King of Herbs

By Wendy Warburton

When Conrad Richter’s parents published their first herb catalogue 28 years ago, a funny thing happened.

Orders took off.

Funny because until then, Mr. Richters says, the family-owned firm’s herb-buying clients consisted almost exclusively of hippies interested in getting back to nature and elderly immigrant women looking for the herbs they had used in cooking and medicinal remedies back in their homelands.

But with that first catalogue, a compendium of 200 mostly culinary herb seeds and plants, the Richters tapped into what has become one of the fastest growing markets in the world.

When the company started growing herbs after Mr. Richter’s mother, Waltraut, yearned for the plants of native Central Europe, they were almost impossible to find, "except for chives, mint and parsley, says Mr. Richter. At that time, maybe a dozen companies across Canada had some connection to herbs. "Now there are easily thousands" selling everything from herbal soaps to plants and seeds and teas, right up to the huge manufacturers selling herbal products in pharmacies.

Richters has grown to become one of the major herb seed and plant material suppliers in the world, with distributors in Australia, Germany and Israel, as well as its Canadian headquarters in Goodwood, just east of Toronto. The company boasts 20 greenhouses, a staff of nearly 30, a monthly newsletter, a web site and enough seminars and daily tours to make it a major tourist attraction.

And the catalogue? This year 800 herbs are offered to thousands of mail-order clients around the world, along with dozens of books about herbs and supplies for growing them. Many of the offerings, such as the delightfully orange-scented Orange Spice creeping thyme, are Richters’ own herbs, developed in its test garden.

In addition to the burgeoning selection of culinary herbs, roughly half of the herbs Richters sells today are medicinal. "we’ve gone from the fringe to the mainstream," says Mr. Richter, who credits the growing interest in personal health among aging baby boomers for the herb industry’s phenomenal growth.

Local growers, and anyone else with a passion for herbs, will have a chance to learn more about the changes taking place next Saturday at a special evening sponsored by the Ottawa Valley Herb Association, when Mr. Richter will talk about Canadian herb trends for 1998.

Now the vice-president of Richters (Waltraut, 80, is the president), Mr. Richter, 41, says groups like the Ottawa association are crucial to the continuing success of herb-based businesses.

Members can exchange information and advice. In addition, working as a group gives individual growers more clout when bargaining with large buyers such as pharmaceutical companies or bulk sellers, he says.

As well as looking ahead to the industry’s future, Mr. Richter will discuss some of the best new herbs for 1998, and he’ll talk about the need for better government regulation, a "huge issue" for herb growers, he says.

"There are increasing demands for quality and consistency in our business and that goes right back to the grower", says Mr. Richter, who recently appeared before a Commons committee studying the regulation of herbal remedies and natural health products.

While changes in regulation will mean a big change for the herb industry, if done right it could be beneficial, he says. he points to Australia, where "workable rules for regulating medicinal herbs" were developed and where business is now booming. Australia is now becoming a significant player in the herb business, he says.

By contrast, Mr. Richter says, existing Canadian rules are so arbitrary and piecemeal they can make it hard for herb growers to do business. At one conference he attended, he says Health Canada officials could not provide a straight answer as to whether selling bulk dried herbs was permissible. "It was unbelievable. In that kind of climate, business has been inhibited terribly."

Mr. Richter says Canada needs a system that guarantees the purity and identity of medicinal herbs.

"Most of the problem with herbs have had to do with misidentification and contamination, but if properly labelled and clean, we’ve had few problems in this country."

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen, Saturday, March 14, 1998.
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