The Story behind Zack Woods Herb Farm
I spoke with Jeff at length about what it takes to grow high quality medicinal plants and the story behind Zack Woods Herb Farm, a medicinal herb farm, with his wife, Melanie. I am including these excerpts from our conversation as part of our ongoing behind the scenes of herbal companies series. Again, this is a long interview. I am leaving it that way because, for those interested in the stories behind the products they purchase, I think this is interesting and helpful information to have available.
This interview is part of our ongoing work following herbs through the supply chain. You can read more about the Sustainable Herbs Project here. Here are Jeff’s recommendations of the top ten medicinal plants that are easy and important to grow in a post oil economy.
History of Zack Woods Herb Farm
For several years, Jeff and Mel had their own small herbal product making company, Sage Mountain Herbal products. A large-scale grocery store chain contacted them about carrying Rosemary Gladstar’s famous face cream. “But they wanted pallets of it,” Jeff said, “Not what we were making in the blender, not what we could make in our basement.”
At the same time, Jeff continued, we were sourcing bulk herbs to make tinctures, and the stuff we were getting was pretty poor quality. Early on, Rosemary taught us that when you are making medicine from plants, the dried plants should look, smell, and taste as close as possible to how they grow in the field. More and more we found that wasn’t the case, what we could buy looked more like what you would feed cows with rather than something that could heal people.
We wanted to make high quality products, and we didn’t feel really good about the products we were making because most of the material we were using looked like grass or hay, it didn’t look like vibrant plant medicine. Around the same time, I got a job in a plant nursery, Evergreen Gardens and really started learning a lot about other types of plants, trees and stuff. I loved it. All of these factors combined with the fact that we were becoming bored with the herbal product business. It involved a lot of time pouring and labeling, we were inside a lot, the work wasn’t fulfilling on a spiritual level. So we thought about trying to grow a few herbs, renting some land, seeing what we could do.
We found this land in Hyde Park, VT , purchased it, and moved in May 1, 1999. We had started a bunch of plants before the closing, had all these starts in our basement in Elmore, and we moved in and planted. I bought a tractor, a really small tractor and rototiller, we tilled up an acre and planted with sixty species of herbs.
I’d done a lot of research as to what type of herbs people were using. Popular herbs that people were using and that could do well in this climate. A lot of it didn’t do well: Wild Yam, Echinacea Angustifolia, Ginseng. But a lot of other things did do well.
I was working at night in Stowe waiting tables and farming during the day. Mel got a job teaching so she had year-round income and had the summers off. We didn’t really know anything about growing herbs. There is really very little practical information available about growing herbs for commercial purposes. It was a lot of trial and error, learning by doing. We built a small green house leaning up against the garage of the house: greenhouse in spring, drying shed. First harvest: a little basket of calendula. We were so excited! We still have pictures of it.
We had our mailing list from our company and as soon as we had some things to sell, we sent out a flier announcing that we had sold Sage Mountain Herbal Products and were now Zack Woods Herbs Farm, that we had live plants and dried bulk herbs instead of herbal products, and did people want to buy some?
We sold out immediately. We got so many calls from people, we had to say no to so many people. So from there, we’d add another acre. Two acres, then 3 acres. The first 5, 6 years we couldn’t grow enough, and it was tough. We had some losses: crops dying in the field, planting things that weren’t suitable, Echinacea Angustifolia in wet soil; not drying things like red clover and oats thoroughly and having to compost the whole crop.
We made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot through trial and error. We refined our techniques, put all the money we made back into the farm, made some capital improvements, built a bigger greenhouse, a drying shed.
We are the size we want to be now and don’t want to get much bigger. I like having a small crew of people. Not only do I not want to get too big and end up driving around simply overseeing everyone else all day, because I like to be in the field, I also think quality would suffer. We would have to become more automated and then we would lose the hands on approach that we’re now known for.
Questions of Quality
Ann: How do you understand quality, what makes good quality, day to day?
Jeff: Again, what Rosemary taught us has always stuck with me: Herbs should look, taste, smell, feel as close as they do to when they were growing in the field. That’s our goal, but there’s a lot more to it. When we dry nettles for example, when we take them out of the drying shed, they might look really beautiful and green, but we need to make sure there isn’t fungal contamination on the leaves. VT is a really tough place to grow herbs because we have a really humid environment. We have a short growing season. Most of the commercial herb production is in the Midwest, and there is a reason for that, the days are longer, season is longer, it’s warmer, there is a lot more dry air flow. It’s just more suitable for aromatic medicinal crops. We have a lot of challenges here.
In the beginning, we evaluated our quality based on how the plants looked and tasted, more of an organoleptic analysis as well as getting good feedback from our customers.
Then year 4, 5 in, when we started entering more of the wholesale market, had to do more microbiological analysis, providing certificates of analysis to companies. We have to do it a lot more now. Probably around 2005, some of the bigger companies began requiring this testing. Most of these early tests we passed but unfortunately a few of them we didn’t pass.
Mostly root crops harvested in the fall with yeast counts that were too high. Yeast and sometimes mold. We’d have to send products out to an independent lab and they either send us the analysis or usually they send it right to the company that’s going buy our stuff. We had some stuff rejected. That was a big “ah hah” moment. Wow, we think this stuff we’re producing is such high quality, but that was really humbling because we realized there is a lot more than meets the eye. We couldn’t see, smell or taste the mold but the levels were just high enough to warrant rejection based on GMP standards. What looks and tastes great to our customers, may not necessarily be hygienic and safe from a certain standard. So we had to make some big improvements.
Ann: What changes did you make to address those issues?
Jeff: We bought the barrel root washer to get the roots cleaner. So more hygienic practices in the drying shed, keep wood fires going to get them dry faster. The problem is that when you put roots in the dry shed, they are so wet and so it is the perfect host for fungal spores. Fungal spores are everywhere, they’re in the air we breathe, the problem is when they land and multiply. There are certain acceptable levels, buyers don’t expect the plants to be sterile. The herb companies take a bit, put it in petri dish, and culture it for a week then count the number of spores. Sometimes we were just under the limit; sometimes we were just over. So we adjusted our drying practices, since then, 2006, we’ve passed all the microbiological tests. That’s a good indicator that we’re doing things better and that we had to be a lot more thorough and careful and pay a lot more attention to quality control.
Most of this has to do with herbs that are being encapsulated. It isn’t such a big deal for herbs going into tinctures. We send a lot of our stuff for testing just for curiosity sake. So we learned a lot from that, now we have good hygienic practices and we recently received a grant to build a new drying shed. We have finally figured out the hygiene factor.
Another indicator that we are doing things right: WTS company bought lemon balm from us along with 5-6 other companies to do analysis to determine the best lemon balm. Lemon balm is one of key ingredients in WTS’s thyroid health capsules and quality really matters. Rosmarinic acid is one of the key compounds that help balance thyroid levels. Our lemon balm tested highest in rosmarinic acid, which was really exciting. Ours was the highest and also the cleanest.
Ann: Why did yours have the most?
Jeff: I think the care we give the plants in the fields. And the drying conditions. We learned that hygiene in the field is really important, trying to keep the plants clean. How? Trying not to disturb soil around the plants near harvest time because if we disturb the soil before the harvest, that kicks up dust and when it rains it scatters soil on the leaves.
And then drying – never letting it go over 100 degrees, keeping the temps low, keeping air moving, using shade cloth to protect the herbs from UV exposure. Most of the commercial herbs in the “mass-market” are dried in the field, in windrows, like they do hay here. They cut the herbs and then swath them over. They are partially dried in field then brought into drying shed. Ours is a different model. Smaller scale. We can pay a lot more attention. We can monitor the conditions a lot better. Wake up in the morning there is dew on the grass, that’s going to ruin anything you’ve left in the field drying.
And also hand garbling (removal of leaf and flower from stem). A lot of the bigger companies are using machinery to do that, using mechanical separators, which create friction. The heat from that friction has a detrimental effect on the medicinal constituents that we grow and use these plants for
We also use a lot of foliar sprays in the field, not only are we feeding our soils with minerals and organic matter but we’re also feeding the plants directly with these sprays.
We feed them a combination fish/seaweed solution. Micronutrients and beneficial fungi and bacteria that the plants really love. Plants have pores in their leaves like human skin and they can absorb nutrients through these pores. It’s also preventing pathogenic or malevolent fungi and bacteria from finding a host, because we’ve already filled that niche with a beneficial fungus or bacteria. We’ve noticed huge differences in the quality of the plants in the field. So we’re doing more of that. We stop the foliar sprays a couple of weeks before harvest so there is no residue left on the plants
Intention and Prayer
Another important component of our work to produce high quality plant medicine is intention. Mel and I place enormous value in the importance of the spiritual connection to the plants. In the early years when it was just us and one or two helpers we would pray as we were harvesting the plants, we would honor and do ceremony to honor the sacrifice the plants were making and really to instill a lot of that intention into harvesting. One of the most challenging aspects of growing the farm is that we’ve sort of lost a lot of that daily practice. It’s really challenging and it’s hard to quantify it. We still, Mel and I, still pray and we hold ceremony and we still go out and spend time on the land, honoring the plants. But it is no longer practical to do ceremony and pray over the plants as we are constantly harvesting and it’s hard for me to ask our employees to follow our spiritual practice.
As we started getting bigger and Mel wasn’t spending so much time on the farm anymore because of her teaching, I realized a lot of that was getting lost because we were just flailing to keep up. We weren’t praying over the plants we were harvesting. I remember it was a real defining moment. Are we, you know we’re putting this out: part of the mission statement and quality of our farm is based on the fact that we are praying over these plants with a lot of healing intent. But we can’t really say that we are, we aren’t doing it. Or is it good enough that we are going out and praying for the land and we’re spiritual and we do ceremony? And we came to the realization that yes, we’re doing what we can. It’s not practical for us to pray each time we harvest or plant. So we had to accept that what we’re doing is still good. As long as we honor the spirit of the plants we are working with and maintain that spiritual connection to our land, we feel that it helps to potentize the healing power the herbs have.
So I think that still translates into the quality of the product because it is still hands on, our employees who work with us are incredible people. Everyone sort of has a similar mind set, maybe not everyone is spiritually oriented in the same way as we are. But there is that intention, we’re a team and we’re really focused on quality and we love plants and we love working together and so I think that translates into the quality more than harvesting the plants with a gigantic combine, bringing them to the farm in a huge truck would do.
Ann: The question of prayer and harvesting is an interesting one, herbalists can be such fundamentalists: you must do it this way.
Jeff: There are a thousand ways to kiss the earth, yeh.
Ann: So there is that, that there is not just one way. But I’m also really interested in understanding what difference prayer makes or not. How do you distinguish between letting there be different ways to pray and when that argument is simply a rationalization to not pray at all?
Jeff: Yeah, I hear over and over again especially from indigenous people working with plant medicine, that the plants are not effective if you don’t pray over them. And I sort of agree with that philosophy but I don’t believe in a dogmatic approach that claims that you have to pray over this plant or you have to do this with each plant before you harvest it. I don’t think that that kind of prayer is necessarily universal and it doesn’t ring so true to me.
I agree with what Guido Mase said in the Numen blog, that even if you buy herbs from someone else, the intention you put in when you prepare a tea or put a tincture in your mouth makes a difference. I believe that it is important to try to connect to the plant when you prepare medicine from that plant or when you take take that medicine, not that you have to do this special routine with cornmeal and tobacco with each plant as you harvest or the medicine won’t be any good.
To me, not only are we putting some intention, Mel and I are putting a lot in with our prayers, there is the energy that is around our farm I think translates into the plants. I think that is confirmed by the fact that pretty much the universal feedback we get on our plants is that they are healing people, that they are working for people. We get so many emails and letters and calls about how amazing some of these plants have been as catalysts for life changes and healing, just hearing that and knowing that and having that even in my subconscious as I’m working with the plants is part of that whole spiritual connection that potentizes the medicine and I think just really translates into the quality. It feels better to me than it did for awhile when we were felt like we couldn’t even say that we prayed over the plants anymore in our mission statement because we weren’t doing it. We’re feeling a lot better because we do pray. We do honor the plants and the spirits and we honor the fact that the plants are making a huge sacrifice being harvested for our well-being.
And when I’m harvesting, it’s not a spoken prayer. It’s not even like any special words, I think: I’m harvesting these plants right now, they’ve been growing for me all season, it’s more of an acknowledgement in myself that I think translates on an energetic level. Not so much as I am speaking directly to the plant and it is listening to me. More just like an intention. An energetic exchange if you will.
Intention and the Bottom Line
Ann: Can you talk a bit about the tension between honoring intention and the importance too of getting the job done?
Jeff: For us, especially in the fall when it’s crunch time and the weather is turning, it’s a mad rush to get everything out of the field. You were there, you know what it’s like. We’re digging roots with a machine, there is very little acknowledgement of each plant having a spirit and thank you, or any of that. It’s more like we need to get them out of the field because right now the bottom line is pretty important, I have to keep my farm sustainable. I have to pay my crew. I have to provide for my family. So I’m always working to find a balance between keeping quality in mind, keeping that mindful intention while also making sure that I’m meeting my goals for a profitability stand point. But I feel like, again, I have a lot better acceptance that what I’m doing is okay and that the way we’re doing it is good. There is a connection to the plants.
What I feel and I received this message in an incredibly powerful dream one night, is that I’m a conduit for the plants. I was chosen to do this work because the people need the plants and this is my work to grow the plants and pass the plants on to the people. And that’s why I’m here. And it feels good to me. And it’s interesting how everything has sort of fallen into place to put me in this position.
As long as I feel good about what I’m doing and I keep hearing the positive feedback from my customers, and I can keep my farm going then I feel really great about what I’m doing and I love what I’m doing. And it’s taken a long time to get to that point. But right now it feels really good. Yeh, it’s been a struggle. We lost money – or we didn’t make money for years. We really had – there was a big crux 3-4 years ago, one night, it was so challenging, we were looking at numbers, spent so much on labor, had some crop losses, real soul searching. I said I don’t know if I can do this anymore. I can go back to restaurant, make $2-300/night, have my days to myself and go biking and skiing.
I said why are we doing this? Why am I doing this? I set a personal goal: if I don’t come out this far ahead and I don’t feel good about it, then I’m going to stop farming or re-evaluate. And we did really well that year. All along I was thinking, I’ll never quit. It was me sort of venting and saying why am I doing this when I can make easy money doing something else? I don’t think I would have made that choice, but there was a moment there.
Since then, we’ve kept a lot more careful track of costs of production. We even made a formal business plan after 14 years doing business without one. We got enrolled in the Vermont Farm Viability Enhancement program, got some grant money, had two years of technical assistance from Richard Wiswall of Cate Farm. We’re much more focused on making the farm profitable, much more business oriented than just like we want to grow great herbs. You kind of have to be, or we realized we have to be.
And now the work with farm viability is giving us a whole new box of tools and whole new set of skills to run our business profitably and not grow too big. Feeling really good right now. We’re not getting rich, we never expected that but financial security during the off-season feels more within our in reach. It’s exhausting. It’s frustrating. There’s a lot of stress. There’s a lot of things that are beyond my control. I wouldn’t say I was a control freak before I started farming, but I liked things to be a certain way. And one thing that became evident right off the bat: you have to surrender. You just have to give up any sense of control. Because everything involved with farming is out of control: the weather, the insects, the disease, the timing, the people. There’s so much that I can’t control. I just have to trust. And that’s what I am learning to do.
Quality and Cost
Ann: Spending time harvesting with you all has given me such a clearer sense of the cost involved, of what goes into growing and harvesting this quality of herbs. Can you say something about that?
Jeff: Someone will call me and they’ll say, “Your calendula is $36/lb? I can get it for $22 from this big herb company.”
I’ll say, “Have you seen their calendula? It is definitely a different product. Take a look at theirs and at ours. And make some tea or salve with each. If you’re paying $22 for theirs, maybe it will take 2 pounds of theirs to get the medicinal value of ours.”
People get that sometimes. I think it is true. You’ve seen our nettles. They’re green. They look like when they are growing in the field. I’ve seen what the competition has to offer, some doesn’t look too bad, but there seems to be a big different in the quality. Maybe a pound of ours has the same vitamins and minerals as 1½ pounds of theirs. If you take quality into consideration into the cost, then the costs are more on par with what one would think.
Ann: That makes me think of the importance of education.
Jeff: That’s huge. People are becoming more well-educated about the importance of quality. They’re using this as medicine and they’re trying to heal their bodies with it and so they are beginning to realize maybe it is worth it to spend a bit more.
All photos unless otherwise attributed are from the Zack Woods Herb Farm webpage.