Where would you turn to if you had just read about an obscure herb that might be able to improve your health? You might think, “I’ll never be able to find this.” However, Herb Pharm might have just what you’re looking for. The company prides itself on offering not just the most well-known herbs (though they have plenty of those, too), but also those medicinal herbs that are difficult to find on the market today. This past June, I had the incredible opportunity to tour the farm and facilities of Herb Pharm, one of the most respected herbal products producers in the world. Nestled in a valley in Southern Oregon near the town of Williams, the “Pharm farm” is an 85-acre certified organic farm where the company grows over 100 species of medicinal plants for use in their herbal extracts. Half of the plant material (by weight) that Herb Pharm uses for its extracts is grown right there. Beyond their fields of Chamomile and Echinacea lie the Siskiyou Mountains, some of which were still snow-covered during my visit, due to the unusually cool spring.
Herb Pharm has humble roots. The company was born in 1979 in the kitchen of founders Ed “Herbal Ed” Smith and Sara Katz, a result of their passion for plant medicine and popular demand for quality herbal products that were not readily available in the United States at that time. They first started making tinctures in canning jars and strained the extracts using coffee filters. The founders recall being floored when they discovered they could actually make a living selling the herbal extracts that they had been producing purely for the fun of it. When a retailer in California inquired if they had a catalog of their product offerings, Ed replied, “I’ll have one for you tomorrow,” and then went home to make one. Since then, their catalog has grown to include over 275 different herbal products. Although their selection of offerings has changed, their commitment to organic agriculture and respecting the wisdom of nature remains the same.
Mullein up close.
The company prefers to grow their own herbs whenever possible, in order to have complete control over the entire process. However, the climate of Southern Oregon is not suitable for growing some plant species. In these cases, Herb Pharm buys the herb directly from other certified organic growers or wildcrafters that they know personally. Wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting plants in their wild habitat, for medicinal or food purposes. Ed travels the world seeking out sources of herbs that meet the company’s rigorous standards. In the case of wildcrafted herbs, Herb Pharm always makes certain they are buying from people who are harvesting the herb in an ethical way so as to ensure long-term sustainability.
Herb Pharm’s field of mullein.
Mainstream science continually searches to identify which constituents in a particular herb are the “active” ones. However, consensus over which components are active changes over time as science continues to discover new components of the plant that seem to be responsible for the herb’s actions on the body. For this reason, Herb Pharm does not alter the naturally occurring range of constituents in an herb, but ensures efficacy through quality control methods in harvesting and processing. “Having our own farm assures consistency and quality from seed to shelf,” states Ed. “This includes procuring organic seed, planting and cultivating in appropriate soil conditions, harvesting at the optimal time of season and day, and then carefully drying and storing for future use, or direct delivery of the fresh herbs to our production facility for immediate extraction.”
All batches of incoming herbs, whether they are grown on the Pharm or elsewhere, undergo a series of tests to ensure that only the highest quality herbs are used. The company follows the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) in production and documentation mandated and audited by the Food and Drug Administration. Over 2,000 steps are taken in the creation of an Herb Pharm herbal extract to ensure quality and accuracy. Every herb is examined using High Performance Thin Layer Liquid Chromatography (HPTLC) to see the layout of constituents in the herb, and provide absolute confirmation of the herb’s identity. All herbs are tested for heavy metals, bacteria, mold, yeast, and fungus. Every piece of equipment, countertop, ventilation system, etc. is microbiologically tested for possible contamination as well.
Both Willy Street Co-op locations carry a wide variety of Herb Pharm’s medicinal herb tinctures, ranging from the well-known Echinacea to the more exotic Rhodiola. (While both Willy East and Willy West carry many of the same Herb Pharm tinctures, their selections are not identical). Tinctures are made by mixing fresh or dried herbs with alcohol and sometimes vegetable glycerin. Each herb species is extracted according to its own unique biochemical and physical qualities. The herb is “steeped” in the alcohol and/or glycerin (known as the menstruum) for a period of three to four weeks and agitated daily. When the herb has been extracted as fully as possible (at this point 90-95% of the herb’s medicinal content has been extracted into the menstruum), hydraulic presses are used to separate the menstruum from the fibrous herb matter (known as the marc).
Herb Pharm specializes primarily in herbal tinctures. Many people are accustomed to taking their herbs in capsule form. While this format is convenient and effective, liquid extracts have many advantages that may appeal to people. Herbs in liquid form do not need to go through the digestive process before one can derive benefit from them—they are assimilated quickly, and are especially valuable for individuals with impaired digestion. The dosage is measured in drops, and can therefore be adjusted easily for those needing smaller doses. Also, the shelf life is long (five years for alcohol-based tinctures), so one can keep the bottle on hand for a long time without having to worry about degradation of potency. People commonly ask how much alcohol they are actually ingesting when they take a typical dose of an alcohol-based herbal tincture. According to the Therapeutic Herb Manual by Ed Smith, “The amount of alcohol you consume in a dose of liquid extract is actually very small. For example, taking 30 drops of Echinacea liquid extract (alcohol content of 45% to 50%) amounts to consuming 1/65th of a can of beer or 1/85th of a glass of wine. Also, if you mix those 30 drops of Echinacea liquid extract into two ounces of water, that mixture would contain only 0.59% alcohol.”
Sprinklers in the field.
I was continually impressed throughout my few days at Herb Pharm with their integrity and dedication to sustainability. During our farm tours, farm crew lead Mark Disharoon pointed out a number of plant species that are considered “At-Risk” or “To-Watch” by the United Plant Savers, including Echinacea, Goldenseal, Lomatium and others. According to Herb Pharm’s website, “Our Pharm Farm is recognized as a Botanical Sanctuary by United Plant Savers because of our work with the conservation and propagation of endangered native medicinal plants.” The company also offsets 100% of their electricity consumption by purchasing their electricity from off-site wind generators and geo-thermal heat capture. Their website also states, “Our...farm has received Salmon Safe certification for developing a long-term strategy to enhance and preserve riparian (streams and creeks) areas on our farm and wild lands, and for our ecologically sustainable agricultural practices.” Ed and Sara were awarded the Herbal Industry Leader Award in 2008 by the American Herbal Products Association for commendable business practices. Additionally, they were awarded the Socially Responsible Business Award at the Natural Products Expo in 2006. Herb Pharm also donates a portion of their net income each year to various non-profit environmental organizations.
One of my favorite parts of my trip was a stroll I took around the beautiful “Pharm” in the afternoon sunlight. Bumblebees buzzed along from flower to flower. Although the sunlight was strong, it was the dry kind of heat that we hear about in Wisconsin but remains elusive to us. I watched the farm staff and internsplanting seedlings and carrying out the day-to-day business of operating a farm. For me at least, a career involving both a tranquil outdoor work setting and the opportunity to grow plant medicine for humankind is an enviable one. As Herbal Ed puts it, “Our ultimate allegiance is to our customers, some of whom literally rely on our products.” Although an immense amount of work goes into Herb Pharm’s products, it is without doubt a labor of love.