Today’s successful farm managers are looking to diversify their operations with value added products. Herbs are an attractive option as they can be made into a range of culinary, health, beauty and giftware items.
Basic production facilities for many herbal products can be relatively inexpensive compared with other commodity-processing endeavors. There are also excellent opportunities for wholesale production of certified organic medicinal plants.
For the home gardener, medicinal herbs can add nutrition and flavour to food, wonderful scents to the after-gardening bath, dried blends for the teapot, remedies for the medicine cabinet, plant material for home decor, and unique gifts for friends.
Many medicinal and culinary herbs are hardy, easy to grow, and fairly resistant to pests and disease. Several can tolerate poor soils and dry conditions. Examples include oregano, lemon balm, sage, mullein, yarrow, thyme, savory, echinacea, mountain mint, artemisia, calendula, chamomile, and many native trees and shrubs.
Some other medicinal plants are difficult to grow successfully and have specialized propagation, ecology and cultivation requirements. These command a premium price on the marketplace and offer an exciting challenge for the advanced gardener. Possibilities here include ginseng, goldenseal, witch hazel, blue and black cohosh, slippery elm, bloodroot, mayapple, licorice and devil’s club.
Pumpkin Moon Farm and Herbals
Why herbs? I have been growing and selling medicinal herbs and herbal products since 1992. From 1996–2000, I ran a community shared agriculture (CSA) vegetable business, with up to 100 shares in a summer and winter delivery program. As a community development tool and educational business, the CSA was incredibly successful and rewarding. However, I sold that business to concentrate more intensively on herbs, my cherished crop, with an eye toward having a more year-round work schedule.
Today, garden production generally goes from May to November, and although I manufacture some products during that time, I can concentrate on product design, production, packaging, business development and marketing during the winter. By April, I have made most of the products I will sell that year, produced during the winter from crops I grew the year before.
Our farm is located in the tiny, rural community of Somerset in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, and is currently certified organic by the Maritime Certified Organic Growers (MCOG). I have just over one acre in intensively planted medicinal and culinary herbs, over half of which are perennials. Vegetables, seed crops, grain, hay, and a selection of medicinal trees and shrubs are grown elsewhere on our farm. As well, a small number of carefully picked native herbs, harvested only from abundant wild plant communities, add to my harvest.
Rather than being a production-oriented farm, ours is market-oriented and focuses on value-added production and higher-end marketing of our farm products. Because I do not wholesale any fresh herbs, and everything I grow goes back into the product- manufacturing venture, this seemingly small cultivated acreage supports my entire business. I am the only full-time worker, while my partner Vicki does some production and retail work, and I hire out custom work and small jobs as needed.
|Potency and quality of medicinal roots and rootlets are greatly influenced by when plants are harvested.Make sure plants are old enough to be harvested. Some medicinal roots may be useful the year they were planted, notably biennials like burdock. However, most medicinal roots are perennials, and can take 2–7 years to develop the full complement of medicinal compounds in therapeutically sufficient quantities. Thorough knowledge of harvest protocol for each herb is critical. (See reference section at the end of this article.)Secondly, wait until the first few hard frosts have come and gone in your garden before harvesting. In my garden in zone 5A, this is usually during October. I know a former herb farmer from one of BC’s Gulf Islands who does not harvest his echinacea until January or February, depending on weather. Be patient! Cold weather invariably triggers a process of “hibernation” to begin in your garden, where plants take energy out of their aerial parts and concentrate on strengthening and readying the roots to survive the winter. Sap flows back from the plant into the roots, carrying important medicinal nutrients, chemicals and life energy with it. If you harvest too early, this process is not sufficiently underway and the strength and quality of the roots will be inferior to later-dug roots.Alternatively, do not leave your roots too late. You want to harvest when the roots are filled with the optimum amount of nutrients, but before winter begins. My feeling is that, in all Canadian climates except BC’s southwest coast, harvesting medicinal roots through the winter or in the spring yields lower-quality roots. Surviving our harsh winters requires that plants use up a significant portion of their root-stored sap and energy; consequently, a spring-dug root is depleted whereas a falldug root is vibrant and full of life. Dig up a couple of perennial roots this spring and then compare them with ones you dig this fall. You’ll see, feel and even smell the difference.What is the peak time for harvesting medicinal roots? Take your cues from nature. On our farm, there is a 3–5 week period when the weather is frosty, crisp and ideal. The soil is moist and cool, but not wet or cold yet. Daytime temperatures hover from 5–15OC, with nights at 0–5OC. Trees are dropping their leaves, gardeners are planting garlic, and the goats are lingering in the barn more … it’s time! These are sure signs that you can harvest your treasured roots, assured that their quality is at an absolute premium.—Michelle Summer Fike|
The product line
My product line currently includes ten herbal tea blends, several dozen tinctures, many skin salves and ointments, bath and body care products, cooking herb mixtures, lavender products, animal-care items, herb seeds, and a number of miscellaneous medicinal and giftware herb items. I have a solid core of my top fifteen products and everything else comes and goes with changes in consumer preference, what’s hot in the herb world, marketing changes, and my own personal production preferences. Products range from the ever-popular Natural Lip Balms, Licorice-Lovers Tea, Herbal Healing Salve, to Digestive Bitters, Old Sour Puss Vitamin Vinegar and Breast Health Oil. I always have an eye to keeping an up-to-date and innovative line of high quality products.
Retailing and marketing
Unlike many farmers, my wholesale accounts make up less than 2 percent of my annual gross revenue, and I only wholesale finished products. I have a very retaildriven marketing approach. I sell year-round to a relatively small but devoted following of mail-order customers, and accept credit cards over the phone to facilitate this. We focus on keeping our dedicated, repeat customers happy and making it easy for them to buy our products.
On four to six Saturdays over the Easter season, we sell at the large farmers’ market in Halifax, located about 1½ hours from our farm. I concentrate on selling seeds, seed potatoes and pussy willow bouquets at this time, although we also sell a number of herbal items partially because of our funky seasonal display. I have tried selling in Halifax all winter, but found herbal product sales at that time of year did not warrant the expense, distance and challenges of winter driving. From
May to December, I sell weekly at our vibrant local farmers’ market in Wolfville. I have been a vendor there since 1997, and have a well-established customer base. I strive to keep my products and display neat, stylish, well-organized and attractive, so they are also popular with tourists and university students. I sell at eight to ten higher-end craft shows around the province each year, most of which are held just before Christmas. I create an 8’ X 10’ booth for these shows, using pine panelling around the sides and back, painted mint green. I use several wooden shelves, tables and display cases to create an eye-catching, professionally designed space to display my products. Sales at these shows accounted for a full 58 percent of my gross sales in 2004. I have learned that for a business like mine, good marketing and public relations skills are as important as creating excellent farm products.
Two herbs worth knowing and growing
One of my favourite plants is a wonderful, unusual, showy and widely used medicinal herb perfect for growing in a moist area that receives morning sun and afternoon shade. Under these conditions, black cohosh, Cimicifuga racemosa, will thrive and reward you with its six-foot tall graceful, arching, feathery white flower stalks or racemes. I grow my black cohosh plants under the shade of several jack pines, and the contrast of colours and foliage is quite spectacular. Also known as bugbane or (mistakenly) snakeroot, the entire plant exudes a strange smell, which some authors describe as fetid, but I enjoy its odd scent. Beyond its obvious use as a unique ornamental, black cohosh’s root and rootlets are also used medicinally for a range of conditions including pain, inflammation, menstrual and menopause symptoms, tinnitis, high blood pressure, arthritis, and nerve and sleep problems. Due to intense harvesting of wild plants, black cohosh is listed as an at-risk plant by United Plant Savers, so there is great urgency to have farmers and gardeners cultivate the plant.
Many gardeners and farmers are wary of growing mint, for it can spread aggressively. However, mountain mint, Pycnanthemum pilosum, is not in the invasive Mentha family, and grows as a robust, columnar clumping perennial with lance-shaped, mid-green leaves and lovely small pale-blue flowers that attract bees and beneficials. It is easily grown from seed, and is hardy to zone 4. This mint, a North American native plant, does well in fairly dry conditions, unlike traditional mints that prefer more irrigation. I would describe its delicious flavour as sweet, clean, bright and savoury. It is our favourite tea mint. This is a wonderful plant with great commercial growing potential as an alternative to peppermint or other rhizominous varieties, and highly recommended for everyone’s herb garden.
Consumer trends are driving the demand for medicinal herbs. The interest in all things organic, natural and holistic continues to rise, and economic indicators point to continued growth in related industries. An aging senior population and a middle-aged baby-boomer generation are increasingly turning to alternative healthcare. And while globalization is nipping at our heels at every turn, support for small, local businesses and community economic development offers opportunities and niche markets for organic farmers and herbal entrepreneurs.
“To inspire, empower, and enhance the well-being of health-conscious individuals by creating farm-based herbal products and information that model wholeness, wisdom, beauty and land stewardship.” This is the mission statement of my business, and hangs in my production room as a constant reminder of my goals, my passions and the road on which I am travelling. Despite the challenges of weather, workload, labour and finances that all farmers seem to face, I have found a perfect farm-based enterprise that combines my love of botany, native plants and herbalism, with organic agriculture.
Herbal tea for the non-believer!
Forget about the bland, bitter tea bags that most of us associate with herbal tea! I almost guarantee that even the most ardent non-herb tea drinkers will enjoy a cup of this on a cold winter afternoon.
1 cup anise hyssop leaves and flowers
1 cup mountain mint leaves
1 cup lemon balm leaves and flowers
1 cup pineapple or fruit sage leaves and flowers
½ cup lavender flowers and stalks
Dry herbs carefully on screens or hang in bunches, keeping plants out of direct light and providing good air circulation so mould does not develop. If using a dehydrator, maintain the lowest heat setting. Do not use a microwave or oven. Heat and microwaves destroy the precious volatile oils that give herbs their distinctive flavour; focus on providing dry airflow, rather than heat. Once the herbs are crispy and dry, strip all but the lavender from their woody stems, keeping leaves and flowers as whole and intact as possible. Compost stems. Lavender stalks contain good amounts of essential oil and need not be discarded, so cut dry lavender bundles in quarter-inch lengths using scissors or pruning shears. Mix ingredients together, and store in an airtight glass jar in a dark cupboard. To make your tea, bring water to a full rolling boil. For every cup, place one heaping teaspoon of tea mixture into a teapot. Pour on boiling water, cover with a tea cozy, let sit for five minutes, and strain as you pour into lovely china teacups. (It’s a mystery why tea tastes better served this way, but it does!) Do not allow the herbs to steep for more than 10 minutes, as the bitter resins in the sage will begin to adulterate the taste. Strainers and tea balls are a great help in this regard.
—Michelle Summer Fike