Herb farmers reveal unique challenges during SupplySide West session

A session at SupplySide West addressed the challenges of growing quality herbal ingredients, among other supply chain issues.

Hank Schultz, Senior Editor

October 25, 2023

3 Min Read
Marielle Weintraub of Eurofins discussed testing requirements during a SupplySide West education session. The session kicked off with a panel featuring herb farmers.

A one-on-one relationship with herb growers is the wave of the future in the supply chain, according to participants in a session at the SupplySide West trade show. Other supply chain concerns were addressed in the session as well.

The morning’s program, which ran from 9 a.m. to noon on Tuesday, Oct. 25, was sponsored by USP.

The session kicked off with a panel that allowed attendees to hear directly from herbal farmers. The session, which was put together with the help of the American Herbal Products Association, featured five farmers from firms that are all AHPA members.

The five were Matt Dybala of Herb Pharm, Jeff Higley of Oshala Farm, Edward Fletcher of Native Botanicals, Inc. and Marisol Cervantes Bobadilla and Elba Luna of Plantamex.

Dybala and Higley’s farms are in southeastern Oregon. Fletcher works with farmers in North Carolina, Wisconsin and California, while Plantamex is based in Puebla, which is southeast of Mexico City.

Challenges unique to herb farming

The farmers related challenges they have with finding labor and financing. This came as little surprise, as these are hurdles common to almost all forms of agriculture above the subsistence level.

What was something of a revelation to some in the audience was the long lead times involved in new crop development. Fletcher pointed out some crops might take four years or more to come to full fruition.

This means the supply of some ingredients can’t be quickly ramped up by opening a spigot. Careful planning is involved to make sure adequate supplies of quality material will be available when needed.

Bobadilla said planning includes working with customers to make sure the resulting crops match their specifications. That also includes ensuring the specifications are realistic to begin with.

The situation with elderflower was mentioned as a cautionary tale in this regard. During the pandemic, demand for this ingredient soared (as it did for many other immune health-related ingredients) and, somehow, the market more or less met that demand.

The issue was, unless there were fields of the plant growing that no one knew about, some of that material was almost certainly adulterated. There just wasn’t enough spare elderflower to fill that gap.

Fletcher said in one case for echinacea (another ingredient that saw a quick rise in demand), he and his collaborators were able to harvest a field a year early to give a customer a cushion to avoid a shortage.

This meant the crop was not fully mature and so was not quite up to the original spec and would probably have necessitated using more raw material to make the finished products. But it did help avoid an out-of-stock situation on the shelf, which most likely would have been even more damaging to a brand’s financial future than paying extra for raw material.

Close collaboration helps cushion supply chain shocks

That kind of accommodation was only possible because of a long-standing relationship with the customer, Fletcher said. Having that kind of relationship with the companies actually getting their hands dirty is the key to weathering future supply chain shocks, all of the panelists agreed. Buying herbs from brokers on the open market is a poor substitute.

Among those shocks is the increasingly variable weather experienced by the growers in all the regions where they operate. Severe rain events have become more common, and, paradoxically, drought conditions have, too.

The summer in Oregon was especially challenging, Dybala and Higley said. Temperatures of as much a 105 F and heavy wildfire smoke made air quality so bad that, by state health law, no work could be done in the fields for days at a time.

Among other supply chain concerns addressed in the session were data integrity, testing requirements and methods to increase transparency and verification with the supply chain.

Presenters for those sessions were Shelly Blackwell of EAS Consulting Group, Brandon Casteel from SPINS, Scott Steinford of Trust Transparency Center, Anand Swaroop of Cepham and Marielle Weintraub of Eurofins.

About the Author(s)

Hank Schultz

Senior Editor, Informa

Hank Schultz has been the senior editor of Natural Products Insider since early 2023. He can be reached at [email protected]

Prior to joining the Informa team, he was an editor at NutraIngredients-USA, a William Reed Business Media publication.

His approach to industry journalism was formed via a long career in the daily newspaper field. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and German, Hank was an editor at the Tempe Daily News in Arizona. He followed that with a long stint working at the Rocky Mountain News, a now defunct daily newspaper in Denver, where he rose to be one of the city editors. The newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes during his time there.

The changing landscape of the newspaper industry led him to explore other career paths. He began his career in the natural products industry more than a decade ago at New Hope Natural Media, which was then part of Penton and now is an Informa brand. Hank formed friendships and partnerships within the industry that still inform his work to this day, which helps him to bring an insider’s perspective, tempered with an objective journalist’s sensibility, to his in-depth reporting.

Harkening back to his newspaper days, Hank considers the readers to be the primary stakeholders whose needs must be met. Report the news quickly, comprehensively and above all, fairly, and readership and sponsorships will follow.

In 2015, Hank was recognized by the American Herbal Products Association with a Special Award for Journalistic Excellence.

When he’s not reporting on the supplement industry, Hank enjoys many outside pursuits. Those include long distance bicycle touring, mountain climbing, sailing, kayaking and fishing. Less strenuous pastimes include travel, reading (novels and nonfiction), studying German, noodling on a harmonica, sketching and a daily dose of word puzzles in The New York Times.

Last but far from least, Hank is a lifelong fan and part owner of the Green Bay Packers.

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