Cultivation Reflections

Cultivation Reflections

Creating an enterprise from growing threatened Himalayan medicinal plants is a relatively unexplored undertaking, so it is inevitable that projects like ours will come up against all sorts of unexpected challenges. Below are some reflections on what is needed for the Biolaya model to work, and some thoughts on how to prepare for larger scale cultivation in the future.

#1: Essential ingredients in making the Biolaya cultivation model work
#2: How effective was our cultivation project as a conservation model?
#3: Beyond Biolaya: (cautiously) preparing for a critical mass
#4: Where do we go from here?

#1: Essential ingredients in making the Biolaya cultivation model work

Growing Himalayan herbs is a long-term venture that requires a long-term vision. It also requires a certain amount of faith and a lot of persistence. It can take many years to develop a profitable herb enterprise, especially with slow growing Himalayan herbs. Few herb buyers are willing to make a commitment or agree on a price three years prior to harvest, so sometimes the only solution is to take a leap of faith and trust in your vision.

As well as thinking far ahead, it helps to think big. Creating economies of scale will make it more viable to support the costs of running a cultivation project. For example, the cost of organic certification, maintaining a processing facility etc. will only be marginally higher for 50 farmers than for 5. The overall cost-savings per unit of herbs will be significant.

Setting up a cultivation project requires significant investment. It takes at least three years before a crop can be harvested, and somewhat longer before there will be any earnings going back into the project. Few farmers can bear these costs on their own – in many cases they will need financial support during the first two years.

Choosing suitable locations for the farms, the processing facilities and the office(s) makes a big difference to the day to day running of a project. There will always be a tension between having the office located near to the farms, and near to towns with human resources and government offices. As far as possible try to minimise the distance between everything.

At some point the project will need to invest in a processing facility. Before doing this my advice would be to spend a few years experimenting in rented buildings to understand your space requirements before committing to a design. Always plan for more space than you think you will need, and where possible try to work with species that need to be harvested and/or processed at different times of the year.

If market prices are low, value addition is key. You don’t have to process herbs into a finished product to add value. Simply providing good quality herbs with evidence that they are from a sustainable source (such as a certificate of cultivation) can be an important form of value addition, as can providing information (including photos) on where and how it was grown or collected. Other forms of quality assurance, including (microbiology, heavy metal, pesticide) test results and organic certification add further value.

In most cases, especially if you are cultivating CITES listed species, you will need to work closely with the government authorities and therefore (based on my experience in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand) you need to be prepared for government bureaucracy. Assume lengthy delays in all government related activities, and treat anything else as a bonus. Be prepared to work with the forest department to help them improve systems of governance.

Design a business plan that relies on different markets and a variety of different products, and where possible minimise dependency on export. Be prepared to change with the times; the model we developed for Biolaya is suitable for this moment in time, but as I have explored in reflection #3, this is likely to change and other opportunities and/or challenges may arise.

#2: How effective was our cultivation project as a conservation model?

In the bigger scheme of things, our project was a tiny drop in the ocean.

I believe the real value of the project came not so much from producing a sustainable supply of threatened herbs, but from the blueprint we created and the potential for wider replication. As such I don’t think we have yet seen the true impact of the work that we started.

I also believe that cultivation alone is incomplete as a conservation model; it needs to be complemented by a wide variety other conservation strategies, and most importantly it needs to address the livelihoods of herb collectors.

Producing a sustainable source of herbs does not necessarily guarantee a conservation impact. What is important is the extent to which it replaces or reduces unsustainable wild collection. In the case of our kutki project, our only feasible option was export (we didn’t meet any companies in India willing to pay the true price based on cost of production). Our buyers had not been using it before, which meant that we were not actually replacing an unsustainable supply with a sustainable one, so the direct conservation impact was minimal. But in terms of preparing the ground for other projects, their support was of huge value.

Sometimes results come in unexpected ways. For example, Banyan Botanicals, who ended up buying much of our kutki, had been using jatamansi in their Tranquil Mind formula without knowing it was an endangered species. After meeting us and visiting our project, they made the decision to stop using it and replace it with other herbs with a similar effect. They also gave a generous donation to Biolaya to help us fund our research into sustainable production, and eight years later are still supporting cultivation projects in the Himalayas. In terms of reducing unsustainable wild collection, this has made a significant impact.

There must be many companies in India who are unaware that they are using threatened species, and for reasons described in holistic supply chains are unable to verify where their herbs come from and how they are produced. Hopefully this website will help to raise awareness of these threatened species and demonstrate that it is possible to buy them from a sustainable source.

So, in summary, it is not as straightforward as ‘cultivation = conservation’; the Biolaya model was an important piece of a much larger jigsaw, and its true value will hopefully show as and when other projects benefit from the work that we started.

#3: Beyond Biolaya: (cautiously) preparing for a critical mass

The Biolaya cultivation model is based on today’s scenario; herbs are disappearing from the wild, yet prices in the local market are still too low for farmers to start growing it. It seems the only viable solution is for an umbrella organisation (such as Biolaya) to step in, add value and connect to premium markets.

But this scenario is likely to change. If we continue on the current trajectory, the ever-decreasing supply from the wild will inevitably drive prices up until at some point it will become more cost-effective to cultivate it. Once that happens it should be possible for farmers to sell it to local traders without the support of an umbrella organisation (as has already happened with herbs such as kushta and pushkarmool).

This would change many things. With direct access to high value markets, farmers would no longer need to worry about organic certification, internal control systems, GACP and all the other forms of value addition I have mentioned. And perhaps most significantly there would be no need for a CITES export permit. In short, many of the biggest challenges that Biolaya faced would be removed (although I’m sure new ones will be created).

There are a number of obvious opportunities can come out of this scenario, but they do not come without risks.

Perhaps the biggest risk is that the success of farmers will attract the attention of large businesses, who can afford to do what the farmers are doing but on a larger scale. By using cheap labour and developing large economies of scale, they could easily bring the prices back down to the point where it is no longer viable for local farmers.

Even if larger corporations do not intervene, market prices are bound to fluctuate. As most Himalayan herbs take several years to mature, it will be impossible to predict what the prices will be by the time the crop is ready for harvest. It could be a gamble that the poor simply cannot afford to make.

Losing genetic diversity is also a concern. If nurseries only propagate herbs by dividing the roots, we will end up with large plantations of genetically identical plants. In the future we will need as many varieties / ecotypes as possible; in addition to propagating through root cuttings, nurseries need to be gathering different varieties from the wild, raising new seedlings from seed, and even breeding new varieties that are resilient to the challenges of cultivation and climate change.

From the perspective of conservation, unless the farms provide an alternative source of income for herb collectors, they will still depend on herb collection for their livelihoods. So if a certain species is no longer viable to collect from the wild, they will just focus on collecting other species. Rather than resolving the problem, it could just be displaced.

So, in summary, the solutions of today may not be the solutions of tomorrow. We cannot just sit back and allow the laws of economics to dictate the future; we have to anticipate the challenges in advance and where possible take measures to ensure that cultivation of Himalayan herbs genuinely benefits both the local people and the plants.


Transition phases from wild harvesting to cultivation (adapted from Homma 1992; Cunningham 2001; Schippmann 2002).


#4: Where do we go from here? Next steps:
  1. Compile figures on cost-benefits. We still have plenty of data from the farms which has not been processed. For anyone wishing to start a cultivation enterprise, this is vital information and is a big gap that needs to be filled.
  2. Compare figures with other cultivation projects. Yields can vary massively depending on where and how the herbs are grown. It would be very useful to start comparing figures from projects in different regions of the Himalayas
  3. Government of India: we urgently need you to prepare clear guidelines on the procedures for issuing / obtaining transit permits, certificates of cultivation, legal procurement certificates and CITES permits.
  4. Users, practitioners and manufacturers of Ayurvedic medicine: please step forward! We need you to stop buying threatened species and supporting sustainable produced herbs instead.
  5. Tell me what you think is needed – I’d love to hear your thoughts…