Article by Jody Williams, CRAFT Apprentice at Thatchmore Farm & OGS Farmer Scholarship Recipient
Thanks to a farmer scholarship from Organic Growers School, I was able to attend the Wild Herb Weekend conference hosted by the North Carolina Herb Association. I applied to attend this particular conference to further explore my budding interest (fast becoming obsession) with medicinal and culinary herbs. I usually come away from a gardening or farming conference awed and inspired by the breadth and depth of the program material and the feeling of camaraderie fostered by hanging out with people from “my tribe.” Wild Herb Weekend provided this same warm and fuzzy feeling for me. The balance of hands-on practical information along with the more ethereal wisdom rooted in the place, history and traditions, inspired me to continue learning and practicing the ancient art-craft- medicine of herbal
Celebrating its 30th anniversary at the historic and beautiful Valle Crucis Conference Center near Boone, Wild Herb Weekend has something for everyone, from the commercial herb farmer or business person, to the home herb grower or herb enthusiast. The weekend is chock-full of keynotes and workshops by regional and national experts, plant walks, yoga practices, live music, farm to table meals, and vendors offering a wide array of homemade herbal products.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Botanical Beverages.” Healing elixirs of all sorts were the focus of many of the workshops, including, of course, beer (“An Ale for an Ail”), teas, supernatural sodas, “bitters” cocktails, syrups, oxymels and shrubs (new terms for many of us, these last two refer to medical drinks made with vinegar, herbs and natural sweeteners.) In addition to addressing tasty treats, other workshops entailed more nuts-and- bolts topics for commercial growers and processors, including subjects on best practices for health and safety, regulatory concerns, industrial hemp and elderberry production. Courses on herbal pre- and post-natal care, botanical drawing and making natural dyes filled out the well-rounded program.
As a former co-owner of a chiropractic and nutrition practice, I have experience using herbs in supplement form and I know how effective they can be. Attending Wild Herb Weekend provided me with a much broader awareness of how interacting with and consuming plants in all their forms can be a complete wellness lifestyle and not simply a natural version of symptom management. I trust that the answers to health and healing are found in nature, and that by living and working with nature’s bounty we can heal ourselves and the world. Of
course, traditional cultures have known this for thousands of years but we “moderns” have a lot of un-learning to do.
The fact that there could be an entire conference theme based only on botanical beverages impressed on me the reality that there are plenty of niches to exploit when it comes to commercial viability and promoting use of herbs to the masses. The explosion of the craft
beer, cider, mead and cocktails movements is already having an impact which I expect will only continue to grow. My personal interest is in creating everyday value-added healing food and non-alcoholic drinks made with herbs. I now feel confident to up the healing ante on my existing repertoire of standard kombuchas, kefirs, ferments, pestos and salts by adding more creative healing herbs to the mix. The market opportunities in Western North Carolina for these foods at a small scale seems like a relatively low-risk entry point to transition from home
chef to commercial viability.
Another session from Wild Herb Weekend that I found particularly useful was the overview of starting an herb farm presented by Gentle Harmony Farm based in Lexington, NC. Recently retired from professional careers, Pam and Charles Leonard shared their experience
of starting from scratch with no farming background to create a successful certified organic herb production farm. They certainly didn’t make it sound easy, having dealt with plenty of challenges such as herbicide overspray from neighboring commercial farms and the usual
weather related farming risks. However, they’ve created a meticulous system for growing and processing herbs they’ve found to be most reliable and cost-effective. They were forthcoming about all aspects of the farm operation: growing practices, start-up funding, processing set-up and equipment, and staff management.
I’m very grateful to Organic Growers School for having provided me the opportunity to attend this enlightening gathering of wild crafters, crones and creatives. The knowledge and connections gained has served as a springboard toward developing a more robust
understanding of the lessons and opportunities of working with herbs.
Curious about Farmer Scholarship opportunities? Consider participating in WNC CRAFT.
Curious about growing medicinal herbs in the forest? Consider attending the OGS 2-Day Forest Farming Intensive on September 30 – October 1, 2017 or becoming a part of the Appalachian Beginning Forest Farming Coalition.
Organic Growers School is a non-profit organization providing organic education since 1993. Our mission is to inspire, educate, and support people in our region to farm, garden, and live organically.