A flowering weed North Idaho that farmers have fought for decades is being pitched as a salve for the region’s agricultural woes.
A Harrison, Idaho, entrepreneur wants Panhandle farmers to plant and harvest the invasive weed St. John’s wort on up to 2,000 acres.
Also called goatweed, St. John’s wort can make light-skinned farm animals - sheep, cows, goats - sensitive to sunlight. Some die after ingestion.
But the plant also contains an extract - hypericin - that for centuries has been used to combat mild to moderate depression.
Now, new studies, national media attention and an herbal remedy revival are producing a bull market for goatweed. Retailers can’t keep it on the shelves.
And Harrison resident Terry Foley - former cotton grower, train engineer and West Texas farmer-turned-inventor - thinks North Idaho can harness a share of that boom.
St. John’s wort could reduce grass-burning, make farmers staggering profits, and transform North Idaho into the nation’s largest producer of a natural alternative to Prozac, he said.
“We’d have a hard time keeping up with the demand in the first few years,” Foley said.
The idea excites Kootenai County officials eager to jump-start a lackluster economy. Farmers are intrigued by the financial possibilities. Farm regulators even suggest commercializing St. John’s wort may help reduce the flowering pest in the wild.
But the program requires faith in an unknown man and commitment to a product whose popularity - and profitability - could rise or fall with more scientific study. The act of farming, itself, would be something of an experiment.
“It sounds intriguing, yeah, but I’ve met a lot of snake oil salesmen in my day,” said grass grower Terry Nichols. “I think most farmers are pretty leery of something wild and crazy and new that says they’ll make a lot of money. A guy’d want to see the paper work, look into the particulars.”
Foley is busy ironing out those particulars, and expects to have a detailed proposal outlined next week. But he already has a handful of area investors, a recently incorporated company and commitments from landowners to farm as much as 400 acres.
Foley’s plan is built around a secret genetically altered seed that he claims will produce five times more hypericin than the wild version. Foley said he bought rights to the product two years ago from a seed breeder.
He wants to enroll landowners in a program to plant the crop. They would handle the farming with assistance from Foley.
Foley would process, dehydrate and sell it to companies specializing in homeopathic pharmaceuticals. He would take 12 percent profit off the top.
Start up costs are high; farmers would pay Foley $380 per acre to enroll - a total of $760,000 for 2,000 acres.
But Foley suggests farmers could gross $9,000 an acre the first year - 10 times or more what they make farming grass seed - and possibly double that in the second year.
Each acre of land could produce 25 kilograms of extract, or up to 600 kilos of the plant itself, Foley said.
“Right now we have one company who said they would buy 50,000 kilos of (hypericin) extract throughout the year,” Foley said.
St. John’s wort, or hypericum perforatum, is a short plant with long stems, small leaves and tiny yellow flowers. It’s active ingredient, hypericin, has for years been used overseas, Foley said. German physicians prescribe it rather than Ritalin for attention deficit disorder.
Recent university studies suggest that, taken in moderation, hypericin is effective for mild depression and appears to be absent of serious side-effects, he said. It is believed to cause sun sensitivity in some fair-skinned people.
In the past year, it has been featured in magazine articles and on television news shows as a medicinal breakthrough.
The morning after one of those programs aired, workers at one Coeur d’Alene health food store found shoppers lined up outside their door.
“People were waiting to get in and get the stuff,” said Kim Choquette, at A Trip to Bountiful. “We carry three different brands and we ran out of all of them by 10:30 a.m.”
Foley maintains his plan would work in part because 98 percent of the country’s supply of hypericin currently is imported. The rest is grown by single producers in small 10- or 20-acre tracts, which makes buying complicated for companies.
“Far and away we’d be the largest producer in the country,” he said.
Vickie Parker-Clark, at the University of Idaho’s agricultural extension office, says there are still many questions about Foley’s plans.
But she sees lots of positives.
“It can potentially be a big cash crop,” she said. “If the demand is for organically certified St. John’s - and that’s what he wants - then that means a reduction in pesticides. I think the impact could be substantial for Coeur d’Alene.”
Area farmers remain suspicious, but are eager to hear Foley out.
“We’re always skeptical of people who say they’ve got a cure for our problems,” said farmer Wayne Meyer. “We’ve dealt with them before and they usually turn out to be complete flops.”
But people who know Foley say he’s a straight-shooter.
And Foley maintains he would keep everything open to farmers.
“They’d see how much I’m making all the way down the line,” he said.
Foley moved to North Idaho from Texas less than a year ago. A farm kid, he has bounced from brainstorm to brainstorm for many years, friends said.
“He certainly comes up with ideas that have made a lot of men a lot of money,” said Jeff Torbert, a Hereford, Texas, insurance man and investor who has known Foley almost 20 years. “If he’s got a farming idea, I’m sure it’s a good one.”
Torbert described Foley as a churchgoer who once drove a train for Santa Fe Burlington. He said Foley is a concept man and inventor who created a liner for gas tanks, a cotton cloth that soaks up oil and a type of fiberboard to prevent water leaks on flat roofs.
For a half-dozen years Torbert and Foley have worked on a project to build a specialized dredge for offshore gold mining.
“I’m amazed at the things he comes up with, but they seem to work,” Torbert said.
Foley recognizes what he’s proposing is risky.
“It’s a new crop in a new area with a new variety of seed,” Foley said. “Nature could always throw us a curve ball.”
But he said farmers - including his own father - are used to risk.
At 16, Foley was working in his father’s cotton fields and asked whether he could start getting paid.
“He gave me five acres in rows of cotton,” Foley recalled. “It got up over knee high and a hail came along and beat it to the ground. I learned right there about risk.”
Foley said his business approach is simple.
“You do the best you can, stay honest and cards-up with everybody and you try not to hurt anybody,” he said. “If you make everyone you’re involved with money, you never go broke.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos
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