Gambling on the health product trends

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer

While Canada’s medicinal plant industry is small, and fraught with commercial risks, compared to many other countries in the world, for those who can withstand the tough first few years establishing their product and market it can be lucrative. Those who grow medical crops and herbs share a gambling nature. If their product can find an awareness in the larger natural health market in North America and elsewhere the rewards can be off the charts. Ginseng, Wheat Grass juice, Echinicea and Ginko biloba have all entered popular consciousness and appear in many natural health remedies and products. These herbs have paid off their initial producers with excellent market returns. Others have not fared so well. In between these extremes there are a certain cluster of herbs all vying for an increased market share. In Alberta one of those products is Rhodiola Rosea.

Rhodiola rosea has been used as a folk remedy in Russia, China and Tibet for centuries as a way to help decrease stress (physical and mental) and increase cognitive function. It is still given to high performance athletes and cosmonauts in Russia today as a natural remedy to help them cope with the mental pressure and physical strain which comes with their jobs. The herb also has a certain caché in western Europe for the same reason.

ARRGO (the Alberta Rhodiola Rosea Growers Organization) is betting this herb will be a go to one in the future in an increasingly stressed out North American society.

“We are a growers cooperative,” explains ARRGO board chair Nelda Radford, “and we have now come through that first big low in our finances to get this established. Three years ago we were biting our nails. But we have now been able to come through a really bad period of time, and we are raising awareness (of our product) on a global level. When we get a customer we don’t lose them because they like what they see. This is traceable and it is sustainable, it’s not the wild-crafted product, so it’s consistent.”

Rhodiola rosea is perennial which thrives in a cold climate. Most production of the herb in the world comes from wild-crafting. The practice where individuals go out into the wild and harvest the plant where it grows naturally. Usually the plant is dug up, part of the root harvested, and then replanted. The problem with wild-crafting is when a company goes to look for a supply of the Rhodiola rosea to put in a natural medicine supplement it is subject to increased regulation and scrutiny. With wild-crafting there is no accountability for quality of the product being harvested. ARRGO has sought to fill that niche, and now has the largest cultivated crop, between all its members, of Rhodiola rosea being produced in the world. This is a huge upside for their product and there is a global demand for it. However, with a seven year crop cycle, the economics of Rhodiola rosea are mixed, to say the least.

“There are two main issues,” explains Radford. “One of them being price. Because we’re cultivating this for seven years, and that’s a lot of labour we’ve got to get back. We cannot compete for price with someone who is wild-crafting. Our price is double what they would pay to someone who is just going out there and digging it up. But in our favour, we also have that sustainability and traceability. (Herbal extract) companies have been put under (by government scrutiny) because of what they are finding in some of the products these days. That traceability is what we have to offer to the market. So there are a lot of companies willing to jump on board with us even at the price, because they feel comfortable with our product and it’s too scary going back.”

For standard samples of the Rhodiola rosea ARRGO charges $50 a kilo. They do offer a discount for companies who buy in larger quantities. Radford explains the planting and harvesting process. It takes two years to grow the seedling to where the Rhodiola rosea can be planted.

“You definitely do not want to plant the seedlings in the middle of summer,” says Radford. “Even mild heat is going to toast them. Most of our growers are planting in the fall (October) and in the spring it’s just let it grow. It’s actually growing before we can even get out there and work the fields. And by the time July rolls around it’s almost finished its seasonal cycle. It blooms in late May, and by end of July its gone dormant and is just kind of hanging in there waiting for the frost. So if you plant it in the fall of, say,  2010,  you harvest it in the fall of 2015. It takes that long for the active (medicinal) ingredients we are looking for to mature to the level that is concentrated enough to be harvested.”

After harvesting, AARGO also has to do some processing at its facility in Thorsby, Alberta before it can be sold to customers.

“We have a certain level of primary processing in order to stabilize the root,” confirms Radford. “We will sell it on a weight basis. Once the root is harvested we take into our facility in Thorsby, Alberta. After a period of curing, then we will wash it, chop it up and inspect to get all the weeds out and the dirt. And then we dry it. We then sell the product worldwide.”

It is not an easy product to grow, says Radford, so those interested in getting into have to weigh the costs, intensive labour and risks against the potential market benefits.

“Right now the growers are just start to feel it has been worth the time and the effort, but I think we better need to understand the practices. Are we overdoing it? Or is there some more mechanical means of making this easier? When we talk around at our board of directors, we look at the next generation coming up to be farmers. They don’t want to be down on their hands and knees weeding. So we’ve got to come up with some sort of mechanical way to do this.

“It’s a tough little bugger (climate-wise) once it is established in your fields, but it will not compete with weeds. My goodness you got to get out there and weed it. But it loves the cold; it loves the snow. In the spring time when we have our early spring snows it’s growing.”

It is also a plant which cannot stand long periods of high heat, making it a dubious proposition for most southern Alberta farmers. But perhaps has some greenhouse potential.

“Our most southern grower is around Vauxhall,” confirms Radford. “It might be tough to grow it (further south). We do have some Dawson Creek people, and some excellent quality roots coming out of the Strathmore area. The sky is the limit as to how far north you can go in Alberta. Our biggest concentration around Edmonton.”

Radford is extremely hopeful with an increased awareness of the well documented benefits of Rhodiola rosea that it will eventually catch on in a more substantial way in North America.

“We’re waiting to see an increasing awareness of this herb in North America. It’s really the herb we need with the stresses we have to deal with. The people we talk to say to us: ‘You guys need to keep going with this.’ We’re knocking on the door.”