Women on the Edge: The Virtues of Herb Farms
In the preface to Euell Gibbons’s seminal 1966 book, Stalking the Healthful Herbs, Elizabeth C. Hall, then the associate curator of education at the New York Botanical Garden, wrote:
“In all parts of the world, native plants exist that possess or have been thought to possess virtues that appeal to the cook, the medicine man, and the witch doctor. Despite the fact that most wild herbs are of small economic importance in our modern civilization, nevertheless, they supply pleasure to an increasing number of people who study these plants and their fascinating lore.”
The book that follows sets out to reveal many benefits beyond mere pleasure. Gibbons believes wild herbs must be learned, hunted, picked, gathered, smelled, tasted and used for food and medicine wherever possible. Though his obsession might have been remarkable at the time, he freely admits to be following in the footsteps of the ancients. Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine are among countless indigenous systems in which plants have long played a central role in maintaining health.
Fifty years have gone by since the publication of Gibbons’s book and we find ourselves in a time when the healing power of plants is once again in the spotlight. Eating local and organic is one way we let food be our medicine. Many people have become disenchanted with Western medicine and are seeking out natural, plant-based remedies. The prevalence of farmers’ markets and CSAs are creating a customer base for small growers who want to focus on more specialized and fragile crops. So it’s really no surprise that there are an increasing number of herb growers and healers (often one and the same) bringing herbs, both cultivated and wild, to a receptive audience in the Hudson Valley/Catskills region.
Some of the four herb farmers featured below grew up loving plants and some were drawn to herbs because of health issues, but they all express a deep respect for the land and an almost mystical connection to the many healing varieties they grow on it. Like all farming, cultivating herbs is laborious and time consuming. The rewards, while immense and often life changing, are rarely bankable, though, as demand increases, that may evolve.
When the medicine Jordan Schmidt, a vegetable farmer, was offered for her chronic asthma, allergies and digestive issues failed to provide a cure, she turned to herbs. Schmidt went back to school in 2014 to get certified as a nutritional therapist, a technique used to evaluate personal health history, locate core imbalances and provide guidelines for a whole food and herbal diet. Schmidt continues to grow the herbs that she integrates into her practice. “I see a lot of people who are not finding the answers they need in our existing medical system and are looking for more holistic, land-based options,” she says.
Jordan’s two-acre plot is part of Chaseholm Farm, a dairy operation in Pine Plains that she co-manages with her life partner. The herbs she grows—“a hybrid between wild and domesticated foods”—are classic culinary varieties, like rosemary, dill and thyme, and those more closely associated with traditional herbal medicine, like yarrow, comfrey and feverfew. Schmidt finds a lot of crossover between medicinal and culinary herbs. “Many of the culinary herbs are highly medicinal and I suspect that’s why they have always been integrated into daily food,” she explains. She encourages her nutritional therapy clients to eat more herbs as part of their regular diet. Her line of dried culinary herbs packaged in jars is for sale at the farm store and at several other local venues. Among her diverse clientele, she also counts a number of herbalists and practitioners of Chinese acupuncture who believe that sourcing plants locally enhances their medicinal value. Those that are dried immediately after harvesting are more potent and of higher quality. Schmidt is also part of a growers’ co-op experimenting with cultivating Chinese medicinal herbs in the New York area.
Kelley Edkins has had a long love affair with plants, but it’s the bees that really stole her heart. After apprenticing with an herbalist more than 20 years ago, she learned to identify and study “weeds”— what Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to as plants “whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” She put this knowledge to use when creating gardens for clients in Sullivan County, unearthing old heirlooms and introducing native plants and endangered species to support the dwindling honeybee population. A master gardener with extensive knowledge of sustainable permaculture, she now specializes in woodland gardens filled with diverse plants, many of which—Solomon’s seal, goldthread, St. John’s wort, borage—are healing herbs.
“I’m the farmer,” says Edkins, “but the bees are my teachers.” She maintains two hives on her 10-acre property, Honeybee Herbs in the Catskills, and monitors three others in the wild. It was through careful observation of which plants the bees were pollinating that she was inspired to blend certain herbs for her teas. “The honeybees are really my formulators,” she explains. “I follow the combinations they put together.” In spring, this might mean lilac, coltsfoot, dandelion and nettle; in summer, anise hyssop, mint, sage and lemon balm. The teas often have specific healing benefits, but Kelley does not prescribe to her customers. Instead she simply describes the properties and characteristics of the individual teas and lets people decide what they need. “I feel that people are ready for new modalities,” she says, “especially the open-minded seekers.” Her customers include men and women of all ages, many of whom feel abandoned by the standard medical system.
In addition to herbal teas, Kelley makes beauty products. For her soothing balms, infused oils and healing salves, she uses virgin beeswax, honey and herbs, plus organic coconut, jojoba and sunflower oils. She also sells pure propolis, the potent botanical resin that bees use to seal their hives, which is anti-inflammatory and very healing. Only occasionally does she harvest and sell honey from the bees, and only if there is a surplus after they have survived the winter. Her products are available at Pepacton Natural Foods and the farmers’ market in Roscoe; at Main Street Farm in Livingston Manor; and from her online shop, which features a photo of her covered with bees, clearly in a state of rapture.
Lauren Giambrone discovered herbal medicine on a quest to heal herself. After working two full-time jobs in New York City. “The candle had burned at both ends,” she remembers, “and I collapsed in the middle.” Depleted and frequently sick, Lauren knew her life was unsustainable. Intuition told her that a trip to the doctor was not the right solution. Instead, she sought answers at the health food store, looking for ways to build her immunity.
Around that time, she discovered the Rock Dove Collective, a community health exchange connecting people, regardless of their financial situation, to unconventional wellness offerings and exceptional health practitioners. Giambrone joined the collective and met an herbalist on their roster. Shortly thereafter, she applied to the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine and was admitted to their apprenticeship program. “It was there I discovered that what I’m meant to do in the world is work with plants and support people in supporting themselves,” she says. Her apprenticeship included the study of regional herbs, anatomy and physiology; making medicine from plants; and learning to dispense herbs alongside her teacher at the Ithaca Free Clinic.
Since 2010, Giambrone has operated Good Fight Herb Co. and grown mostly perennial herbs and some annuals on a quarter-acre of land in Germantown. “I can wild-gather around the land, and my farmer friends let me poke around their properties, too” she says. “They also invite me to collect a lot of their cover crops, like red clover and oats.” From all these herbs, she is able to create a diverse and evolving line of vinegars, teas, syrups, sprays and salves that she sells at markets, in her online shop and through a four-season herbal CSA featuring products like Mighty Iron Syrup, with nettle, raspberry leaf and yellow dock, and Self Love Potion #9, with hawthorn, rose and yarrow. For the last five years, she has also been a regular at the Hudson farmers’ market, building her customer base and “unpacking what herbalism is for all kinds of people.” They come looking for help with insomnia, stress, allergies and Lyme disease, and Giambrone, part of a national network of herbalists and healers committed to social justice and community wellness, has just the thing the doctor didn’t order.
Claudia Abbott-Barish got her first herb book at age nine. In college, she studied plants and environmental natural history, then earned a master’s degree in the anthropology of sustainability, culture and development—and taught herself permaculture in between. After working on several farms in Northern California, she did some political organizing around health and food justice before deciding to put down roots. But with family in the UK and deep ties to the U.S., Claudia wasn’t quite sure where home was. She was drawn to the house in Milan, New York, that had been her family’s weekend haven during her childhood. “I finally moved back to the family plot in 2012,” she quips, “with an aim to grow medicinal plants and offer them to customers on a sliding scale.”
Abbott-Barish tackled an overgrown patch on the property in Milan, a legendary eyesore that she gradually reclaimed. On 2,000 square feet, she has room for vegetables and lots of medicinal herbs, including several kinds of mint, lemon balm, lovage, lemon bergamot, anise hyssop, dragon balm and lemon verbena. She also grows edible flowers such as nasturtiums, borage and bachelor’s buttons (more commonly known as cornflowers). Nearby, she can forage for dame’s rocket blossoms, black locust blossoms, violets, wild mushrooms, Japanese knotweed and various salad greens.
Much of this bounty is shared with restaurants in the area. To counterbalance the solitary nature of growing herbs, Abbott-Barish began working as a server. When chefs got wind of her “hobby,” one thing led to another. Now her fresh herbs are on the menu at Panzúr, the Corner and Murray’s in Tivoli and at Gaskins in Germantown. “It works well for me,” she explains, “because I am able to plan out the volume of what I grow according to their demand.” Often, she simply trades for credit at the restaurants, in large part because she struggles with putting a price tag on the herbs.
“My relationship with growing things is sacred,” says Claudia, “so I really prefer to trade.” When she has a proliferation of herbs, she makes them available to friends and other herbalists and even holds community medicine-making days. Rather than focusing on making herb-growing financially viable, she is directing her energy toward creating a space for teaching. Along with three other herbalists in the area—Lauren Giambrone, Nicole LoBue and Mandana Boushee—she has founded Wild Gather: Hudson Valley School of Herbal Studies. Their foundational series will teach students to interact with plants, educating them about their medicinal properties as well as their energetic and transformative powers.