What is Fair Wild?
Have you ever heard of or tried foraging for herbs or mushrooms? Maybe you have seen locally foraged ramps in the grocery store and thought this type of thing was only done by a handful of fanatic outdoorspeople. On a bigger scale, we call this practice wildcrafting or wild harvesting, and it has a long and rich tradition in many indigenous communities. It is also a key part of the food, supplement, and skin care industries, providing plants from all over the world for products you see on the shelf. At Gaia Herbs, we buy on average 20% of our ingredients from wild sources every year! We also know that wild sources for plants can put fragile ecosystems and communities at risk and are dedicated to protecting their sustainability and regeneration.
That’s why we are excited to support Fair Wild Week! Fair Wild is an organization which specifically supports wild harvesters around the world. Much like Fair Trade, they certify the harvesting areas and operations for environmental and social factors.
Wild plants really are just what they sound like – they grow in different habitats depending on the plant – forests, tundras, and meadows – but all areas without much human intervention. Cultivated plants like those you see on farms require the planting of seeds, watering, fertilizing and usually a lot of machinery. Wild plants are typically harvested from these areas because they prefer to remain untouched like usnea or wild yam from Appalachia. They may also come from areas where the plants grow prolifically, and there are long histories of indigenous and traditional communities harvesting them. For instance, there is a strong community of wild harvesting in Bulgaria, where you will find nettles, wild raspberry leaf, and mullein being harvested by traditional communities. However, these plants can also be planted on farms, like the nettle we grow at the Gaia Herbs.
Why Does Gaia Care about FW?
Living in the mountains and harvesting wild plants all day might sound like a dreamy, maybe even magical existence. Last year I visited our wild harvesters in Kentucky. Deep in the mountains, harvesters climb steep hillsides and harvest with hand tools like pickaxes to dig roots like wild yam, goldenseal, and black cohosh in 90 degree heat. It’s not for the faint of heart. The nature of these remote locations means that it can be more difficult to check the health of the environment and the way harvesters are treated, and companies like Gaia do not always have easy access to visit and see the supply chain for ourselves.
It is up to us as a mission driven company to ensure that the herbs used in our products are harvested responsibly, that we minimize the impact we have on the environment where they are grown, and that people are treated fairly. We are dedicated to creating products that support people’s health, and we can’t ignore the wellbeing of the environment and people that supply us with our ingredients.
Our approach treats each plant and community differently. If we can learn about and support a sustainable wild harvesting community directly with our suppliers that we can trust, this is the most direct and impactful way we can buy. For instance, we worked with one of our top herbal suppliers in Appalachia to develop a source for mimosa tree bark and Japanese knotweed. These are two ingredients that are historically only sourced from China. These plants were brought over to the US as far back as the 1700s as ornamental plants, and like so many introduced species, they have quickly out-competed local plants. This is a case where over harvesting a wild plant is a good thing! We have no concerns about sustaining it and harvesting the plant in the wild where it has naturalized will help to control its population and allow native plants to thrive. We also worked with the supplier to ensure the harvesters were being paid a fair price for supplying the material.
Alas, not all plants are grown in our backyard and are in such abundance. If we cannot be sure of the conditions how a plant is harvested, we turn to an organization like Fair Wild. They work directly with harvesting communities and make certain that a set of standards is being met. Their standards ensure that the rate of collection is sustainable for the wild population long term and that collection practices do not pose any negative impacts on the surrounding environment. They also put a focus on protecting indigenous people’s rights to manage collection areas, that good working conditions are provided, and that business relationships support the harvesters and quality material. In 2021, we started buying FairWild Licorice to support wild harvesters in the Zaragoza region in northern Spain. Since Licorice can take up to 4 years to regenerate for another round of harvesting, wild areas must be managed to ensure they are not overharvested, cycling through the region. Harvesters dig roots from the soil, leaving pieces of the root behind to regenerate the area.
What else is Gaia Doing for Wild Harvesters?
One of the “Wild Dozen” – TRAFFIC’s list of the top wild herbs – that Gaia uses is goldenseal. Despite its ability to be cultivated, the majority of goldenseal is wild harvested throughout the Appalachian region – mostly Kentucky and Tennessee. Hundreds of collectors bring in small amounts of roots to traders who are set up with the cleaning and drying equipment needed to get these roots to market. Our longtime partner Michael Boring at Boring Roots and Herbs was excited to try to start growing goldenseal on his land while also providing workshops for his harvesters to learn more about practices that promote the regeneration of goldenseal in the wild.
One of the biggest issues we have seen in wildcrafting in Appalachia is the decreasing number of harvesters. As more land becomes private and harvesters lose relationships with people willing to have them harvest on their land, fewer and fewer people will be out in the end of summer heat, harvesting roots. Goldenseal pricing has always seen huge swings and will continue to be unstable with fewer people able to harvest. We’re hoping to provide some security by developing this recurring cultivated source, but we also hope that awareness will increase the respect that these harvesters deserve. We’d like to see the continuation of the wildcrafting tradition in this community if it is sustainable for the plants. At Gaia Herbs we have set ethical sourcing as a standard, and we must think about whether we can purchase wild material, beyond sustainably, but regeneratively. Our decisions should contribute positively to the environments where we work, leaving them better than we found them, beyond just maintaining them.
This article was written by Stephanie Kane, Global Sourcing Specialist
Stephanie Kane works on our Global Sourcing Team to bring herbs from all over the world to our doorstep in North Carolina. An herbalist, DIY-er, and gardener, she has also taken a special interest in our wild collectors and wild plants, finding ways to bring greater sustainability and fairness to this supply network.