Community Supported Medicine: A Conversation with William Siff, Goldthread Herbal Apothecary
I’m reposting this thoughtful interview with William Siff. The weather this summer makes it even more important that we all educate ourselves as much as we can about how to care for ourselves with the plants that grow in our communities… If you like this interview, please let us know and share it with your friends- Thanks so much!
Goldthread Herbal Apothecary is a fantastic example of grassroots, community based medicine. Like many herb schools, they offer classes, apprentice programs, and herbal medicines for sale. But to me their community supported medicine program (CSM) is the most exciting – and revolutionary – work they are doing. I was thrilled to be able to speak with William Siff about his vision behind this model. Lots more information is available on their website.
Ann: I love the model of herbal CSAs on so many different levels and wondered if you could talk some about how you came to create an herbal CSA. What is your vision is with your CSA? And why do you think it is important?
William: We modeled our CSM after the now popular CSA model thriving in certain parts of the country like here in Western Mass. In my opinion the CSA model of reviving community-based agriculture is one of the most positive social trends happening in our culture today. Herbs are just a natural part of this revival and yet the knowledge and understanding of where and how they fit into daily life to enhance and improve health has largely been lost. The CSM is an attempt to reinvigorate this knowledge and connect people directly to the source of their medicine and associate it with the emerging organic vegetable renaissance.
Ann: Why did you decide to do this as a way to support the other programs you offer rather than, as is more typically done, selling herbal products directly on the market?
William: While there is nothing wrong necessarily with herbs being sold in the marketplace as commodities, we are more interested in connecting people directly with herbs as plants first. Ultimately, it seems that what we need as a culture is reconnection to nature and the earth as the living source of our medicine and healing. Creating a context whereby people are able to connect directly to a medicinal herb farm and see and feel the living vibrancy emanating from these special plants changes things in a big way. People then see herbs as much more than just dietary supplements and link them in their thinking with healthy agricultural practices and farming.
On our farm we invite CSM members to visit the farm and see the medicine in the ground that will later comprise their shares. If they are willing we even invite them to grab a shovel and help out.
Ann: How is it going? How many years have you been offering the CSA? What lessons have you learned? What has worked well and what changes have you made?
William: We have been offering the CSM shares for about five years now. We have gone through a lot of changes with the ways in which we have structured the shares and the additional ways through which we build connection and share benefits with our shareholders. We have settled on compiling one share per season that has an assortment of finished teas, elixirs, syrups, tinctures etc. This is available for pick up three times a season by shareholders at the farm. During pickup we offer tea, tours, education on how to use the products in their share and we just get to know one another. This works well at this stage.
Ann: You’ve been speaking nationally about your work and grassroots medicine, most recently at the 2011 Bioneers conference. What is your vision of grassroots medicine? What part do herbalists and medicinal plants play in that vision? What is your own 5-year plan to expand/deepen the work you all are doing?
William: Education and getting out and speaking is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my current role as director of Goldthread. Relative to much of the country, where we live is highly functional and rich in resources both from a community and land base perspective. As I said there are many CSA’s, beautiful farmlands, and an educated empowered population for the most part. That is one of the main reasons that what we are doing has been as successful as it has here.
My intention has always been to create a Mandala of grassroots herbalism in this community. With the Apothecary, farm, CSM, and education, all firmly rooted at this stage, the new intention is to export aspects of the model for others to learn about and potentially replicate in some form or another according to their specific circumstances and needs. I have been traveling around the past few years talking about the models we have created, the successes and failures, and the ongoing learning curve that we are always contending with. The intention is to plant the seeds for a grassroots herbal healthcare revolution in this country, community by community.
I think, as do many others, that the time has come to look at health in a truly holistic framework that takes into account first and foremost relationships: relationships between individuals and their health, communities and their environment, economy and the rest. Individual health can no longer be looked at in isolation of everything else.
The resurgence of herbal medicine is just one more affirmation of the collective movement to reclaim something vital and essential, namely our felt understanding as a culture of interdependence between all things. My hope is that the time is now.
Five-year plan is to expand all that we are doing, grow into it in a sense. We have many elements up and running and all of them can be refined endlessly it seems. I am personally writing a book on this subject and look forward to continuing to go around and speak about this subject that I am very passionate about wherever I am invited. Practically we are planning on expanding our farm and potentially opening a couple more apothecaries in key areas of our bio-region to continue to expand the many benefits that this medicine has to offer.
Ann: There aren’t a lot of herbal CSAs around the country, is that number growing? Is there any kind of network among herbal CSAs to share lessons learned, etc? Do you have any advice to others starting out?
William: Not too many CSA’s of this kind that I know of. We were featured in Herbal Gram a couple years ago and there were a few others doing similar work, but not too many yet. There is plenty of room for this to be the next big thing as it relates to the organic food movement currently well underway. Advice to others is just to be creative, persevere, and be deliberate. I am available for questions and consulting if needed, but this is truly something people are looking for and is as old as homo-sapiens. It is not a hard sell because it is in our genetic structure to use and connect with plants. There are of course practical measures and considerations that need to be looked into but that is a case-by-case sort of thing.