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Listening to Rhodiola

The product? An enigma. The market? Uncertain. That didn’t stop this group of farmers from developing what could be the next big, all-natural antidepressant

Nov 1, 2008

by Scott Messenger

The tattered windsock of Dave Maruszeczka’s homemade weather station flutters in a breeze too weak to cut the August heat. The colourless grass and cracked earth of his Ryley area acreage, just over an hour southeast of Edmonton, suggest this is normal. But just how hot it is, the station doesn’t say. Instead of a thermometer, there are cruder instruments, including a pinwheel of plastic pop-bottle tops, presumably for measuring windspeed. Maruszeczka, steaming himself in the blue coveralls he invariably wears farming, admires his contraption and shrugs. “As you can probably tell,” he says, “I’m a tinkerer.”

That’s just as evident in his fields. In fact, with the two acres of Rhodiola rosea next to his house, Maruszeczka couldn’t be anything but resourceful. This is an experimental crop, with much of what’s known about it coded in the Cyrillic of dusty Soviet research papers. For at least 2,000 years, a variety of cultures have used Rhodiola to help the body cope with stress and fatigue. Those mid-century Russian researchers, plucking the stuff from Siberian mountainsides to treat Olympians and cosmonauts, might have seen such afflictions as part of the pursuit of the glory of the nation.

A modern herbalist with an entrepreneurial mindset, however, might call them symptomatic of depression and thus label Rhodiola a garden-grown alternative to Prozac poised to take an $80-million share of an ever-growing North American natural health products market. With this in mind, and for the sake of the collective of Alberta farmers of which he’s a member, Maruszeczka has taken to the under-investigated matter of the herb’s cultivation like an agrarian MacGyver.

Some of his Rhodiola grows on a slope, some in rows of two or three, some in a plastic weed barrier, some on bare ground. And some he has left growing longer than the usual four-year maturation period. Little orange flags mark successes: plants a foot tall, bushy, leaves fleshy and green, buds fat for next year. There is, however, one constant. “Other than watering it when we put it in, we didn’t give it any irrigation at all,” he says. “I just said, ‘If they don’t survive in this part of the country, it isn’t going to work.’”

The good news for Maruszeczka and the Alberta Rhodiola Rosea Growers Organization (ARRGO), for whom the retired engineering professor now serves as one of nine directors, is that Rhodiola has easily withstood Prairie droughts and winters. ARRGO’s venture, then, might actually work. The group comprises approximately 70 Alberta farmers united to produce a made-in-Alberta Rhodiola supplement the provincial government believes could have the group commanding 25% of that North American market – especially given how Rhodiola’s particularity restricts supply. Since the plant goes dormant in warmer climates, the unforgiving northern prairie could, for a change, play to the advantage of the Alberta farmer.

Its fortuitous geography, however, positions ARRGO in uncharted territory. Even with its first harvest just completed and competition nearly non-existent, prices remain to be established. As well, consumers need to be educated and a business model tested, lending Maruszeczka’s fields a symbolic quality. “That’s the trouble,” he says. “We’ve got no data that shows what the results of all these different processes will be.”

That’s partly why Susan Lutz, provincial senior development officer at Agriculture and Rural Development, only glanced at the original Rhodiola commercialization proposal back in 2003. A group of Alberta farmers seeking out lucrative new crops had purchased seed from a Finnish researcher and begun growth trials with the Crop Development Centre North, a provincial agricultural research station in northeast Edmonton. “I’m the first one to kill a project,” says Lutz, who hadn’t heard of the herb. “I’m very much the type that looks at everything positive to start with, but as soon as you see something wrong, it ends.” She set the proposal aside and left for the Natural Products Expo West, an annual conference in Anaheim, Calif., attended by some 50,000 natural and organic products buyers, manufacturers and retailers.

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3 Responses to Listening to Rhodiola

  1. Josh Maxwell says:

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!