The Importance of AHPA's Tonnage Surveys

Holly Johnson of the American Herbal Products Association discusses the AHPA’s Tonnage Surveys. These reports present the findings of surveys that APHA conducts to quantify annual harvests of certain North American herbs in commerce. In this episode, Holly discusses:

  • How the AHPA conducts their surveys, and shares their research methodology, how their studies are conducted, how they take the data from their surveys, and share it with the herbal community.
  • Land stewardship and conservation, and sustainable wild harvesting practices.
  • A case study on the goldenseal and how the demand for the 45 different species of it grew has developed since the 1990s.
  • How to use data in order to cultivate and harvest North American herbs and botanicals.

Listen to the full episode below or read the transcript.

Wilson (00:02):

Good afternoon, everyone. I would like to welcome my dear friend, Holly Johnson, the Chief Science Officer of the American Herbal Products Association to discuss her work with AHPA's Tonnage Survey. For those that don't know, this is an annual survey conducted to estimate the annual harvest of certain North American herbs and commerce. I wish we had something similar for herbs all around the world, maybe, Holly, one day you can expand the scope outside of North America, we'll see. Can you tell us a little bit more about the Tonnage Survey and why you think it's important to our industry?


Holly Johnson (00:38):

Absolutely. And thanks so much for inviting me to chat with you today, Wilson. Yeah, so the Tonnage Survey was started by AHPA two decades ago, in the late nineties. And there is definitely a need for those types of data you just mentioned, in terms of knowing everything we could about the volumes and prices and status of all of our botanical commodities. And we at AHPA, share that desire to have those data, and we'll look into that.


Holly Johnson (01:05):

But what happened is back in the nineties, goldenseal, in particular, was kind of an impetus for us starting these Tonnage Surveys when it was listed on the IUCNS Red List. And their contention was that the wild populations were threatened. And of course, as an industry, in general were quite worried about good stewardship of the land and conservation of native plant populations. And so the idea was, well, let's go out there and actually look. Let's actually ask the people. And because the AHPA members have such good connections to the roots of the people that are wild harvesting, the goldenseal, here in North America, we thought, "Hey, we know people. We can go to ask them how much wild and how much actual tonnage of this plant are you removing from wild populations?"


Holly Johnson (01:51):

And so that was kind of the Genesis of the first Tonnage Survey. And indeed that's what we did. And it grew from there to include many, many more plants. And I think at the very beginning, we borrowed a list from the United Plant Savers


Wilson (02:06):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Holly Johnson (02:06):

Conservation Organization, that I'm sure you're well familiar with. And so are many of your listeners or watchers today. But Michael McGuffin, AHPA's President was on the board of United Plant Savers. So he was aware that they had kind of a list of commodities that were native North American plants, botanical commodities. And I think we started expanding from just looking into GoldenSeal to adopting that United Plant Savers list of native North American plants.


Wilson (02:33):

Oh, yeah.


Holly Johnson (02:33):

And that was kind of how the survey started.


Wilson (02:35):

Yeah, that's amazing. I think you guys are over 45 different species now and counting. I think 45 or 47, I can't remember what the last count was. But an interesting sidebar, after the survey on Golden Seal in 1999, the first one. Michael said in 2000, he said, "I think 15 to 30% of Golden Seals are going to be cultivated." And by the 2001 survey, there was already 17% cultivated. Are you still seeing that slight increase or increase in the amount that is being cultivated versus wild harvested? What are you seeing over there on the survey?


Holly Johnson (03:16):

Such a great question. Thanks. And also, kudos to Michael McGuffin for always having his finger on the pulse and making predictions. The trend is there, it hasn't ... when you look at our data and again, we'll give you guys the links and such, you can go actually look at this report. It doesn't show a complete trend, like just from all wild to all cultivated. But there's certainly a portion of cultivated land that has grown. And I think too production increases and then demand, there's these kinds of waivers.


Holly Johnson (03:48):

But what I can say, if you look at one of these figures that I'm just referencing now from our report. Back in 1999, there were 46 tons of dried GoldenSeal roots that were harvested from the wild. And it stayed pretty similar, 2001, 53 tons. And now we're down into 2016 and 17, we've only got reported 16 and 14. So going from somewhere around 40, 50 tons to 16, 14 tons being taken from the wild population. So that would indicate ... and of course the demand has grown


Wilson (04:22):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Holly Johnson (04:22):

In the market overall. So I think that would indicate that we should be looking to Michael for stock tips, Wilson.


Wilson (04:31):

Yeah, only if he studied the stock market as much as he studied herbs.


Holly Johnson (04:35):



Wilson (04:35):

I don't think he would be at a richer place if he did that. I'm glad he's studying herbs and not stocks. I think one of your predecessors said it the best. You need data to make informed sustainability decisions. So I think what you guys are doing over there is great and it's a treasure trove of data. So I highly recommend people visit and actually look at the data themselves. We will try to link the site, put the link in the site part of this podcast later on. But if you just want to go to the site, just go to, you search around for it and you'll be able to find it.


Holly Johnson (05:17):

Absolutely. And Wilson, I guess I can speak a little bit more to kind of how the survey expanded in other ways, as well, in recent years


Wilson (05:24):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Holly Johnson (05:25):

You mentioned 45 and gosh, I should have this at the top of my head. I think it might be 45 commodities with 41 species. We have some species of plants where they have different plant parts and we actually tally those as separate commodities.


Wilson (05:38):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Holly Johnson (05:39):

But we're expanding every year, adding new species that we become aware of that are entering commercial markets more. What we've expanded over the past couple years is we started last year asking some questions for the years 2011 to 2017. We asked questions about sustainability standards. So not only did we ask you, "Hey, how much black cohosh did you produce this year?" We also asked, "Was any of that certified to the national organic standard?" So to the USDA's Organic Standard. And then we also asked for other eco certifications. Was that certified fair wild, fair trade? These types of things. So we're definitely trying to gather those types of data to kind of round out what people are doing with their botanical commodities.


Holly Johnson (06:30):

This year's survey, which is about to launch, is such a timely podcast. Right at the time we're launching the next survey. We also included some price point data, which we think is going to be interesting. And again, it's all anonymous from the producers that submit their data. But yeah, and so we're looking to expand. We also added another question leading kind of to the following on what you said before, about all the commodities on earth that we deal with in our botanical trade for dietary supplements, not just the native North American ones.


Holly Johnson (07:01):

So we did have a question about specifically cultivation, if people that are primary producers here in the US, are you cultivating plants that may not be native North Americans? Such as turmeric, ginger, these types of commodities. So we made a list and then we also had an open box question. So, we're starting to expand the survey into all kinds of different types of information that can be helpful to our community and our industry.


Wilson (07:30):

Yeah, I think, just knowing what kind of certifications out there and how this material's being cultivated or wild crafted, that's going to be really important for industry. Because at least we know, is there such a thing as an organic X or a fair trade X or a fair wild X? I think that's going to be really important. So I can't wait to see the survey. And if someone wants to participate, who should they talk to?


Holly Johnson (07:59):

Me. They can contact me. We also have our wonderful project scientist, Holly Chittum. She's an AHPA employee and also a PhD candidate at Penn State University working in supply chain issues. And she is really managing this project, this Tonnage Survey project for us. So both of our websites are right on the AHPA website, again, and they're actually right on the Tonnage Survey website too. So if you go to download the report, you'll see my address and Holly's, but I'm Yeah, contact us, call us by phone, email us.


Holly Johnson (08:34):

If you are a primary producer, if you are producing botanical goods at a farm level, if you're harvesting them from the forest, we'd really like to talk to you. And part of our work has been in refining, so we don't double count the same lot or the same crop or the same thing. Often there'll be a wild crafter that will then come to a distributor with their material. And we want to make sure we don't count those lots twice or those quantities. So it's really been a lot of work. And Holly Chittum, our project scientist, deserves quite a lot of credit for trying to just refine the ways we do this. But yeah, if you're a primary producer, farming or wild harvesting, or even at a distribution level, we want to talk with you.


Wilson (09:19):

I'm going to contribute some data on echinacea in this survey. So can't wait.


Holly Johnson (09:24):



Wilson (09:25):

Actually have something to contribute. Now that we have done a North American herb or two.


Holly Johnson (09:32):

Wonderful, wonderful, Wilson. So appreciated. And also, what's interesting about these data, what we have done this year with the Tonnage Survey and all of our past Tonnage Surveys is just made them openly available to the public. We have lots of benefits that are only for AHPA members, but we just know these data are so important. Not only to our industry and our brands and our ingredient suppliers. But to academics, to conservation biologists, to colleges, to other people. So we've made all these data, this year's survey as well as the last ones free and available on our website.

And I think that's kind of an interesting thing. The academics will use these data in a totally different way than our industry colleagues. And if you're a brand, you might want to know, okay, I'm going to make a new product with black cohosh. And I actually want to have wild harvested certified organic black cohosh. Not only like you said, Wilson, does that even exist? But if so, how much of the market might I be trying to purchase in a given year? It really helps our industry really think about their supply chain decisions in terms of planning in advance for botanical materials, working with primary producers and really understanding their role and how much of a given commodity supply chain they might be with their hands on.


Wilson (10:52):

Yeah. I think one of the things is that it's really important for brands to use this, especially if they're using North American herbs in their products. I'll give you a perfect example: osha. If you want to build a billion dollar brand on osha, it's probably not possible because there's not enough osha and you would decimate the osha population out there. So as you through formulation and what products to pick and what you want to do, you can sort of see how big that yield of that particular plant on a given year is.

And I think, talking about that, can you tell us a little bit more about the osha project and I know you're so involved in it and the data was so exciting. And sorry I'm a data nerd too, and a herb nerd. So, it was just amazing, the detail and granularity you guys were able to come to. I just want to share a little bit about that and I recommend everyone go read about the study and learn more about it through the study. But Holly, probably can give you a quick 10,000 foot recap of it.


Holly Johnson (12:02):

Yep, absolutely. And Wilson, this is why I love my job and presume you do too. We have so many herb nerd friends in our trade. Yeah. So, the osha study, this was something that was founded by AHPA's foundation. So we have a foundation called Education and Research and Botanicals Foundation through AHPA, which you're well aware of and a part of. But it basically is a kind of a collaboration of herb nerds, if you will. But people in our trade who really care about conservation, really care about scientific data for our botanicals and come together to raise money for this. And really, to solicit money and to solicit scientists to continue this great work.

So one of the great projects that has happened, funded by the ERB, at least in part, is a project with osha, the plant you were just describing. This was a grant that we awarded to Professor Kelly Kindscher at the University of Kansas. And his outstanding research team, he's an ethnobotanist, well published. And what they did is basically sustainable harvest impact studies. So osha, right now, we'd really like our regulators that run the national forest to allow permits for harvest, for commercial uses of this plant. Like you said, we will not make our billion dollar company plan on this one plant. But yeah, we'd like to be able to know what is the level that we can still sustain these wild populations, so they will be there for generations to come and healthy ecosystems? But how much could we actually take out of those populations as native Americans have been doing for years and make it sustainable?

And so Kelly came up with a plan, Dr. Kindscher went out there with his research team and basically set up plots where they harvested different levels. And this was a longitudinal study over six years. So they harvested, I believe it was 10%, 30%, 60% in these


Wilson (13:58):



Holly Johnson (13:58):

Different intervals of what they first evaluated to be the mature roots in a given plot. And then monitored those same plots over time. So if they took 60%, how long would it take for the recovery in this wild population? So really, really excellent data over time. And the fish and wildlife service is grateful for our work. And they hopefully can use these data to make rational regulatory systems about levels of permitting and levels of harvest so that we can still have access to these very valuable medicinal herbs, even on a commercial scale. But also ensure the conservation of these populations going forward. So, yeah, great longitudinal study, that's kind of the work of the ERB.


Holly Johnson (14:46):

And then what we also were able to do with those data is make a sustainable harvest and good stewardship brochure for osha harvesters. So it's an actual, like collateral that you can download


Wilson (14:57):



Holly Johnson (14:57):

You can look at it on your phone, you can print it, that kind of a thing. And it's for the harvesters to show them, "Hey, we now have these data that show here's the proper techniques you can use and level of harvest to ensure that you'll be able to go back next year or the next year or the way to ensure the conservation of these plants." So just incredible, what kind of a relatively modest research investment can really have significant impacts on, on a particular botanical commodity in our industry. Its availability and its regulatory status.


Wilson (15:31):

Yeah. I think it's a perfect example of public, private government partnership, as we resulted in a responsible stewardship and usage of a herb. And I would love to see more of this being done. I think as the year ends, as drawn close to us for companies and individuals that want to make donations. I think AHPA ERB foundation is a great place to donate to. Could you refresh my memory? What's the next project for AHPA ERBs doing and what people can donate to?


Holly Johnson (16:08):

Yeah. Thank you so much for that. We have a couple projects ongoing and you can always make a general donation. But right now it's actually the goldenseal, the plant we talked about earlier that kind of started off our Tonnage Survey journey. goldenseal, we've just funded a project and we have some excellent principal investigators, really, really experienced researchers in Appalachian forest farming, all types of native North American plants, as well as goldenseal.

So they're doing a very similar study to the one I just described with Dr. Kindscher at Kansas and the osha. But theirs is with goldenseal. Again, they have three study sites and they've come up with an experimental research plan that harvest at different levels out of wild populations. And then surveys over the years to kind of have data, to determine a sustainable harvest plan kind of going forward. So that project just started this year. It was actually slated to start in 2020, but the public health crisis kind of had an impact on research. And so, they just deployed here in the middle of 2021 and have started that five year longitudinal study on sustainable harvest levels for GoldenSeal.


Wilson (17:21):

Awesome. What a way to come full circle from starting with goldenseal and back to goldenseal in full. Holly, anything else interesting that AHPAs doing that you want to highlight and tell people about? Because I think you guys do such great work. And a disclaimer, I am a AHPA board member. So everything I say is probably slightly tainted besides the fact that I truly believe that they do great work.


Holly Johnson (17:47):

Yes. I mean, we both are slightly biased towards loving AHPA, but as herb nerds, it's what's well founded love


Wilson (17:53):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Holly Johnson (17:55):

And admiration. Yeah. AHPA, we've got so many cool projects and initiatives going. And we maybe are really well known for our kind of regulatory and legal gravitas. But of course, I'm a science nerd. And so on this side, we have to say, I just could not be more pleased to see kind of a broader industry focus on sustainability as we've just talked about in this few minutes discussion. AHPAs have been concerned about conservation of our valuable herbs for decades. But it's really a term that's now not just referring to ... in the way that our industry talks about it, not just referring to plant population conservation or environmental conservation, but really everything we do.

In terms of sustainability metrics and things like recycling and carbon usage and other things you have to consider, living wages and these types of things. So, I feel like that's kind of my most exciting thing when you can say, "Oh, it's all the other stuff going on." At AHPA, there's so much. But the part that I want to highlight is really our sustainability committee and our sustainability work. We've got lots of projects going on in that group right now, we're working on a sustainability lexicon, kind of collating different definitions and an easy to use resource for AHPA members.

We're also working on some modifications to our current existing GMPGACP document. I'm sure you're familiar with these, Wilson. We've got some tools in there that are checklist tools and question tools that you can use to evaluate either a single ingredient or a supplier or vendor of an ingredient. Including a farm and such. So what our sustainability committee is doing is really taking a look at those tools and expanding to really include some sustainability parameters. How do you assess the sustainability of a given ingredient or vendor? So again, herb nerd stuff, but really exciting in that committee.

Also in our Botanical Raw Materials Committee, in collaboration with sustainability, we do have an ongoing series of those sustainable harvest brochures that I just mentioned. So we recently published the one for osha that we spoke of. We also published one for saw palmetto, that's out and publicly available on our website now. And they're both available in Spanish version, Spanish language versions. And really to help the actual harvesters that are out there at the soil level. And the next one we're working on, again, is goldenseal. Goldenseal is our plant of the day here, Wilson. Right now, are kind of in revisions for the goldenseal sustainable harvest brochure, as well. So another kind of cool product that's around botanical commodities and raw materials and sustainability.


Wilson (20:40):

Yeah. And don't forget ginseng. I think one of the things that, if your company is serious about sustainability and really are focused on sustainability, I highly recommend that you join AHPA and join the sustainable committee. They're doing great work and the amount of work and the brilliant minds there, it is a great community. So, if your company's grounded in sustainability, join AHPA and join the sustainability committee. Thank you so much, Holly, for your time today. It was nice to chat with you, as usual. And I look forward to talking to you, again.


Holly Johnson (21:21):

Wilson, it's been my pleasure. Any time. Thanks so much and Aloha everyone.


Wilson (21:25):