Ashwagandha root farming and vertical integration for sustainable supply – article part one

This is part one in a series of four articles and videos detailing the harvesting, processing, testing and clinical research behind one of today’s most popular medicinal botanicals—ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) root.

April 19, 2023

6 Min Read

Getting to the root of it

Considered the “King” of ayurvedic herbs, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has seen meteoric rise in awareness in the last decade with astronomical growth since 2020. Reaching more than $92 million in 2021 sales, ashwagandha is now the 7th most popular herb in natural foods stores.1

And little wonder. Ashwagandha root is tailor made for today’s consumers, who are looking to support wellness and holistic health with science-based solutions. This adaptogenic herb, understood traditionally and examined clinically, helps restore the body’s balance, which is often disrupted by high mental and physical stress levels.

But growing demand also creates new market dynamics that make supply chain critical. Global issues have underscored supply chain disruptions, labor insuffiencies, and raw material shortages that have led to an increase in adulteration of many botanicals. For formulators, tracing their source of ashwagandha from seed to finished raw material is now essential.

Ashwagandha is primarily sourced in India and while there are several suppliers, Ixoreal Biomed, producers of branded ashwagandha root ingredient KSM-66, is the only vertically integrated supplier, controlling every step of its ashwagandha root production from seed and harvest to final raw material. 

The company recently hosted a delegation of executives from the nutraceutical sector around the world to not only view their full operations but also immerse them in Ayurvedic tradition and Indian culture to help them understand the value and importance of ashwagandha, along with its research, development initiatives and innovation.

Grounded in history

To comprehend the power of this herb, one must go back to the beginning. Ashwagandha is deeply rooted in Ayurvedic tradition. Ayurveda is the traditional health system practiced in India for more than 4,000 years. Ashwagandha root is classified as Rasayana (or rejuvenator) in Ayurvedic literature. In Sanskrit, the name ashwagandha (ashwa means horse and gandha means smell) suggests that the roots of the plant impart the power of a horse to those who consume it.

That’s not far off the mark, with traditional literature noting ashwagandha root’s ability to improve metabolism and sexual vitality,2 and an increasing body of modern evidence showing clinical support for ashwagandha root, beyond its well-documented mood and stress benefits, to promote energy, memory and brain health, muscle strength and recovery, and sexual health in both men and women.

Ayurvedic texts also steadfastly maintain that it is the root of ashwagandha that conveys its medicinal benefits. This has been recently reiterated by the Indian Government and its ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy) with a 2021 advisory responding to use of aerial parts. The agency noted there is no substantial evidence on safety or efficacy of ashwagandha leaves and stated that it does not endorse the use of Withania somnifera leaves in crude/extract or any other form for therapeutic purposes.3

That’s why it is only the root that is harvested for use in KSM-66. This also means that particular attention is paid to the soil and growing conditions. Ixoreal Biomed’s farms are located in central Rajasthan, in northwest India, considered an ideal area for ashwagandha cultivation.

It’s known as the “ashwagandha belt” because it is a very dry environment, said Chris Kilham, ethnobotanist and Medicine Hunter, who was along on the KSM-66 tour. “The rainy season ends in July, the seeds are sewn in August, and right now we are nearing the end of February. The plants are turning yellow, which is their way of saying ‘we are ready to be harvested,’” he explained.

The ashwagandha harvest

In total, KSM-66 utilizes 1,600 acres of land for its ashwagandha root, working with eight local farmers. The stakeholder group visited a 200-acre farm near the town of Ramganjmandi. From the harvest, this farm will yield 100,000 kilos of ashwagandha root.

Though the harvest is low tech, it takes precision and know-how from local women who do the harvesting and sorting. The women use small hand tools to dig the roots out of the ground and then remove the leaves. The aerial parts are left in the field to dry and decompose providing compost for soil fertility, while the seed pods are taken to provide the seeds for the next year’s crop.

The next step is to let the ashwagandha root dry in the sun for about 15 days. At this point the roots will make a nice snapping sound when broken in half. Then the women sort and grade the roots, which is where their expertise comes in. “They know what’s going to be suitable for extraction and what’s not going to make it,” Kilham explained. The thicker roots will have a higher concentration of active principles--the withanolides and other active constituents.

Though the rejected materials, smaller, thinner rootlets, may make it to open market in powder form, Kilham noted, the raw material will be low concentration and potency. “It’s still ashwagandha, it’s still certified organically grown, but it will have very little potency and health value.”

The point is, Kilham added, “if companies do not have firsthand knowledge of this… the truth is they don’t know what they’re getting. If you want to understand the plants, go to the field, be with the experts, see it for yourself and know what makes the difference.”

Appreciating ashwagandha

Seeing the farm and the harvest in person was a thought-provoking experience for the formulators and brand stakeholders on the ashwagandha tour. Elijah McCarthy, ND, director of product development for Irwin Naturals, had what he called an “ah ha” moment, noting that the soil and harsh growing environment may be instrumental in ashwagandha’s ability to convey adaptogenic qualities to humans. “It’s almost like it is a relatively stressful environment for the root. But that is the beauty of the herb, in that it also confers that type of strength and resilience to humans. The adaptogenic aspect is present in the soil, if you start to think about how this thing grows and what kind of stimulus it needs to build its strength,” he explained. In human beings, McCarthy added, stress is often looked at as a negative, but the right amounts of stress are stimulation for growth and evolution.

Tom and Maibritt Johnsson, founders of the Swedish brand Medicine Garden, noted that the vertical integration is a key point. “It is so important and makes everything more valuable, not only for us, but our consumers—to know that we can trust that what we eat is really being taken care of from the beginning,” said Maibritt Johnsson.

Tom Johnsson pointed out that the story of the farm is often more important than anything, as they educate retailers, pharmacists and doctors about ashwagandha. Very often, he noted, they are more interested in this story of the farm than the clinical science behind ashwagandha.

Seeing this process may also help us regain something lost in today’s fast paced modern world—the connection to the earth and plants, observed Roy Upton, founder of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia.  When you promote the use of herbs, he said, you promote a better relationship with the earth. “It gives the community an economic basis, a place where people feel respected and valued, and it creates an economic incentive to keep the soil in existence—otherwise, we lose the land to strip malls and clear cutting.”

To read part two of this four part series, click here

1. Smith T, Reseter H, Morton C 2022 Annual Herb Market Report. “US Sales of Herbal Supplements Increase 9.7% in 2021. HerbalGram, issue 136, page 42-69.

2. Singh N, Bhalla M, de Jager P, Gilca M. An overview on ashwagandha: A rasayana (rejuvenator) of Ayurveda. Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. 2011;8(S):2018-213.

3. Singh A, Bhardwaj S. Ministry of AYUSH, Government of India. AYUSH Advisory on ashwagandha. July 2021.

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