Organic Medicinal Herb Production in Iowa

Kathleen Delate, Faculty, Agronomy & Horticulture


Consumption of medicinal herbs with immunostimulatory and antiviral properties is increasing in the U.S. Echinacea products currently constitute a significant portion of the rapidly growing, multi-billion dollar natural products market. In addition, the majority of medicinal herbs are produced under organic conditions. This popularity has led to the expansion of commercial cultivation of Echinacea and the need to find alternative methods to meet the increasing demands of the phytopharmaceutical market.  One of the largest processors of organic medicinal and culinary herbs in the U.S., Frontier Herbs, is located in Norway, Iowa, and while herb production is growing in Iowa, current production levels cannot match the needs of the organic herb industry. Field production needs include locating viable organic seed; alternative methods for breaking seed dormancy, a common problem in existing seed lots; and organic methods to reduce insects and diseases in field production.


    1. Evaluate alternative methods to increase Echinacea seed germination
    2. Determine the best seed source and production system for growing Echinacea in Iowa in terms of plant growth, yield and biochemical content
    3. Disseminate information on medicinal herb production to clients in Iowa


Working with my graduate student, Fredy Romero, we found that by placing seeds in cold, moist conditions for 4 weeks under 1624 hours of light, germination rates were increased in the three most important medicinal species of Echinacea: E. angustifolia, E. purpurea, and E. pallida. Once transplanted to the field, screened cages were found to be the most effective method for Echinacea field production in terms of enhancing root growth and avoiding the disease, aster yellows, which is transmitted by leafhoppers. Echinacea pallida root yields were equivalent to E. purpurea yields after three growing seasons, and yields were enhanced under screened cages. Plants grown from organic seeds produced equivalent or greater biomass than those from the public germplasm seed source.


Results of this research and extension program included disseminating information on medicinal organic herb production to 200 clientele through presentations at extension meetings and conferences. For farmers utilizing organic practices, savings from avoiding petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides in growing organic crops will result in input cost savings of $300/acre, in addition to countless environmental benefits, such as reduced nitrate leaching from the use of compost in place of highly mobile synthetic nitrogen. Revenue that can be generated from medicinal herbs can be up to $1000/acre, compared to $540/acre for conventional corn. A complete evaluation of costs and benefits of medicinal herb production will be conducted in 2007.

106 Green Industry (Commercial Horticulture and Forestry)


Page last updated: November 30, 2006
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