The rich smell of various types of dried plants is the first thing a visitor notices upon entering the offices of Herbal Ingenuity in Wilkesboro.
The next is colorful framed photos of wild medicinal plants like bloodroot, goldenseal and black cohosh on hallway walls.
This potpourri of fragrances and the photos represent the stock-in-trade of a new Wilkes County business engaged in the global marketplace of the fast-growing natural products industry.
Herbal Ingenuity is a buyer and wholesale supplier of botanicals, which are plants or plant parts used for their flavor, fragrance and medicinal or therapeutic properties.
The company mostly deals in “wildcrafted” botanicals, which are plants gathered in the wild.
After cleaning and sometimes cutting the plants or plant parts it buys, Herbal Ingenuity sells them in bulk to manufacturers of various products. “Bulk” means individual orders ranging from hundreds of pounds to tens of tons.
These include dietary supplements, energy beverages, cosmetics and pet food, as well as culinary, homeopathic, equine, tobacco and wholesale distributors. It also sells to distillers, brewers, extractors and companies that make powder ingredients in pills.
“We buy from around the world, but primarily in North America, Central and South America and Europe,” said Daniel Vickers of the Ferguson community, co-owner of Herbal Ingenuity.
“We buy locally on a small basis…. We buy cherry bark gathered in Wilkes” and a few other wild plants, said Vickers, the company’s chief operations officer and a Wilkes County native.
Vickers said Herbal Ingenuity prefers to buy from large volume suppliers because they usually have more experience than smaller suppliers with meeting the standards.
He explained that since Wilkes is only on the edge of the southern Appalachian area that produces wild plants purchased by Herbal Ingenuity, it doesn’t have large volume suppliers in Wilkes. Nevertheless, Vickers added, the company’s owners considered Wilkesboro close enough to put its headquarters there.
He said the Herbal Ingenuity facility is registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is inspected by the FDA for compliance with food safety standards.
“The biggest thing for the inspectors is hygiene—keeping everything clean. We comply with Good Manufacturing Practices,” which are designed to ensure safety and quality of medicinal products.
The N.C. Department of Agriculture also inspects the facility, he said.
Vickers has extensive experience with government regulations applied to the natural products industry, as well as with the purchasing and warehousing aspects of the industry.
He and Edward Fletcher of Newland, Herbal Ingenuity’s director of quality, research and sustainability, both started working for Wilcox Natural Products in Boone in 1993. Wilcox (Boone) was a major buyer and seller of wildcrafted botanicals from the early 1900s until it closed in 2000.
Fletcher is recognized as an authority on cultivating native plants, sustainable native plant harvesting practices and related subjects. He helped grow native wildflowers in his family’s ornamental nursery Gardens of the Blue Ridge in Avery County, founded in 1892, when he was growing up.
Rich Ahrens, the company’s chief executive officer, grew up in a Baltimore, Md.-based family business engaged internationally in buying and selling organic spices for tea and other products. His son, Carson Ahrens, is Herbal Ingenuity’s materials manager.
Laura Welborn of Wilkesboro is finance and inventory manager.
Combined, these people have well over 100 years of experience in the natural products industry. Their goal is to be known as a reliable buyer and source of consistently high-quality botanicals in a rapidly growing industry, said Ahrens.
“We all have expertise and are respected in the industry. People call on us because they know they can get the right answers,” he added.
In addition to buying wildcrafted botanicals, they help current and potential new customers grow them.
Herbal Ingenuity, incorporated as Herbal Innovations this spring, bought the 48,000-square-foot former DML-Lineberry factory building on Lineberry Road (between N.C. 16-18 and Old N.C. 18) this year and occupied it on May 1. Vickers said the building has the warehouse space the company needs.
This summer, the Wilkes County commissioners and Wilkesboro Town Council approved separate agreements appropriating a total of $36,407 to Herbal Innovations over a five-year period in return for the company hiring at least 23 people fulltime with average weekly pay of at least $544 each plus health insurance in the same period. The company also must increase its taxable base by certain benchmarks over the five years.
The county is appropriating $22,231 and Wilkesboro is appropriating $14,176 to the company in annual payments through 2020.
Herbal Ingenuity employs 12 people now.
North Carolina’s natural products industry has an estimated $1 billion in sales annually, largely due to the rich biodiversity of the mountain region and the growing popularity of all various natural products and alternative medicine.
The gathering and selling of wild plants, particularly the roots of ginseng roots, is among the oldest industries in Wilkes and elsewhere in western North Carolina and is growing with increased popularity of natural health products.
Vickers said Herbal Ingenuity doesn’t buy and sell ginseng roots because of the scarcity of the plants.
A few of the wildcrafted products from western North Carolina bought and sold by Herbal Ingenuity include the roots of black cohosh, bloodroot, goldenseal, Echinacea, wild ginger, false unicorn, plus cherry bark.
Among the many species of dried plant parts in the warehouse area are large bales of slippery elm bark gathered in western Kentucky and southwestern Virginia. It is used in herbal cleanse kits and soothing lozenges for sore throat.
Vickers said increased demand for black cohosh and many other wild plants with medicinal value is largely due to their effective use in aiding health problems like hot flashes, hormone deficiency and anxiety.
St. John’s Wort, which grows in different parts of Europe, is used to treat depression. Goldenseal is used for colds and has antibacterial properties.
Fletcher said sales of wild plant products have increased to the point where they’re cutting into the profits of pharmaceutical companies, prompting lobbying efforts by these companies for regulatory measure that would be detrimental to the natural products industry.
He said Europe is far ahead of the United States in accepting natural products for health and medicinal purposes. “You have a choice of getting synthetic, natural or generic medicine in Europe and insurance will pay for it.”
Although it’s a small part of the business, Herbal Ingenuity sells it own brands of herbal tea, ancient wheat pasta (not genetically altered), organic honey, truffles and garlic-flavored salt on a retail basis.