Essential Oils Library: Farming


There are two principal methods for collecting the raw plant material from which essential oils originate. This plant material can either be collected from nature (wild crafted) or from cultivation of plants; both methods are in practice today. The first, wild crafting is a direct interaction with nature. The latter, cultivation, falls into several subcategories of farming, Conventional, Organic, Certified Organic, Biodynamic, and Fair Trade.
Wild crafting is a time honored practice for those who seek a personal relationship with the past.  Mankind has gathered wild plants for their aromatic, culinary and fragrance needs for thousands of years. Today, for the most part wild crafting has become a thing of the past. It represents a break from the modern world of technically sophisticated farming practices to a past time where ancient people sought and collected the needed ingredients for medicines.  Gone are the days when the offering from the wild is enough to satisfy the needs of the masses, “with increased demand for standardized, homogenous raw material, wild species have become domesticated and systematically cultivated.”1

There remain a few species that are still collected from the wild primarily due to the fact that:

  • These plants are a means of subsistence of rural populations.
  • Small quantities are demanded by the consumer market so large-scale is simply not practical.
  • Growing difficulties due to slow growth rate or specific microclimates.
  • Market uncertainties or political situations that prevent long-term cultivation.
  • Market Demand for “natural” offerings

Plants in this category with some or partial wild sourcing include: Yarrow, Arnica, Chamomile and Spikenard. Several international organizations including the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), WWF/TRAFFIC, and the World Health Organization (WHO) have joined forces to form the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 2001). The focus of this group is to monitor and regulate the delicate balance of sustainability of these plants by avoiding overharvesting, genetic erosion and habitat loss. These guidelines and “recommendations address the national and international policy level and provide the herbal industry and collectors with specific guidance on sustainable sourcing practices.”2

For the novice there are a few parameters to follow when practicing the art of wild crafting. First and foremost the important tool to have close at hand is a reliable field guide.  Backyard Medicine recommends the Peterson Field Guide series, and “one should harvest no more then 30% of a specific herb.”3 Selective harvesting should be used, which is harvesting a plant in a way that the plant can survive, such as front cutting from kelp plants.

The best time to wild craft is when the weather is dry and the plants are in full bloom, with ripe seeds.  Gathering prior to noon before the sun is high is ideal.  This allows plants to have maximum moisture content in the cool, early morning hours. The tools are basic; shears, gloves, something to dig up roots with, and a way to carry everything home.  Making sure permission is given when walking on private land, or knowing the laws and regulations of harvesting on public land, would be wise. Pollution is another element to consider when selecting a location.

“There is a difference between cultivated plants and those growing in their natural wild state.”4 While this statement from Jethro Kloss’ makes idealistic sense, there is a realistic fact that wild is an impossible source for supplying the public.  There is no way around the fact that essential oils on the market today are from farmed plants and flowers, but one most remember it takes 60,000 roses to generate 1oz of rose essential oil and ten thousand pounds of rose blossoms to produce 1 pound of oil. Farming practices however vary greatly, and with some research, a person can find an essential oil supplier whose product sources are as close to nature as possible.

Conventional cultivation is simply the most straightforward means of growing the quantity of plant matter needed for Essential Oil production. While this method is the most convenient, even though it doesn’t feel as close to nature, it does allow essential oils and herbs to be affordable and keeps supply consistent, two important factors to consider.  

Conventional Cultivation usually refers to growers using methods that are most in practice today. Conventional farming describes any farming not dedicated to alternative methods. Fundamentally, it is the kind of farming which dominated the 20th century and which accounts for most farming today. In conventional farming, chemical plant protectants, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified organisms and intensive mass animal farming are common and perfectly accepted methods as allowed by law.

Organic farming refers to agricultural production systems used to produce food and fiber. This method of farming relies on developing biological diversity in the field to disrupt habitat for pest organisms, and the purposeful maintenance and replenishment of soil fertility. Organic farmers are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

Certified Organic Farming refers to agricultural products that have been grown and processed according to uniform standards and verified by independent state or private organizations accredited by the USDA. All products sold as "organic" must be certified. Certification includes annual submission of an organic system plan and inspection of farm fields and processing facilities. Inspectors verify that organic practices such as long-term soil management, buffering between organic farms and neighboring conventional farms, and recordkeeping are being followed. Processing inspections include review of the facility's cleaning and pest control methods, ingredient transportation and storage, recordkeeping and audit control. Organic foods are minimally processed to maintain the integrity of food without artificial ingredients or preservatives.5

For those who seek sustainability and a bit more control in the way a product is grown, there are options to decide from, but the buyer still needs to beware, because according to JosefBrinckmann, “it is entirely possible to mono-crop 1,000 acres of an herb using certified organic agricultural methods, but outside the herb’s natural habitat and without biodiversity. There is also no requirement that organic certification must include social sustainability for farm laborers

Biodynamic Farming that is Demeter Certification is tied into a philosophy and a way of life that encompasses sustainability. It is a holistic and regenerative farming system that is focused on soil health, the integration of plants and animals, and biodiversity. It seeks to create a farm system that is minimally dependant on imported materials, and instead meets its needs from the living dynamics of the farm itself. It is the biodiversity of the farm, organized so that the waste of one part of the farm becomes the energy for another, that results in an increase in the farm’s capacity for self-renewal and ultimately makes the farm sustainable.6

Fair Trade Certification informs the consumer of farming methods as the certification indicates that farmers and workers received a fair price and that traditional farming methods were used that maintain biodiversity. “Certified Fair Trade guarantees consumers that strict economic, social and environmental criteria were met in the production and trade of an agricultural product. Fair Trade Certification is currently available in the U.S. for coffee, tea and herbs, cocoa and chocolate, fresh fruit, flowers, sugar, rice, and vanilla.” 7


  1. Leaman, D.J., 2006. Sustainable wild collection of medicinal and aromatic plants. In Medicinal and Aromatic Plants R.J. Bogers, L.E. Craker and D. Lange (eds), pp.97-07, Dordrecht: Springer.
  1. Ibid
  1. Kloss, Jethro, Healthful Herbs, from Back to Eden, pg12
  1. The following article was derived from a speech given by Josef Brinckmann at the second annual Symposium on Industrial Leadership for the Preservation of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, which took place at the Sheraton Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 14-15, 2003. The 2003 conference, titled Sustainable Sourcing: Environmental, Social, and Business Benefits, was organized by the Medicinal Plant Working Group and attended by more than 100 people from academia, industry, government, and tribal nations. (For a review of the conference, please see HerbalGram 62.
  1. Backyard Medicine, Bruton, Julie; Seal. Matthew