with NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde. "We have a wide diversity of growing ranges that allow us to produce dozens of Chinese medicinal herbs. It's an untapped market with huge potential."

With 430 licensed practitioners, New Mexico has one of the highest per capita concentrations of acupuncturists and Oriental medicine doctors in the country, Martin said. To assess local market potential for Asian herbs, Martin surveyed about 40 practitioners last year.

"The survey showed that on average, Oriental medicine practitioners spend about $2,500 a year on imported Chinese medicinal herbs, and some buy up to $20,000 a year," Martin said. "With over 400 local practitioners, there's easily a million dollar market just in New Mexico."

Deborahlise Mota, a doctor of Oriental medicine who owns the Albuquerque-based Formulations Acupuncture and Herbal Treatment Center, wants to turn her business into a comprehensive pharmacy for domestically grown and processed Chinese medicinal herbs.

"I spend more than $10,000 annually on imported Chinese herbs," Mota said. "I'd love to buy from local growers and become a central supply shop for Oriental medicine practitioners."

Nationally, acupuncture and Oriental medicine is one of the fastest-growing health professions, with over 14,000 licensed practitioners. About 45 colleges nationwide are graduating more than 1,000 new practitioners each year, constituting a huge domestic market for Chinese medicinal herbs, said Jean Giblette, director of High Falls Gardens in upstate New York.

Giblette, who grows dozens of Asian herbs, is coordinating a nationwide project to develop the market for herbs grown in New York, New Mexico and other states.

"We're already showing domestically grown samples to practitioners, and it's generating real enthusiasm," Giblette said. "Most Chinese imports sit on boats for a year or more, so they're often brown and crumbly. In contrast, we've got fresh, green, aromatic products, and practitioners love it."

Nearly all practitioners currently rely on Asian imports, but that's a problem because most Asian products are harvested from dwindling wild stands, Giblette said. In addition, bioterrorism and drug safety concerns may soon lead to federal import regulations, encouraging practitioners to seek alternative supplies.

To encourage domestic production and build market demand, High Falls Gardens formed a new, five-state Medicinal Herb Consortium that includes more than 100 growers and researchers from New Mexico, New York, California, Minnesota and West Virginia. The consortium, which received a $148,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has tested dozens of Chinese herb varieties in all five states.

Martin tested about three dozen species at the Alcalde science center, such as Chinese vetch, Chinese wolfberry, Chinese licorice and the ginseng substitute Dang Shen. He also distributed seeds to some 30 growers.

"We now know we can grow at least 100 species of Chinese herbs here," Martin said. "Some varieties really thrive in our climate and soils."

To improve production of Chinese and other herbs, Martin helped form New Mexico's first Herb Growers Association this year. The association will work with the national Medicinal Herb Consortium to help connect producers with potential customers nationwide.

The project is already encouraging producers to plant Chinese medicinals.

Growers at Resting in the River ?- an organic herb farm in Abiquiu that produces about 60 Western herbs ?- planted Chinese wolfberry this year after viewing plants at Alcalde.

"The market for Chinese herbs is very promising," said Lynda Prim, farm manager. "I think more growers need to get involved because there's a lot of potential."

Based on the research at Alcalde, Graham planted 15 Chinese varieties.

"They're all doing well," Graham said. "Most of the herbs will take a year or more to mature, but I think I can start selling Chinese licorice this year."

Graham said he's already lined up two local Oriental medicine doctors to buy his herbs. "The project has added a whole new side to my farm," he said. "I'm very excited."