Sage farming

Photo by Hyunsoo Leo Kim/Farm Flavor Media

Enjoy the fresh scent of clean laundry? Thank a North Carolina farmer.

In northeastern North Carolina, many farmers grow clary sage. The stunning plant isn’t very well known, but its properties can be found in many household items. Processor Avoca, Inc., in Merry Hill uses the crop to extract sclareol, a waxy substance produced on the outside of the plant, then processes it into sclareolide. Sclareolide is used as a starting ingredient to produce fixatives (a chemical substance used for preservation) in women’s and men’s fragrances, laundry detergents and fabric softeners to increase the staying power of the scent.

NC Sage Fact

With about 120 farming operations in 11 counties growing 25,000 acres of the crop, northeastern North Carolina is the unofficial clary sage-growing capital of the world.

Mike Parrish in sage farm

Mike Parrish has grown clary sage for 30 years in Chowan County, along with peanuts, cotton, soybeans and wheat. Photo by Hyunsoo Leo Kim/Farm Flavor Media

Growing Clary Sage

Mike Parrish has grown clary sage for 30 years on his Chowan County farm near Edenton in rotation with peanuts, cotton, soybeans and wheat.

“It works well in rotation with peanuts. If you have good peanut soil, it also makes good sage. That’s why it is mainly grown in the area where we are,” Parrish says.

Establishing the stand of clary sage in late summer can be difficult, as the seeds are very small. The plants go through a dormant stage over winter and begin to grow again in March. Parrish harvests in June, using the same forage equipment a farmer would use to chop corn silage. He says that growing clary sage helps him to manage risk.

“The grain market and the cotton market have been really bad,” Parrish says. “So, thankfully, we have the sage. Maybe you can make it on that when you don’t make it on something else.”

N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Regional Agronomist Jacob Searcy assists farmers with production challenges.

“These past two years we’ve had lots of rainfall that really knocked down a lot of the yields. Plants were too small going into dormancy and when they came out they got flooded again. The weeds came in after that,” says Searcy. Avoca has collaborated with NC State University to develop herbicide programs specifically for sage.

Sage seeds

Photo by Hyunsoo Leo Kim/Farm Flavor Media

Building Trust

When it comes to clary sage, the relationship between farmer and processor is key.

“There’s a large sense of trust between us and the farmers,” says David Peele, president of Avoca, Inc. “We need them to grow the product and they need us to buy the product, because there’s no place else in the world where they can sell this product. It’s not like growing corn or wheat or soybeans or peanuts where you have choices of one or two or three different places you can sell your product. If you grow clary sage, you’re going to sell it to Avoca in Merry Hill, North Carolina.”

Clary sage production has grown from less than 100 acres in 1978 to around 30,000 acres. Avoca is currently extracting at capacity, limiting the number of acres from increasing, but the company manages risk by maintaining inventory needed for a year. They store clary sage for up to two years, using the same white plastic tubes dairy farmers use for silage, with no loss of quality. Peele says weather is the wild card. A hurricane hitting in late September or October can wipe out the crop at a time when it is too late to replant. An early tropical storm in June can damage yields irreparably.

“I can’t overemphasize the amount of trust it takes and how much we value the relationship we have with our growers,” Peele says. “If you’re asking somebody to grow a specialty crop for you, they have to be certain that there is no hesitancy on our part to buy the product they produce.”

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