We were excited for our biggest CRAFT tour of this season (with over 50 participants) at Gaia Herb Farm in Brevard, NC. Our focus of the tour was Soil Health & Medicinal Herbs, which Gaia has been growing and processing for 30 years.
Gaia truly focuses on quality and source in their product line, and started their own farm to help guarantee that they could source certain herbs that met their quality standards. After beginning in Massachusetts, their founder eventually chose WNC for the biodiversity that it already contained, and it’s similarity to the Chinese mountains, where many traditional Chinese medicinal herbs grow. About 80% of the herbs they source for their products can be grown on their farm, though the business has expanded to a size large enough that they’re old able to source about 25% of their total herbal needs from their land (about 350 acres). The rest they source as locally as possible, or, if needed, through international markets. All Gaia Herb products are organically certified by Oregon Tilth.
Gaia has about 40-45 seasonal farm workers who are on the H1visa program. The same families have been returning year after year (mostly from Mexico and Central America), and Alison Czeczuga (who was showing us around the farm, Gaia’s Sustainability and Communications Manager) was very clear that all the workers are an essential part of the team. Because doing what they do requires so much in-depth knowledge of the entirety of the herbal product creation process, it is in Gaia’s best interest to encourage workers to come back every year, by providing good wages, a CSA program of organic vegetables from the farm, prepared lunches 2x/week, as well as on-farm housing.
We begin our walking tour at a large row of ginko trees, which Alison explains gets hand-picked of all of its leaves which are used for oil that is extracted on-site in their labs using only alcohol and water. Ginko eases the mind; across the road from the ginko row is hawthorn (these are their only tree species on the property), which eases the heart. Gaia very strongly believes and focuses on the full ‘plant profile’ and ‘plant partnerships’, recognizing that elements of plants compliment one another, and if you’re looking at any plant or any part of a plant in isolation you’re missing how the plants work together.
How and when herbs are harvested is also important; you want to harvest at peak harvesting times for whatever compounds you’re trying to extract from the herbs, and with an on-site lab, Gaia is able to test the compound levels in each herb before they suspect peak harvesting times, and target the best harvesting days.
The knowledge of when to harvest herbs is something that Gaia is interested in teaching the farming community, so they can find more local growers that can produce the quality of product that they would like to buy. Alison also impresses the importance of using quality materials for all elements of the product (not only the herbs!), as often medicinal herb brands that may be sourcing plants well may still test positive for toxic solvents. “If you want to grow medicinal herbs, it’s a lot about processing,” Alison explains, “The equipment can be extremely cost prohibitive for small-scale growers. This is why when I meet farmers who are interested in growing herbs, I encourage them to begin small and see how it fits in to their overall business plan. They may be better off selling to businesses like us, who can afford the expensive processing, and still learn to grow very high-quality medicinal herbs.”
Gaia is on the regenerative agriculture train along with prominent ag leaders such as Dr. Bronners and the Rodale Institute. Regenerative agriculture, as defined by Rodale, is “a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. Regenerative Agriculture aims to capture carbon in soil and above-ground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation.” Alison suggests that there is going to be a lot of grant funding coming down the pipeline for regenerative agriculture related projects.
Soil health was the topic of interest for the day, and, truly highlighting their regenerative agriculture principles, we spent a lot of time talking about Gaias crop rotations, tilling practices, and fertilizers. Gaia chooses to cover crop with oat, black radish and buckwheat, though we ended up talking about the potential benefits of cover cropping with stinging nettle (as it’s a bioaccumulator and high in silica, an element essential for soil and human health). They rotate their crops each year around their 350 acres and keep tilling to a minimum. The most acreage on their property is dedicated to milky oats, holy basil, and ashwaganda.
To fertilize their fields, they use feathermeal, fishmeal, and onemeal. They are also working with a soil scientist in Costa Rica who is encouraging them – and writing a PhD on – amending the soil with prebiotics such as rock minerals in order to encourage a healthy soil microbiome. He monitors the pre-biotics effectiveness in his test fields my monitoring the micronutrients (and not just the macronutrients, as most common soil tests do), which are often “scavenged” by micorrhizal fungi and bacteria, and whose presence or absence can indicate their level of activity.
You can find Gaia’s Farm Operations Manager, Luis Iglesias’s recipe for the pre-biotics that he suggests for optimum soil health HERE, along with other information about Gaia. They have done this work in Costa Rica.
The basic pre-biodic recipe consists of the following:
- Organic Oat Bran: 20 kg
- Organic Powdered Rice Husk: 20 kg
- Organic Molasses (unsulfured): 10 kg
- Organic Tapioca Starch: 20 kg
- Organic 100% pure Apple Juice: (L) 10
- Organic Dexrin, maltodextrin or fructose: 10 kg
- Organic Psyllium: 2 kg
Amounts are in KG for a huge batch mixed in a 1,000 liter tank, but the ratio can be adjusted. Smaller scale application can be used in any kind of Ag Sprayer and applied once a year in mid to late summer.
Thank you to Gaia Herb Farms for hosting and for being such leaders in our WNC farming community! We look forward to seeing you all at the next CRAFT event.
Author: Sera Deva
Sera Deva has a B.S. in Microbiology & Agroecology from The Evergreen State College. She works with OGS as the Farmer Programs Associate and Conference Curriculum Coordinator, serves on the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Board of Directors, and is the Administrative Director for The Firefly Gathering. When she’s not geeking out over genetics, systems theory or soil hydrology, she spends her time growing and eating food in the South Toe Valley in Burnsville, NC.