On a misty Tuesday morning, Jeff Higley wakes up and begins making his rounds. Heading out onto the cultivated area of Oshala Farm, he walks through patches of herbs– astralagus, St. John’s wort, borage– checking each for signs of infestation.
After an hour he gets to one of the ashwagandha patches. Oshala Farm produces 84 different crops, but ashwagandha is one of their most popular products– each year Jeff plants two and a half to five acres of it, out of a total of 145 acres.
Jeff carefully inspects the ashwagandha, looking over the plants for signs of bird droppings, fungus, or yellow aster– a disease caused by a pest called the aster leaf-hopper. He carefully inspects the leaves for signs of the Colorado potato beetle, an occasional pest in this part of Oregon. Finally, he notes that a few new weeds have appeared, and makes a mental note to have his crew pick them over later that day.
Noting the relative lack of rain in the past week and the dryness of the soil, Jeff decides it’s time to water the ashwagandha sometime within the next two days.
With that decision made, Jeff moves on to the uncultivated half of his farm– a forested area from which he and his team harvest a few wild crops.
Between the forest, patchwork layout of many different crops, and relative lack of mechanization, fertilizer or pesticide usage, Oshala Farm sounds like something out of the 19th century. But as I would soon learn, organic herb farms tend to be laid out this way for good reason.
Seeking to understand how ashwagandha is grown, I delved into what ashwagandha farming, and the associated supply chain, actually looks like. I wanted to know how it affects the environment, how well workers are paid, where the best ashwagandha comes from, and what the future of ashwagandha farming looks like. Most of all, I wanted to know how consumers could buy herbal products that are both effective and ethical. Here’s what I found.
Here’s What A Typical Ashwagandha Source Looks Like
First off, ashwagandha farms almost never grow only ashwagandha. Partly that’s because demand for any one herb can be very inconsistent– as mentioned, Oshala Farm plants anywhere from 2.5 to 5 acres of ashwagandha a year– so farms have to be flexible about what they grow in any given year. Diversifying their offerings brings a degree of financial security, much like diversifying one’s stock portfolio.
There are also more technical reasons for growing a diverse range of crops. First, crop rotation helps keep the soil healthy, especially when artificial fertilizers are not used. “Similar crops use the same nutrients, so we have to rotate which crops are grown on which plots of land,” Jeff says of his Portland-area ashwagandha farm. “We have a 20-year rotation on alliums such as garlic”
Second, as I will explain later, crop diversity helps protect crops against pests and disease.
Herb farms also tend to be quite small. Oshala Farm is 145 acres, but out of that, 70 acres is forest land from which they harvest a few wild crops, but don’t actually cultivate. Of the 75 acres of actual farmland, about 50 is actively farmed any given year, with the remaining third lying fallow to let the soil recover. And Oshala is one of the bigger herb farms.
According to author Anne Armbrecht in her book The Business of Botanicals, In 2018, India had the largest number of organic producers in the world– and with a reported 1,149,000 producers, significantly more than anywhere else in the world….In 2018 there were 2.8 million organic farmers worldwide, down from 2.9 million in 2017.
In the next paragraph, she notes that in 2017 there were 70 million hectares of organic farmland in the world. In other words, the average organic farm, worldwide, is about 24 hectares, or 60 acres.
Many of the smaller farms are family-owned, particularly in India. Farms will generally have a small team that works year-round, with seasonal workers brought in during the main growing season.
Herb farms in general also tend not to be very mechanized, with crops being planted and harvested by hand. That’s partly because many herbs just can’t be machine-harvested, and partly due to the relative lack of chemical usage. The diversity of crops– and tendency to plant them in a checkerboard pattern, which I’ll explain later– also inhibits mechanization.
The low level of mechanization, in turn, probably results in herb farming not having economies of scale that favor very large farms the way that, say, wheat farming does.
That said, in countries with better climates for ashwagandha as well as cheaper labor, farms can get much larger– according to herbal educator, yogi, TV personality and self-described “medicine hunter” Chris Kilham, farms in India range from a few tends of acres up into the thousands of acres, with even less mechanization than American farms.
One final note is that while domestic sales are typically made by the farms themselves, international sales are almost always made through middlemen– companies specializing in the bulk export of herbs. Companies buying ashwagandha from overseas must therefore take extra steps to be clear on where their products are coming from and how they’re made.
Ashwagandha Farming Is Labor Intensive
Labor conditions for ashwagandha farmers are a bit hard to ascertain, but there does seem to be a mix of skilled and unskilled labor. In general, the skilled workers are full-time while the unskilled workers are seasonal.
As Jeff Higley explains, herb farming tends to be done by small teams of highly-skilled workers, rather than the large teams of unskilled laborers often used for staple crops. The patchwork nature of herb farms, and the high variety of herbs grown, means that workers have to be knowledgeable about a wide variety of crops.
On the other hand, there is still room for unskilled labor in herb farming, primarily when it comes to weeding and picking. To cite one example from The Business of Botanicals, Herb Pharm, one of the largest herbal supplement companies, spends 80% of its money on labor, and 60% of those labor costs go to weeding.
Another farm Ambrecht visited, Trout Lake, said they pay their seasonal workers $12.42 an hour– and another farm, Wild Harvest in Oregon, said they pay weeders $100 a day, roughly the same amount assuming an 8-hour work day. Since few Americans want to do low-skilled farm work, these workers are mostly Mexican workers on H-2A visas, and the daily pay is reportedly equivalent to what they could make in nearly a week working on a Mexican farm.
Less information is available on worker pay in other countries. Many Indian farmers told Ambrecht that herb farming brings in around 50% more money than growing conventional staple crops– however, it is unclear how much of this trickles down to workers, or what labor conditions are like.
Ambrecht emphasizes the connection between worker pay and product quality. “If people are underpaid, they won’t do their best work, and you’ll see that in the quality of the final product.”
Ashwagandha Farming And The Environment
Herb farming in general is a small industry compared to staple crops like wheat, cotton, beans, animal feed, and so on. As such, it doesn’t have a large environmental impact, doesn’t take up much space, and poses little risk of displacing other crops.
Pesticide and artificial fertilizer usage may be an issue in some countries. However, most herb farms in the United States and India are organic, so pollution is kept to a sustainable minimum. Other countries, most notably China, are reputed to have greater problems with soil contamination– even there however, it’s not clear whether that pollution is caused by herb farming, or is left over from previous agricultural projects.
Farms in the USA are certified organic by a variety of organizations which inspect farms on behalf the the USDA. Globally, and particularly in India, certification is provided by a wide variety of organizations, some reputable, some not. Ambrecht recommends looking for farms certified organic by EcoCert, an international inspection organization that operates in 80-odd countries.
Soil contamination can be a major problem with herb farms however, due to leftover residue from past farming projects as well as spillover from neighboring farms.
Jeff Higley had to spend a long time finding a clean area in which to locate Oshala Farm. “90% of arable land in the United States has a toxic legacy from chemicals like DDT that have been banned, but residues are left over from decades ago. A lot of the land we looked at hadn’t been farmed in over 30 years and still had stuff in it that would have made organic farming impossible. And even after we bought the land, we had to not spray anything for three more years to get certified.”
In India and other countries that ashwagandha is native to, it has traditionally been wild harvested. According to Chris Kilham, about fifteen years ago demand began to outstrip the supply that could be obtained from the wild, forcing a switch to ashwagandha farming.
“The Indian government and the University of Bangalore started a program where they gave out seeds to farmers so they could grow ashwagandha, and that was the first cultivation,” Kilham says. We see this with most herbs– they start out wild-harvested, but when demand moves beyond a certain point they have to be farmed.”
Ambrecht also highlights the danger of spillover from neighboring farms. Organic farms located next to non-organic farms can be contaminated by spray and runoff from their neighbors. In fact, this has actually become a bigger issue recently due to a new generation of spraying machines which produce a finer mist– these machines greatly reduce the amount of pesticide that needs to be used, but the smaller droplets carry further in the wind, creating a greater risk to neighboring land.
Soil depletion is a consideration when artificial fertilizers can’t be used. While organic farms can use some natural fertilizers such as manure, their main tool for preventing soil depletion is crop rotation, including allowing part of the farm to lie fallow every year. Higley also plants cover crops, such as clover, peas and oats– which are mostly not sold– in the winter to add carbon and nitrogen back into the soil, protect it from erosion, and protect against weeds.
Because organic farms can’t use most pesticides, pest control mostly relies on non-chemical means. First and foremost, according to Higley, the patchwork layout of Oshala Farm– the way it’s divided into many half-acre plots of alternating crops– limits the damage that pests can inflict, since most invasive species can only feed on a small fraction of crops. A pest that gets into one garlic patch, for instance, may not be able to jump to the neighboring patch of holy basil.
However, this layout is not universal. According to Kilham, in Rajasthan– a desert state in northern India– ashwagandha farms are typically thousands of acres of just ashwagandha. According to Kilham, the desert environment is home to very few pests. Additionally, “Fungi prefer wetter environments, and many root crops like ashwagandha naturally produce alkaloids and steroids that are antifungal by nature.”
Like many farms, Oshala also makes an effort to attract birds and bats which eat pest species. This comes with its own problems however, since bird feces can be a contaminant in themselves. Herb farmers therefore need to check for feces on their crops, and wash them off when found– though root crops such as ashwagandha are not at such a great risk from this.
Finally, there’s water to consider. I’ve seen mixed opinions on how “thirsty” ashwagandha is. As Kilham reports, ashwagandha does quite well in desert environments. On the other hand, Oshala farm, while protected by mountains from the heaviest of Oregon’s rains, is still a long way from being in a desert, and Jeff Higley reports watering his ashwagandha fields. “We water it only occasionally– once every seven to ten days– but when we do, we water it deeply.”
What’s Next For Ashwagandha Farming
Higley stresses the threat posed to herb farms by climate change– not so much that it can directly impact crops, but more so that it brings pests. “You don’t see much ashwagandha farming in California because of pests, especially the potato beetles. Some farms have talked about moving north to get away from the pests. We haven’t had too much trouble; no plans to move yet, but that might have to happen someday.”
Kilham stresses the need for supplier transparency. Only the largest supplement companies can afford to send inspectors out to inspect farms– particularly when those farms are on the other side of the world– so small companies, in his estimation, need to do a lot of research to find a reliable bulk supplier who can be trusted to do the inspecting for them.
He also recommends KSM-66 ashwagandha, which in his estimation is the most popular form of the herb for good reason– it’s reliably pure and effective, with a high concentration of withanolides.
Ambrecht, for her part, would like to see more farms go organic. As she notes in her book, only five to ten percent of the global herb market is organically farmed. One big limiting factor, as we’ve seen, is the high prevalence of soil with toxic legacies, as well as farms suffering pollution from neighboring farms.
Better organic farming in the future, therefore, might depend on finding ways to clean up the soil, or segregate organic from non-organic farms– or perhaps stricter pollution standards for non-organic farms.
Armbrecht has also repeatedly emphasized the connection between how supplements are produced and the quality of the end product. “People need to understand that whether a product works is directly connected to how it’s grown and supplied. If it’s bad for the environment, it probably won’t be healthy for users. If workers are underpaid, they won’t do their best work.”
“Workers need to be paid well,” she adds, “so they’ll do their best work. And herbs need to be farmed in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly manner, because that leads to more pure, natural products that will be more effective. People need to understand that it’s in their best interest as consumers to buy products that are made the right way.”