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Sustainable Agriculture

Ozark Herbs: Building a Profitable Enterprise One Root at a Time

With demand for medicinal herbs in the United States showing no sign of peaking, but with little production information available, would-be herb farmers often struggle to produce economically sustainable yields. Understanding the forest and garden ecology of her 500-variety terraced herb farm in the Missouri Ozarks remains key for Lavinia McKinney to meet her profit, environmental, and educational goals.

With a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) producer grant, McKinney sought to increase her production and marketing of astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine to boost the immune system. SARE funds helped maintain a new astragalus planting and collect root harvest information on five plots.

Though the astragalus root harvest was low in the first year, McKinney was able to sell the dry root to an herbal product manufacturer at $17.50 per pound. By extrapolating the income from sales, McKinney determined that, with lowered labor costs, the root and seeds would be a feasible crop. She also plans to increase the soil's alkaline content to meet the needs of the base-loving plant.

“The data we acquired from our astragalus is very important to us,” McKinney said. “This is a very rewarding plant to grow, and one we would like to see in everyone's herb garden.”

McKinney's Elixir Farm has more than a decade's experience in cultivating medicinals, with a large collection of rare and unusual plants, the seeds of which she sells to producers across the country. Her continuous research into medicinal plants has brought more than 100 new species into cultivation in the last 5 years, many of them shown off at her nonprofit botanical garden.

With a background as a master herb grower and researcher, McKinney was an ideal candidate to lead workshops at Elixir Farm on growing medicinal herbs. She conducted two 3-day residential herb-growing workshops during her SARE grant period, attended by 25 farmers and gardeners. Those workshops are now annual events, attracting about 40 participants each.


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