New herbal medicine course meets industry needs at UF

May 10, 2022 – Emerging industries need a skilled workforce to operate. Sometimes the industry begins to flourish before employers can hire a sufficient number of qualified employees. This was the case for many employers in the herbal medicine industry, which includes crops like hemp, kava and kratom. Faculty from two colleges at the University of Florida have worked together to help meet that demand with a new course.

Developed by the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the UF College of Pharmacy, the course addresses the skills required to help initiate new emerging crops. The labs taught students skills in propagation, germination, extraction and analysis and everything in between.

“Employers in emerging industries struggle to find employees who understand the production and extraction of plants for medical purposes,” said Brian Pearson, an assistant professor at UF/IFAS who developed and taught the course. “There is a significant lack of potential employees with this skill set, and this is impacting producers. This course teaches a different set of skills than current course offerings prepare students for. »

Driven by industry needs and student interest, Pearson and UF College of Pharmacy professor Chris McCurdy partnered to establish and teach the course. The partnership provided faculty expertise on both plant production and the medicinal side of the industry.

“UF is in a unique position to offer such a course because we have UF Health and UF/IFAS under one umbrella, which is a great strength,” McCurdy said. “Being able to offer the training in horticulture and cultivation would be something that could happen to any agricultural program, but adding an in-depth understanding of medicinal properties, compounds responsible for biological activity in animals and/or or humans is a unique opportunity that gives our students an edge over others in the field.

Students enrolled in the course varied in their interests and goals, but found inspiration in the course content and the ability to interact with many expert teachers.

“I believe botanical medicine offers untapped potential, especially in terms of alternative treatment options for those who don’t respond to conventional therapies,” said Daniela Perez Lugones, a horticultural therapy graduate student. “I hope to work with people who are recovering from substance use disorder. Although it is not the job of the horticultural therapist to prescribe medication, I believe any insight I may have on how plants can provide these additional therapeutic benefits and how their secondary metabolites interact with the human body will facilitate a better understanding and a better connection with my clients. .”

Another student – ​​who is currently a grower and a master’s student – ​​took this course to help him achieve his future business goals.

“My goal is to one day create a restaurant centered around herbal medicine to help people eat a little healthier, without sacrificing flavor,” said Jansen Mitchell Gedwed. “I would also like to use this knowledge to help integrate medicinal cooking and plant production into community gardens and other community-oriented organizations. The education provided to students in this course is essential to fostering the safe cultivation, consumption and processing of medicinal plants. »

Although this course may be new, the research partnership between UF/IFAS and the College of Pharmacy is well established.

The two teams are already uniting on projects such as research into the chemistry and pharmacology of plant-derived chemicals with plant cultivation and cultivation techniques that influence the production of these chemicals. These cross-functional research projects help scientists understand the best ways to grow medicinal plants to benefit the farmers and consumers who will ultimately buy the products these plants will become.

“It’s the most exciting moment of my career,” McCurdy said. “This work with UF/IFAS gives us the opportunity to really understand how to grow these plants as a crop that could benefit farmers in our state while helping to treat the people in our state who need this plant. We use kratom in our research, but that might just be the tip of the iceberg for other projects with more herbal remedies.

Crop diversification is important to farmers and sometimes helps replace other crops that suffer losses or decline in value due to market fluctuations.

“There have been downturns in crops that have a long heritage in Florida and being able to support these new emerging industries that can help a grower’s bottom line is critical,” Pearson said.

Special thanks to Roseville Farms and AgriStarts, who organized tours of their facilities and plant products for use in the lab, which gave the students hands-on experience in the industry.

“We are truly grateful for the industry support we have received for this course,” Pearson said. “Students researched, provided the UF/IFAS extension to producers from the research they conducted while learning. The three missions of the Land Grant Mission worked together to make this course a huge success. »

The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relating to agricultural, human, and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to maintain and improve the quality of life. human. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county extension offices, and award-winning UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences students and faculty, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the agricultural and natural resource industries. of the State, and to all Florida residents.

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Alvin J. Chase