By Tim Kalinowski
Rhodiola Rosea may be one of the newest crops grown in Alberta, but its few growers are already having trouble keeping up with the overwhelming demand, says Nelda Radford, general manager of the Alberta Rhodiola Rosea Growers Organization (ARRGO).
“A problem worldwide now is the Rhodiola Rosea is becoming an endangered species in the wild,” explains Radford. “One year ago the government of China put a ban on wild-crafting Rhodiola; so that has put a huge deficit on the global supply. We are finding that a number of companies that used to offer products with Rhodiola aren’t offering those anymore because they can’t find it, and what’s available has issues with contamination.”
“In a way it bodes well for our growers,” she admits, “but last November I was suddenly having calls from China and Chinese representatives on our doorstep in Thorsby, Alberta. They were asking for ten times what our company could supply, and I had those conversations over and over again. So we really are very small potatoes in this market.”
Rhodiola Rosea is a medicinal root which thrives in cold climates. It 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 is highly sought after in western Europe among natural health consumers for the same reasons.
Alberta is one of the only places in the world where the root has actually been domesticated for agricultural purposes.
“France requested this year 45 tonnes of fresh root from us,” explains Radford by way of example. “Just to put that in perspective, that will fill up two ocean-going containers. When you compare that to grain, that is not a huge volume. But if you look at the acreage we are pulling that from it is very small compared to grain. The value of the crop, however, is much higher. You do get a bigger bang for your buck.”
And it is not just Asia and Europe who have come calling for ARRGO’s product, says Radford— domestic demand has also been on the rise in recent years.
“It is quite an interesting scenario, and we have seen North America come on board,” she says. “Initially this product was quite heavily used in Europe; so we had lots of exports to France and Germany, in particular. And then we had exports to South Korea. Those have been our staple export markets, and those countries have recognized Rhodiola as being something desirable.
“But lately, we have seen the United States, and especially Canada, asking for more and more of our product. Most of the sales in Canada and the U.S. require certified organic roots, and our growers have been going that way. They are converting and certifying their crops.”
That is the good news— demand is skyrocketing, says Radford. The bad news is some of her Alberta growers are on the cusp of getting out of the industry.
Like trees or shrubs, Rhodiola Rosea takes five to six years to grow the first crop, and new roots must be planted every year, explains Radford. Getting through those initial years waiting for the product to grow becomes a huge stumbling block for attracting new growers despite the rosy economic projections for Rhodiola Rosea going forward, she admits.
“Since it is a five to six year crop, when we bring on new growers there is a lag and a very extended delay before we actually see results,” she says. “For growers, it’s a barrier to entry … We are finding some of people who first got into Rhodiola, they discovered it wasn’t all they thought it was going to be. It’s quite a challenge to grow it. You just have to keep planting every year because it dies when you dig it up.”
But for the right grower who can think further ahead and see the potential, states Radford, it could be an extremely lucrative endeavour if you can wait it out beyond those first five years.
“The economics do look good, but it is hard for most people to think that far ahead into their future and ask: ‘Where am I going to be?’ It has to be something you want to do.”
The southern Alberta climate might not be the best fit for this hardy, cold-weather plant in every circumstance either, she adds.
“Actually we did have somebody from the Nobleford area contact us to see if they could potentially become a grower, but they had the advantage of their elevation there,” she explains. “So somewhere like that in southern Alberta, with a higher elevation, you might be able to grow it quite successfully, but down in the lower areas with your hot summers it wouldn’t grow really well.”