Small-Scale Medicinal Herb Farming: A (Very) Personal Journey

Reader Contribution by Susanna Raeven
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It’s been quite a ride and it is still going at a high speed. From the moment of realization that the world of

healing herbs was calling me, to my first herbal class, to running a small-scale herb farm that grows medicinal herbs with organic methods, to creating artisan herbal products, and finally to working with clients to help them find balance in their lives with the generous support of the plant kingdom. A ride with many joyous moments, but also doubts, insecurities, and cloudy days. 

It all started with a trip to the Peruvian Amazon and the deep, out of the blue intuition that I wanted to study the healing powers of plants.  So off I went to my first herbal training with Ursula Basch at “Herbal Bear – School of Botanical Medicine”. What I remember most about this period is how unbelievably “right” it felt to be a plant student, the sheer joy I experienced when learning to identify medicinal plants and mushrooms in the field, and the wonder I felt when I discovered that everything I ever needed to get rid of my pharmaceutical medicine cabinet was growing right in my back yard. More herbal training followed with Tieraona Low Dog and Richard Mandelbaum, amongst others, all inspiring and excellent teachers.

After having lived in New York City for 15 years, it was time for a change. I decided to leave the big city behind and moved full time to Schoharie county in upstate NY. We are fortunate to own 250 acres of forested hills and rolling cow pastures, home to a wide variety of wild medicinal herbs. Little by little, I made friends with all of them.

Soon I was making my own herbal creations, showering friends and family members with homemade lotions and potions. Not long after, people started asking for refills and the overwhelming feedback inspired me to produce on a larger scale, offering my products at retreat centers and small local stores.

How do you make the transition from making home remedies in recycled jam jars on your kitchen counter to producing sufficient amounts to send products to recurring clients and fill whole display shelves and tables with herbal goods?

I am the type of person that walks away from a healthy buffet with a plate filled with a bit of everything, rather than serving myself just one or two items. I like to try it all. So I started taking on everything at once until nothing fit on my plate anymore. Then I went to get another plate.

At first, I went from using herbs from my small garden and the wild surroundings to ordering organic herbs in bulk from well known large herb operations. Which was sufficient for a short period, but I always felt that I had no influence in the quality of the herbs, except trying different vendors. I did not know at what time of the day the plants were picked. I could not verify if the certified organic chamomile from Egypt really never saw any pesticides. I had no idea how the workers in the fields were treated. And, needless to say, the shipping costs were a killer.

Out of necessity, “Raven Crest Botanicals” was born. I started adding more beds to my garden, went on a seed-shopping spree and learned greenhouse work. I purchased truckloads of organic composted cow manure. I planted as many herbs as I could fit into the available space and watched them grow to gigantic dimensions. I learned how to ask the plants for permission to harvest (which really screwed up my schedule since their sense of the right time is often very different from ours). When my drying space in the house could not keep up with what was coming from the garden, I built a solar dehydrator to process my plant harvest in the most sustainable way. We added a beehive to the garden for pollination, honey and propolis.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the generosity of my friend Jesse, who built the most beautiful earth sheltered greenhouse on earth, Jane and Verena sharing their greenhouse wisdom with me, and the constant support of my partner Yoav who patiently watched me metamorphose from a NYC actress to an upstate NY farmer in rubber boots. 

At this point, I was making about 40 different products, including salves, balms and creams, skin scrubs, aromatherapy sprays, a variety of medicinal tincture blends, elixirs, medicinal mushroom extracts (I really got into these), and culinary and medicinal tea blends. I used as many plants as possible from our own land and ordered only the ones I could not grow myself (yet) from very good quality herb farms. Forty products are a lot to take on for a single woman operation. It was challenging just to keep everything in stock and not to run out of tinctures, which take 4-6 weeks to make. My kitchen turned into a mad house and more cabinets needed to be cleared to hold all, now much larger, tincture jars.

Then the product design came into focus. I needed a logo, a business card, and new label designs. I found a lovely designer, Dana Jordan, whose keen eye and never ending patience enabled me to design what I had in mind but could not create myself. Then, after months of frustrating attempts to outsource label printing at a reasonable price, I finally found an affordable, high quality photo printer (Canon Pixma Pro 9000 II) and labels from that worked well together. I now print and design new labels myself – a huge advantage over having to order large amounts from a printing company at high costs and then being stuck with them if I want to change the ingredients for a tincture or other herbal product.

There were many other expenses that arose, such as an automated solar irrigation system, building my
own earth-sheltered  greenhouse, and draining the property with French drains after hurricane Irene ravaged through the North East. These were added on to more familiar costs, such as purchasing large amounts of raw material for products, packaging, and insurance costs. It is a long journey from making herbal products for your friends to supporting yourself with your passion for plants and I am still just at the beginning of a long and windy road. But the journey is a very satisfying one and I am happy to be on my way.

In addition to selling products to Food Coops and herb stores, I like to offer my creations in a way that includes a personal connection with my customers. That’s when the idea of herbal CSA shares came to my mind. Typical farm CSA shares include a weekly delivery of fresh produce at a drop off location.  Most herbal products on the other hand, are non-perishable and therefore can be mailed inside the United States and beyond. A monthly CSA package of seasonal herbal products that arrives in the mail is a lovely and affordable treat and a great opportunity to get to know the benefits of herbs that one wouldn’t find out about otherwise. I offer three different Raven Crest Botanicals CSA shares.

The “Tea and Comfort Package” consists of one culinary and one medicinal tea per month.

The “Green Medicine Cabinet Package” consists of a monthly treat of 3-4 artisan skin products and organic herbal medicines. The shareholder will be the proud owner of a fully stocked green medicine cabinet at the end of the season.

The “Green Medicine and Tea Package” includes all teas and products from the other two packages. A full share also includes a complimentary herbal consultation and the resulting personal plant medicine becomes part of the customized monthly package.

There are up and down sides to the herbal CSA model. The packages are mailed rather than dropped off and I can easily reach a broader audience. The monthly delivery schedule leaves ample time to design the package contents and create the seasonal products. There is less competition. At the same time, it seems that plant based medicine, artisan skin products and fine herbal teas are still regarded as luxury items rather than a necessity and finding new customers is more of a stretch.  I am offering 50 shares this year and I am looking forward to serving people who want to invite herbal medicine into their lives and enjoy non-toxic, safe and effective herbal products, made in small batches with love and intent. The tricky part is, of course, how to find these new customers.

Strategies to promote Raven Crest CSA shares have been NOFA’s CSA markets, local farmers markets, a
brand new web site, a facebook business page, blogging, and CSA info flyers distributed at local stores. Every bit helps and I have been able to slowly build momentum.

To get enthusiastic and affordable help on the farm (which seems like an impossible task by definition), Raven Crest became a host farm for WWOOF  (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, I have been very lucky during my first year and found the perfect matching “WWOOFer” for my farm. The concept is brilliant as is allows people who are excited about learning a specific aspect of farming, such as organic herb growing and herbalism, to match up with a farm that teaches exactly that. The host farm offers board and lodging in exchange for work and in the ideal case, both parties learn from each other and leave a footprint in each other’s life that is deep and beautiful. 

To keep up with the space needed for herb processing, I am planning to build a straw bale/earth bag building as my processing space and classroom for herbal training and retreats. The room will be built during a natural building workshop, which is a great way to get a lot of free work power during the building process in exchange for an amazing and bonding learning experience. Next year, I am going to offer plant medicine & yoga weekend retreats with a raw food menu to make it worthwhile for New Yorkers to travel upstate for a blissful weekend in nature.

I am growing close to 100 herbs this season and my product line includes over fifty items. It would certainly simplify things to grow just a few herbs on a larger scale for another buyer. It would also be more profitable if I would focus on fewer products and on selling them in many locations. It would be easier and more manageable to be just a grower, or to only create products, or to just give consultations and purchase medicinal products from different vendors.

But that would be like leaving the buffet with just a single food item on my plate. Yes, there are days when I ask myself why, oh why, am I taking on the whole process from start to finish on my own. But at the same time, I am finding it most fulfilling and exciting to take part in the complete journey. I have learned every aspect of the growing-making-selling-business. I truly know what is in the tincture bottle I give to my clients at the end of a session. I am proud to offer the finest tea blends made from hand harvested and solar dried herbs.  All my plants have been cared and prayed for from seed to harvest to final product. And the plants made me happy in return. There is nothing more satisfying to me than looking over my flourishing seedlings in the greenhouse, or enjoying the sight of lush herb beds in full bloom, or inhaling the rich aroma of drying herbs wavering though the rooms, or watching the bees return to their hive loaded with pollen and nectar, and displaying a table full of organic green medicine that I have created from beginning to end. And I would not want to miss any of it.

I am going to be a student of the healing power of medicinal plants for the rest of my life. In addition to working with North American and European herbs, I am starting to integrate TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) herbs and sacred plants from the Amazon in my practice and herbal creations. I will create more products and most likely will grow more herbs next year.

The time will soon come when I am going to need more help on the farm to do all the work. And maybe, at some point, I will have to review my business strategy and do what a lot of herbalists do: scale down, simplify, focus on one and only one aspect, and let all others go. But until then – I am going to enjoy the ride.

With gratitude,

Susanna Raeven

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