Growing and sourcing organic herbs is a complex, fascinating, and eye-opening experience. At Gaia Herbs, we are fortunate to have cultivated deep relationships with our botanical partner network over the last thirty years – visiting farmers and wild-harvesters across the world who are stewarding nature’s medicine. Since 1997, we have also expanded our own cultivation of medicinal herbs on the Gaia Farm in Brevard, NC, experiencing first-hand the rewards and challenges of growing and processing medicinal herbs. Through global visits, communications, and observations, a glimpse of culture, ecology, and phytochemical interactions is revealed to us on a continuous basis. A topic that has also been increasingly revealed to us is the impact of climate change on farmers and our botanical supply web.
How Climate Change is Impacting Growing & Sourcing Herbs
Farmers are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather fluctuations brought on by climate change. Many small holder farmers have developed systems that rely on historical weather patterns that have been passed down through generations, rather than Doppler radar systems. When unusual flooding, droughts, early frost, and late frosts occur, crop yields are affected which impact farm profit. Additionally, increased diseases in soil due to hotter days, and changes in insect patterns, which are at times unseen of before, all impact farm operations. With unpredictable weather patterns, farmers are often unable to respond proactively to these fluctuations. Other times, even a proactive approach cannot change nature’s course.
The Consequences of Climate Change on Herbal Farming and Harvesting around the World
Unpredictable Weather on The Gaia Herbs Farm
Extreme weather patterns have directly affected all farmers in Western North Carolina in recent years, including farmers here at the Gaia Herbs farm. Crops such as Passionflower, Echinacea, Lemon Balm, Astragalus, and Ashwagandha have all been impacted. Prior to 2015, we did not have to irrigate our farm and relied on natural rain cycles, but after experiencing some of the worst droughts in years, we set up an irrigation system to help in future years. In 2017 and 2018, on the other hand, we saw some of the wettest years on record in our region, and many farms lost all of their crops. Our crop yield in 2018 was about half of our projected crop yield due to extreme weather, in particular flooding.
Wild-Harvesting in Europe
Centuries of wild-harvesting traditions in Europe are being challenged by climate change. Plants like St. John’s Wort, Hawthorn Leaf, and Yarrow, which are traditionally wild-harvested, are now flowering and fruiting at different and inconsistent times than years past. Wild-collectors, who have been harvesting these plants for generations, have had to adjust to this change or important harvest windows are missed. These plants are already sensitive to weather patterns, especially when harvesting buds or flowers, as they have to be harvested at precise times to ensure potency.
Central America: Spreading Risk Through Crop Diversification
We source many herbs from Central American countries where they are acutely feeling the impact of climate change. Guatemala, where we source our Allspice Berry and Cardamom, is consistently listed among the world’s 10 most vulnerable nations to the effects of climate change. Many of the farmers in this region also grow coffee, which is experiencing challenges worldwide due to weather fluctuations. Because of the uncertainty of many crops in this region, our partners in Central America are working with farmers to encourage diversification of crops in order to spread risk and ensure supplemental income.
Looking Ahead: The Future is Regenerative
If farmers continuously experience crop loss and decreasing profits from farming due to unpredictable weather, there is great concern that farmers may give up on farming. However, with strong partnerships and innovative thinking, we can build networks to support farmers’ adaptability to climate change, ensuring farmers can keep farming for a profit. Gaia Herbs is proud to be a part of a number of partnerships both locally and nationally, which are working to build climate resilient farming methods that can be applied at a global scale. In particular, the regenerative farming movement will help to ensure future resiliency while at the same time helping reverse climate change.
Gaia Herbs’ work on our own farm in Western North Carolina over the last 21 years has taught us about regenerative models, vertical integration, and the fragility of the natural systems upon which we all rely. These lessons have been integrated into how we operate as a business, and are iterative, with new learnings gained every growing season. The meaningful work before us now is recognizing that our responsibility extends far beyond the reach of our supply chain, our products, and our community, to include modeling what we have learned and teaching others these methods. Regenerative farming practices will play a significant role in climate change reversal and mitigation, helping to ensure a future of abundant medicinal herbs.