The Sustainability of the Juniper Ridge White Sage Harvest

by Hall Newbegin, edit by Obi Kaufmann

Sustainable is a flabby word and is over-used these days. That being said, I would like explain how Juniper Ridge, the company I (Hall Newbegin) started nearly 20 years ago, harvests white sage and how this is a 100% sustainable product. We’ve been going back to the exact same wild gardens, all on private land and with permission, every year since the start of the company. For the first ten years, I did this kind of work all by myself. We’re talking about wildharvesting this maybe 200 acres or land. The reason we’re able to go back to the same place every year is that white sage (Salvia apiana) can be harvested sustainably indefinitely.

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All mint family (laminaceae) plants are adapted to grazing by animals because they’re usually pretty tasty, and so they generally respond to pruning with vigorous new growth. If you clip a white sage cluster in the fuzzy, apical meristem tip of the clusters, two or three new clusters will be there the following spring. There are some unethical crews out there who harvest by chopping the plant off at the base of the plant. This is certainly a more efficient method of harvesting this plant, probably on the order of 5x to 10x cheaper than doing it by our method, but has also resulted in clear-cutting of entire fields of white sage.

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This method of harvesting the tips of the stems in the living apical meristem area not only doesn’t kill the plant, but also encourages vigorous growth and generally plants that have been harvested end up being much larger and more vigorous looking than ones that weren’t. This isn’t surprising when you consider its strategy against grazers: for most of its evolutionary history, these soft tips were munched by the ungulates of prehistoric California for millions of years.

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The main harvesting fields aren’t on public land. Salvia apiana grows in a narrow range from the southern Santa Lucia Mountains of the central coast of california through Northern Baja mexico. The fields where most of the wild white sage in the world comes from is in no man’s land: the inland empire in the Los Angeles Basin from San Jacinto to the San Bernadino range. When I say “no man’s land”, I mean behind suburbs and Wal-Marts .. we have access to pristine, private land that nobody else even goes to, so we can control the harvest, and monitor how our activities are affecting the plants and the habitat.

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You should always be skeptical of us business types. I am always deeply suspicious when biz types say “oh yeah, of course we have your best interests at heart and we’re taking care of …” plug in whatever-cause here… I’m in business to make money – ha! I’d be a liar if i didn’t own up to this, the most obvious of facts for anyone who runs a business. But I also do what i do because i’m a wilderness freak and I love making things that connect people to places and to deep, quiet experience of being out on the trail – it’s like a religion to me. I often take the Juniper Ridge crew out to do trail work in the numerous places, I have way more habitat-restoration/weeding-projects going on Mt. Tamalpais, where I live, than I can do. Furthermore, through Juniper RIdge, I wrote checks for $22,000 to wilderness defense groups last year; we received the 2015 The Conservation Alliance award for Outsanding Wilderness Protection Partner for our work on preserving 330,000 acres of coastal wilderness in California (the Snow Mountain Berryessa National Monument that the Obama administration designated as such two months ago). One of the primary goals of this business is to take the money we make and put it back to work, protecting the wildlands that have given me so much.

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Skepticism is important, and I wouldn’t blame you one bit for thinking i’m full of shit: I would be happy to take any of you both to our harvesting spots where we get permission to harvest and take care of those places like gardens, and the free-for-all that’s happening in the big sage fields in the Los Angeles basin. I’ve been harvesting white sage for almost 20 years now, I’m probably one of a dozen people in the world who knows all the harvesting crews, harvesting spots, who the good players are and who are the bad ones … I know this stuff backwards and forwards, I love love love native plants and I want you to see for yourselves – email me (hall@juniperridge.com) and we’ll set up a tour next spring when the harvest starts up again!

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This is an important conversation; the crews that clearcut the white sage fields needs to be stopped – I know their bosses are driving them to do it because they want cheap sage; I know both their bosses and the crews; I’ve brought it up with them in the fields. It’s grody, and it needs to stop and it is clear that more monitoring of the open-land fields is necessary, as they are just getting totally hammered, all for a marketplace that’s hungry for $7 smudge sticks.

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