Herbal CSAs, a Conversation with Lisa Rose Starner
I first came across Lisa Rose Starner on Twitter – which I reluctantly started using while doing outreach for Numen. I was new to the world of social media and blogging and I was impressed with how she brought her love and knowledge of plants to engage with others with similar interests. I was especially interested in Lisa’s herbal CSA as a smaller-scale complement to the larger, farm-based herbal CSA described by William Siff, founder of Goldthread Herbal Apothecary. You can find out more about Lisa at her blog, Burdock and Rose.
Ann: You mention that you began as a local food advocate and that led you, like many others, to herbal medicine. In screenings of Numen, we’ve found that there is often a line between the idea of local, organic food and local, organic medicine. People who aren’t already familiar with herbal medicine often think of it as something you buy, not something growing out your back door that you can prepare in your own kitchen. I’d love to hear you talk a bit about your journey from growing and harvesting tomatoes to growing and harvesting dandelions and more..
Lisa: I’ve worked in the local food community and sustainable agriculture movement as an advocate, practitioner, teacher, and eater for my entire professional and collegiate life. In college, I studied the rise of agriculture in the Neolithic as an Anthropology student and I spent time studying in Nice FR where I really learned the art of eating. I’ve also lived in the Bay Area, where I lived and worked in Napa Valley and volunteered growing vegetables and cooking with inner city kids at the renowned Edible Schoolyard. I’ve been the schlepping intern on an organic farm in northern Michigan; and in Grand Rapids, I started a nonprofit to develop school garden programs and kitchen classrooms in our urban schools that is now based out of our local nature center… lots of food-based, plant and people work, really. That’s my passion.
Along the way, I became a mom and developed my own wellness issues. These two facets of my life challenged me to critically evaluate my life, relationships, and relationships with the plants and my connection to the earth. This led to not just planting gardens, but I’ve learned to sit, listen and learn from the plants. It’s funny to say, but I was really called to this practice by the plants. From there (and with the guidance of some amazing plant teachers) I’ve developed a working knowledge of using local “weeds” and native plants as food and plant medicines. It was over the past several years that I really developed my own personal relationship with the earth — and by working with the land; gardening, sitting with plants, cooking in my kitchen, I’ve been reconnected to all the people along the way — throughout the world — who have worked with the plants to nourish and heal their families.
Ann: .You didn’t stop, as some might, with just preparing herbal remedies for your self. You’ve created an herbal CSA. Can you talk about how you came to do that? What inspired you to do this?
Lisa: My husband jokes that I always cook as though I am expecting 12 for dinner! There’s always a surplus and I am always excited to share what I grow and make with others! I saw that from my gardening and wildcrafting bounty I could offer a CSA that not only included my herbal preparations, but was a business model with which I could also begin offering classes along with these preparations so others could be as empowered — and excited — working with plants. That, and I always felt that the herbal connection should be more dirt-to-table in the way that the local food movement is heading. I believe it was Goldthread that originally inspired me to make the leap to do an herbal CSA.
Ann: I’d love to hear some specifics about your CSA: When did you start, how many members do you have, what do you offer them: in terms of herbs and tinctures as well as education? What have been the challenges and what have you learned in the process of doing this? What changes have you made?
Lisa: This is my third herbal CSA growing season. I began with about 7 members and it’s grown to be 15 members.
At first, I offered a great deal of herbal preparations (simplers tinctures, teas, my syrups and balms) — a massive, all-local herbal apothecary, really! That first season I realized I was overwhelming my clients relative to the working knowledge people had about the plant preparations I was giving them. I mean, many knew about Elderberry Syrup. That one’s more or less easy because people are used to seeing that in the health foods shop. But Motherwort? Hawthorne? Mullein? Those aren’t as familiar to people. Fortunately, I don’t just hand people boxes of herbs — part of their CSA experience is plant walks in my gardens (both cultivated and wild spaces) to learn about the plants in their apothecary. Then we get into my kitchen where I share with them how to make infusions, infused oils, tinctures, steam inhalations — all so they’d be empowered with the knowledge and inspiration to take on folk medicine making at home.
And that’s what I want. I want people in my community to have a rich relationship with plants that doesn’t just happen when they are sick, but a relationship that’s a needed — desired — part of their everyday lives.
Ann: There is so much publicity about food CSAs. It is much harder to find information about herbal CSAs, both the fact that they are being offered and also, more broadly, how it seems that herbal CSAs offer a really wonderful way of extending the values of traditional herbalism into the business of selling herbal products. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. There is a small number 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? Do you collaborate and exchange information with others offering herbal CSAs? Is that helpful? Or would it be? Do you see this as a model that could expand the way food CSAs have?
Lisa: I’ve watched the popularity of CSAs grow tremendously over the past decade and now see a handful of herbal CSAs popping up around the country that range from individual herbalists running small herbal CSAs that include just basic preparations on a monthly schedule to large farm-based CSAs like Goldthread. But there aren’t many. I think many of us as herbalists are looking for creative, financially-viable ways to integrate our work into the community and leveraging the farm-to-table movement just makes sense.
However, the CSA business model isn’t perfect and there’s a lot of discussion within the agriculture community — and among CSA clients — that point out the limitations of the CSA. I am not sure exactly what the future is for the CSA in general, but it continues to change and evolve to suit the needs of both consumer and the needs of the farmer and as the herbalist uses this concept for their practice it will need to evolve as well to best reflect their personality and their community’s needs.
That said, I believe in networking with other herbalists — it helps us connect the dots and ideate around growing our work in our communities. In fact, I am talking now with a few other Michigan herbalist friends about working together and developing a cooperative herbal CSA called Mitten Herbals. It’s very conceptual at this time, but I feel working collaboratively is one of the best ways to leverage and maximize our knowledge, teachings, harvesting and plant preparations and this will be a great partnership for our local communities we each work with around Michigan. And the plants dig that.