CRAFT Farm Tour – July 16th, 2016
Gaia Herb Farm – Growing Medicinal Herbs
Our July WNC CRAFT tour was held at Gaia Herb Farm just outside of Brevard, NC. Gaia is an internationally known manufacturer in the herbal products world. Unlike many herbal product makers they grow 25% of the herbs they use in their products on their own farms – the one we visited in Brevard and a second in Costa Rica. This integrated approach to production and manufacturing is far from common in the medicinal herb industry. Bill Chioffi, the Vice President of Global Sourcing, and Alison Czeczuga, the Education & Communications Manager were our guides and shared the story of Gaia and the herbs they grow as we forged on through the rainy weather. Brevard showed it’s true temperate rainforest side that day!
The farm is 350 acres total, 250 acres owned and an additional 100 acres leased from neighbors. Each year they grow between 25-30 crops on about 125 acres. Both the farm and the manufacturing facility are USDA Certified Organic. Oregon Tilth is their certifier. With the manufacturing plant next door to the farm they are able to take a crop, process & dry it on the farm and have it extracted for use in their products within weeks of harvest. Bill explained that he loves having this amount of contact with their product because they can follow it from seed selection to harvest, significantly impacting the quality of their medicinal products and adding a level of security they like. They also have the added bonus of having analytical labs on site. Meaning they can test the level of medicinal activity or medicinal components of a plant at every stage so they know what part of each plant to harvest and when to make sure they are capturing its highest medicinal potential. Alison also explained how Gaia’s commitment to stewardship with organic farming, and how it extends to recognizing that they are creating products that people use to heal their bodies. Which is why they created Meetyourherbs.com to provide as much transparency to their products as possible showing the journey from seed selection to manufacturing for each herb.
Gaia started the farm in Brevard in 1997 with close to 100 crops, but quickly learned that growing that many crops, many of them difficult to cultivate crops, just wasn’t going to work. But, it gave them the opportunity to figure out which crops they can grow well on their farm and to learn how to process them. They use a basic raised bed production system, that affects which crops they can grow successfully. Some of those crops include Valerian root, Holy Basil, Nettle Leaf, and Echinacea. Due to the larger scale of production, and nuances of growing medicinal herbs they rely on a crew of 30 H2A farmers that has been close to the same crew year to year, many from the same few families that are passing down their growing knowledge.
For our first stop on the farm tour we visited the Gingko & Hawthorne Grove, where they have planted 158 trees. Bill said that Ric Scalzo, the CEO and founder of Gaia, came to NC intentionally. He saw the growing opportunities but also the connection between the land and people in the region. And, for him the Gingko trees (medicine of the mind) co-mingling with the Hawthorne trees (medicine of the heart) is a perfect reminder of the the connection of the heart and mind physically in the landscape of the farm.
For the Gingko we learned that medicinal activity is highest when it turns a greenish yellow, so in the fall the crew strips the leaves off the trees by hand from the buckets of cherry pickers. For the Hawthorne they use both the leaf and flower bud, harvesting the flower bud by hand when it is still tight, and unopened. They will prune the Hawthorne trees during the year to keep them from getting too tall and harder to harvest.
Then we ventured on to the fleet of dryers. Almost everything harvested on the farm gets dried before being processed into a medicinal product, except for a few crops like milky oats that they process fresh. When they started out they used a lot of fresh herbs but saw the medicinal compounds were more complex in their products when the herbs were dried. The 5 massive dryers were as big as shipping containers, and one was actually made from an old shipping container. The other four are made by World Tobacco. They had just finished drying the first of two cuttings of Blue Vervain, and it was fragrant in the air. The dryers are gas powered, and use forced hot air through the floor and through the herb piled on top, running at about 120℉. The 1.5 acres of Vervain was harvested the day before, piled right on the floor of the dryer between 2-4 ft deep, and was dried and finished in less that 24 hrs. Each dryer produces about 300lbs of dried herbs. For smaller growers of medicinal herbs the post-harvest processing is often the biggest barrier, without a way to quickly and efficiently dry your product it can quickly lose quality.
From there we walked down to the see the root washer and carrot slicer. To give us an example of how they use these pieces of equipment, Bill explained that with Valerian Root they mow the 2 year old crop as close to the ground as possible, following with a potato plow to get under the roots, and go back to collect them. Next they send the roots through the root washer once, through the carrot slicer that chops up the roots, and are then sent back through the root washer again. From there they pick off any remaining green parts, and load the roots in the dryers.
We moved on to the production fields where we saw:
- Ashwagandha, a major crop for them, which they grow as an annual and harvest the root.
- Passion Flower, grown as a perennial, and they harvest the leaves and vines. They cut back the vine to 6-8 inches with a sickle bar weed whacker, collect the clippings, and hope to get two harvests each year.
- Vegetable Garden: A CSA for Gaia employees, and they use the produce for a lunch program for employees twice a week.
- Echinacea Purpurea, the roots are harvested in its 2nd year, and the flowers harvested at different stages for different uses. For instance the mature flower head has more anti-inflammatory qualities and is harvested in the middlie to end of September.
- Gotu Kola
It’s hard to fit in everything we saw and learned at Gaia that day. It was a good change of pace to see such large scale production of medicinal herbs, which has been a more specialized crop in WNC but is a growing market. We are grateful to Gaia, Bill & Alison especially, for inviting us to the farm and giving us such a thorough and honest tour of the farm. Hope to see you next time!
Now is the time to join CRAFT for 2016! WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Director at 828.338.9465 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director.She grew up in Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, and has made her home in Western North Carolina. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC – Chapel Hill in Anthropology and Geography in 2006, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University in May 2011. Gaining as much experience as she could she worked with several other regional nonprofits in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. When she isn’t visiting farms all around this end of the state as Farmer Programs coordinator you can usually find her digging in her garden or adventuring alongside her husband Walker, the farm manager at Hickory Nut Gap Farm.