Digging Deep for Root Harvest

by Matt Dybala

Harvesting Yerba Mansa

?Autumn plant dormancy marks the beginning of Herb Pharm's root harvest season, which usually begins mid- to late October depending on weather patterns. November usually brings increasingly wet field conditions which is when root masses begin to resemble a basketball covered in mud, field boots and tires begin to stick, and production slows, but not our crew or their spirit.

Herb Pharm's autumn fields of crops, devoid of flowers and summer scents, are actually teeming with life just below the surface. Plant "roots" come in many forms including taproots, rhizomes, tubers and corms. Invisible to the human eye, these morphological fingers navigate a mysterious underworld providing stabilization, nutrition, respiration and dynamic interaction with nematodes, protozoa, fungi and worms.

As winter approaches, the roots perpetuate the life cycle of medicinal herbs. Plants respond to shorter days and cooler temperatures by sending energy reserves to their underground storage facility. Diminishing shoots and leaves move sugars and salts to the plant's root system. This con-centration of sugar and salt in the plant's root cells will later trigger growth in their tips. Root growth will continue until soil temperatures reach their winter levels.

A plant's stored energy allows for immediate root advancement during warm winter days into the early spring. As summer approaches, rapid growth patterns will dwindle as plants begin to focus on growing leaves, flowers and seeds. Roots function as a plant's anchor. Herb Pharm growers pluck root balls from the earth with a John Deere tractor pulling a mechanical digger. Work begins in the cool, dark early morning hours for our farm crew, who begin working under the tractor and truck headlights. Roots are gathered by hand and loaded into a trailer pulled by our 1950's model G Allis Chalmers tractor, fondly named "Alice."

After transporting the root load to the barn, workers begin washing, chopping and lifting roots which then gently roll through two root washing tumblers. The crew carefully chops open root masses to expose and remove rocks and soil.

The end of a muddy root harvest day often presents the best opportunities for a team photo, a sense of accomplishment, a greater appreciation for the next hot beverage and chance to spray mud off of a fellow worker with a water hose.


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