Tuesday, May 3, 2011

One of the coolest things we saw at Mayway's facility in Hebei, China -

- the complete process of how a whole herb gets from the field to us here at Fat Turtle. Keep in mind this is leaving out the whole process of quality control in the field, which we'll cover in another blog post. There is a whole host of site visits, macroscopic examination (which essentially means having a master herbalist/agronomist examine the herbs and see if they have the correct morphology), microscopic examination, testing and et cetera to make sure the herbs are the correct species and fall well under the limits for heavy metals, pesticide residue, et cetera.

(We weren't allowed to take pictures inside the facility, which is too bad, because they had some very cool-looking equipment in there - I'll be supplementing with pictures from the internet.)

Once a batch of herbs has been accepted, it goes something like this:

  • Herbs are washed with water from Mayway's on-site well, which is quite deep, although I don't remember if they ever told us exactly how deep.
  • When we were there, they had uncut Ze Xie 泽泻 (alisma) banging around in a stainless steel washer that looked something like a concrete mixer that was open at both ends - roughly cylindrical, with jets of water shooting in.
  • The next step is soaking - most herbs have to be thoroughly soaked to make slicing possible.
  • From there it's on to the slicing. Each herb has a particular way it has to be cut. When we were in there blue-suited workers were feeding long uncut pieces of Sang Bai Pi into a machine that looked quite similar to this one. A blade at the end comes down at regular intervals and turns it into the familiar-looking orange and white piece we use at the pharmacy.
  • From there it's on to drying. Just as there are several different slicing machines for different herbs, there are a few different drying machines. Some can be dried relatively quickly at high heat without any damage - this machine looks something like a huge industrial bread toaster, similar to this thing. Others, like Ju Hua 菊花 (chrysanthemum) and other flowers, have to be dried gently at relatively low temperatures. These herbs are dried on racks in temperature- and humidity-controlled cabinets that look like this.
  • After that it's off to sorting. We walked in on a roomful of blue-suited workers hand-sorting Bai Zi Ren 柏子仁 (biotae)... huge piles of tiny seeds on stainless steel tables. If they saw one that was off-color, they threw it out. http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif
  • Next, weighing and packaging. There are at minimum three people involved in packaging any one half-kilo package of raw herb. One person scoops an approximate amount into a bag. The next one weighs it and adjusts it to half a kilo. The third http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifperson takes the correct-weight bag and seals it, usually in a vacuum process that sucks all the air out. Mayway then takes another step and double-bags, injecting nitrogen into the space between the two bags. This is to cushion the herbs during transport.

    Then the herbs get taken downstairs, where they wait until they've accumulated a shipping container full. The herbs are then trucked to Tianjin, the nearest port city, and it's off to Oakland...

What does all this mean? For one, now we understand why Chinese herbs are relatively expensive. It's only because of the low cost of labor that herbs don't cost more than they already do.

It also has important ramifications for the domestic herb industry. High Falls Garden in upstate New York and the Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm in Northern California are producing small amounts of Chinese herbs every year, and at some point we'll need a facility that can process the herbs. Just as the growth of clinical Chinese medicine pushes the growth of the Chinese pharmacy industry, people who farm or gather Chinese herbs will spur an herb-processing industry.

Just as ranchers need slaughterhouses if they raise cattle on any kind of large scale, the U.S. herb industry will need processing facilities if they hope to grow to a sustainable size. What will these facilities look like? Will herb farming ever become a large enough industry to support such a venture? Maybe the answer is vertical integration - a farm with a processing facility on site, owned by the same people. These are important things to think about for the future. If you have any ideas, please share!