Beneath the canopy of the Central Appalachian forests lies a treasure of biodiversity.

There, buried in the soil, the medicinal herbs and tree barks sold on natural food store shelves grow. In fact, about 50 percent of the woodland herbs, roots, and bark sold as part of the multibillion-dollar herbal products supply chain are native to Appalachia.

From American ginseng to black cohosh, from sassafras to witch hazel, the region is home to scores of plants used for medicinal purposes. But there’s a problem: These roots and herbs are generally shipped to the West Coast or Northeastern U.S. for processing. This means that harvesters are often paid pennies on the dollar in comparison with what the companies that process the plant materials into capsules, tinctures, and teas earn when they put these products on store shelves.

A group of Virginia Tech students, led by sociology Professor Shannon Bell, is studying this issue in order to ultimately create policy changes that will protect harvesters.

“Unfortunately, this extractive pattern is one that the region knows all too well,” Bell said. “There is a long history of Central Appalachia’s natural resources — like coal and timber — being taken with little profit returning to local communities.”

Photo of Virginia Tech students, Sophia Silis and Lily Mohr
Virginia Tech students Sophia Silis and Lily Mohr learn about ginseng. Photo by Shannon Bell for Virginia Tech.

Bell said there are many important social traditions connected to harvesting these plants in Central Appalachia and most harvesters “have a deep love and reverence for the forests where they dig roots and gather herbs.

“Wild harvesting from the Appalachian forests is a practice that has long been integral to the lifeways of local people, dating back to the Indigenous people who tended wild stands of these plants for medicine, food, religious ceremonies, and trade,” Bell said.

Three Virginia Tech students are working with Bell this semester to continue research that began in a fall Appalachian Community Research class. As part of the class, students traveled to portions of Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia to interview wild harvesters; employees of Appalachian Herbal Co., a family-owned-and-operated herb buying business; and employees of Appalachian Sustainable Development's Herb Hub in Duffield, Virginia. Their focus was to examine the roots of the inequities in the Appalachian wild-harvested herbal supply chain through their project, "Sustaining Wild Harvesting Economies in Central Appalachia.”

The team will conduct more interviews over the next few months with wild harvesters and local herb buyers, co-write a research article, and begin work on an interactive online exhibit highlighting sustainable harvesting practices and cultural traditions tied to the Appalachian forests. 

Photo of Goldenseal root being harvested
Goldenseal root is harvested. Photo by Shannon Bell for Virginia Tech.

“I never realized how far herbs have to travel to be processed and the capital investment that is missing from where they are harvested in Central Appalachia,” said Elly Loyd, a junior who is part of the research team. “Another thing that stuck with me was how near and dear this trade is to their livelihoods.”

Senior Sophia Silis said she hopes the research will help “hold the multibillion-dollar industry accountable for furthering inequity” and “inspire policy proposals to improve and resolve issues of structural inequality in the herbal supply chain.”

Among the project’s other goals, Silis hopes to elevate the voices of harvesters, create accessible online libraries to preserve their histories, and catalog ways to harvest herbs for future generations.

Those selling roots and herbs can be broken into two groups: forest farmers who cultivate herbs and roots on their own woodlots and wild harvesters who dig roots and gather herbs and tree barks from land. The land often is considered to be the de facto forest commons, said John Munsell, Bell’s co-instructor and collaborator.

Wild harvesters sell the plant material they collect to local herb buyers in their communities, who often are called dealers. They aggregate this material to fulfill orders for outside investors and herbal companies.

Photo of freshly dug goldenseal roots
Freshly dug goldenseal roots. Photo by Shannon Bell for Virginia Tech.

Munsell said while the forest farming model has been promoted for sustainability purposes, wild harvesting is an Appalachian tradition that many families have relied on for generations.

“These communities in Appalachia are forest-dependent, and many of them are economically distressed,” said Munsell, who is a professor and forest management Extension specialist in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “Oftentimes, wild harvesting is tied to trying to find economic financial opportunities, but historically the price points have been so dismal that it's as much a sustainability as it is a social justice issue in my opinion.”

Munsell has collaborated with Appalachian Sustainable Development’s Herb Hub, an initiative that helps forest farmers negotiate higher price points for their products. The hub provides equipment such as root washers, herb dryers, shredders, and a hammermill, which is a specialized piece of processing equipment that can be used to cut and powder dried herbs and barks.

In partnership with Munsell, Appalachian Sustainable Development recently initiated a point-of-harvest sustainable harvesting verification program. Its goal is helping herb buyers and wild harvesters access the same premium price points as forest farmers by demonstrating they are using the same sustainable practices.

“For us, this is seen as an opportunity to engage the wild harvester community by providing a program that celebrates product traceability and quality, while demonstrating that they are also harvesting sustainably and deserve greater recognition and improved market position as a result,” Munsell said. 

But because the location of the Herb Hub isn’t convenient for everyone harvesting in Central Appalachia, Munsell said he hopes more infrastructure will be put in place and that the hub model can expand to multiple locations at local businesses and partner nonprofit organizations.

In December, Bell’s class presented the findings and recommendations at the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Appalachian Collegiate Research Initiative capstone symposium held in Washington, D.C.

Virginia Tech was one of 16 Appalachian colleges and universities presenting. The student presenters included Loyd, Tyler Mizelle, Lily Mohr, Rachel Poteet, and Silis.

Photo of students presenting at the Appalachian Collegiate Research Initiative capstone symposium in Washington, D.C.
Students presenting at the Appalachian Collegiate Research Initiative capstone symposium in Washington, D.C., are (from left) Sophia Silis, Tyler Mizelle, Elly Loyd, Rachel Poteet, and Lily Mohr. Photo by Shannon Bell for Virginia Tech.

According to the American Botanical Council, the herbal products market has experienced 18 consecutive years of growth, with U.S. consumers spending over $12 billion on products in 2021 alone.

During the students' presentation, they highlighted the differences in prices paid to wild harvesters verses what consumers pay for products. As an example, they calculated that wild harvesters are typically paid about $4.50 per dry pound for slippery elm bark. By comparison, on the shelves of a local natural food store, the powdered capsule version sells for about $101 per dry pound.

“What’s missing on the ground in harvesting communities is the ability to cut and process herbs into teas, tinctures, and powdered capsules,” Bell said. “Local herb dealers have to spend so much money shipping botanicals to manufacturers that their hands are really tied in what they are able to pay to harvesters and still stay afloat. Distributed investment in processing equipment in harvesting communities could go a long way toward helping keep more of the profit from the herbal industry in these communities.”

The students’ community-based research was funded by a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, administered through East Tennessee State University.

Mohr, one of the student researchers who grew up in Michigan, said she enjoyed having the opportunity to learn about the region in such a hands-on way.

“As we drove through Appalachia, I was taken aback by its beauty and understood why people hold such love for this region,” she said.

One of Mohr’s hopes is that their research will inspire people to learn about, appreciate, and seek to protect the rich biodiversity of Central Appalachia’s forests, while supporting the livelihoods of wild harvesters and their communities.

Written by Kelsey Bartlett