1. Herb Suppliers Travel World; Search is on for New Plants
By Stephen Leahy
GOODWOOD, Ont., Oct. 19, Toronto Star -- Conrad Richter travels the globe searching for herb plants. He worries traditional knowledge about using the estimated 100,000 plants in the world is being lost as indigeneous cultures become westernized. To his way of thinking, this is a greater loss than the decimation of the rain forests.
"It took hundreds of generations of trial and error to acquire this knowledge which could be gone within a generation," he says, shortly after a trip to Africa. Richter’s concern is both personal and professional. With his mother Waltraut, he runs Richters, one of Canada’s largest herb growers and suppliers. Their 10-acre herb farm, on Bloomington Rd. just west of Uxbridge, is the centre of a world-wide network of growers and customers for hundreds of different plants and seeds. There are herbs for the kitchen such as West African basil or the Swiss grolau chives. For fragrance, there’s India’s rose-scented geranium grass and for colds, China’s bur marigold.
While their customers are equally far-flung, most of the 100,000 who receive their annual 100-page herb catalogue are in Canada and the United States.
The business got its start when Waltraut Richter and her husband Otto emigrated to Canada from Austria in the 1950s. Trained in the nursery business, they soon had a thriving enterprise in bedding plants in north Pickering. Unable to get herbs here, they started growing their own. Word soon got around and more and more people came looking for herbs to freshen up their cooking or just to have some pleasant-smelling plants around the house.
The interest attracted the attention of a writer at The Star and a feature article in 1969 put the Richters into the herb business. "Hundreds of people called after that article," Conrad recalls. It was a good thing, too. A few years later, the provincial government expropriated their farm and 29,000 square feet of greenhouses for the future city of Cedarwood, later called Seaton. Forced to move farther north with only enough money to re-build 6,000 square feet of greenhouses, their bedding plant business collapsed.
The Richters suffered significant financial losses, but Conrad says his parents would not give up. And thanks to the growing interest in herbs, they were able to survive. The Richters didn’t give up their fight over what they believed was inadequate compensation for the expropriation. After 20 years, the province’s land compensation board will hear their case this fall.
Most of their plants are sold by mail. To ensure safe delivery of delicate plants, the Richters invented their own shipping box. From 6 to 36 plants can safely [be] shipped almost anywhere in the world. "The box can be turned upside down and kicked like a football and the plants will be fine," he says. Inventing a foolproof shipping container was a straight-forward problem compared with identifying and using the tens of thousands of herbs that are little known here [in] North America.
While travelling recently in Ghana, Conrad was shown a three-foot shrub in the middle of a field by a local herbalist and told it was good for severe headaches.
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