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Yellow Creek Botanical Institute looks to a sustainable future

by Evelyn Leigh

All over the world, populations of wild medicinal plants are feeling the pressures of over-collection for commercial use. North Carolina's Graham County, one of America's most botanically rich but economically disadvantaged regions, is no exception. Here, in the heart of the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains, depletion of wild plant populations threatens not only the plants, but also the traditional lifestyles of rural people who have collected herbs from the forests for generations.

Now, forward-looking residents of Graham County have joined forces in a unique sustainable development project that will benefit both the plants and the people of this rugged rural area. The nonprofit Yellow Creek Botanical Institute of Robbinsville, NC is working with the community to develop medicinal plants native to the area into viable commercial crops. "We are essentially looking at recreating agriculture in our region," said Yellow Creek founder and executive director Robin Suggs. Heavily forested and mountainous, Graham County is home to many of North America's favorite native medicinal plants, including American ginseng, goldenseal, and black cohosh. Successful cultivation of these extremely popular herbs will protect local ecosystems and provide new economic opportunities for Graham County's rural population, at the same time preserving the county's cultural identity and local agricultural traditions.

By focusing on plants native to the area, growers working with Yellow Creek will be able to produce high quality botanicals that are naturally suited to cultivation in this steep, wooded terrain, setting Graham County apart from other agricultural communities. Suggs, who has a strong background in both agriculture and economic development, hopes that the work of Yellow Creek will ultimately serve as a model for similar sustainable development ventures in other parts of North Carolina and the rest of the county.

Sustainable development has become a central concept for those striving to build socially and environmentally responsible businesses. For Graham County residents, sustainable economic and agricultural development will mean improved long-term opportunity, income, and quality of life. It will also provide incentives for future generations to remain in the county instead of leaving to pursue more promising opportunities elsewhere. Cultivation of threatened plants with established markets will help ensure a continued supply of valuable herbs, and if plants are collected from the wild, sustainable harvesting practices will ensure that local plant populations are not harmed.

Yellow Creek Botanical Institute collaborates closely with a network of like-minded organizations, including the Center for Participatory Change (a local citizen's group), North Carolina State University, the Graham County Department of Planning and Economic Development, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, the US Forest Service, HRF, and others. A primary Yellow Creek goal is to foster the development of partnerships and cooperatives that will work independently to achieve the institute's overall mission.

Recently, Yellow Creek helped to found the Smoky Mountain Native Plants Association, a group of producers working towards sustainable commercial plant production through cultivation efforts as well as the development of ethical wild harvesting standards. "This is the kind of growers' network we envisioned when we started the project," said Suggs. "On a very basic level, some of our original ideas are coming to fruition." While Yellow Creek will continue to assist and guide the new group, it will operate autonomously to further the institute's goals.

Other current projects supported by the institute include a 50-acre research and demonstration farm, cultivation trials, educational events, and market and feasibility studies that will be shared with participating producer's groups. HRF is helping Yellow Creek assess the market potential for selected native plants and secure continued funding for the next phases of the project. "The combination of conservation and economic development priorities make this a really exciting and worthwhile project," remarked HRF president Rob McCaleb.

For more information about the mission and work of Yellow Creek Botanical Institute, visit the organization's website at www.yellowcreek.org

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