Zack Woods Herb Farm
Filling Vermonters’ Medicine Cabinets
Written onMarch 01 , 2008
The growing demand for locally-sourced products in Vermont is leading residents to look beyond vegetables and meat to another important item for consumption: herbs.
As a result, herb farms such as Zack Woods Herb Farm in Hyde Park, founded in 1999 by Jeff Carpenter and his wife, Melanie Slick Carpenter, are enjoying amazing success as Vermonters seek out local herbs not just for inclusion in homemade meals but for medicinal use as well. At Zack Woods, 35 medicinal herbs are grown for a host of ailments, and the Carpenters are working hard to keep up with demand.
“A lot of people in our culture are conditioned to the silver bullet approach: you take a pill for a few days, and it cures what ails you right away,” Jeff says. “But there’s a growing interest in staying healthy through herbs. They’re more safe, gentle, and effective if you use them judiciously, over long periods of time, to build up a response.”
The Carpenters have built their farm on the success of past ventures and experiences. As the stepdaughter of Rosemary Gladstar —a nationally-known herbalist—Melanie, now 33, grew up immersed in plant lore; Jeff, 38, had a family background in dairy farming; and the Carpenters had previously owned an herbal product business in Vermont that helped them build connections within the herb world and supplied them with a ready-made base of customers when the Carpenters switched from processing and manufacturing herbs to growing them.
“We decided we loved plants and wanted to focus on them,” Jeff explains, “so we sold our first business, Sage Mountain Herb Products, to get the deposit to put down for the farm. We only planted one acre that first year, and we sent our new catalog of herbs to all our former Sage Mountain clients. Since we sold everything we produced, we planted more the next year, and then more, to meet the demand. At this point we plant five acres (out of ten), and we plan to stay with that.”
To ensure that their herbs—and their business —flourish in the face of Vermont’s short growing season, the Carpenters mostly grow plants that are native or naturalized to the area, including hawthorn berries, lemon balm, skullcap, and St. John’s wort. The choice of herbs as their product also relieves them of the challenges that can undermine a vegetable grower’s success: there’s little replanting cost, since most herbs are perennials; there’s no refrigeration costs, since herbs can be dried and stored; and there’s minimal loss due to spoilage.
Another reason for the farm’s success is the fact that it’s one of only a handful of medicinal herb farms in Vermont. But what really seems to drive its continuing growth is customers’ eagerness for what Zack Woods offers. “There was instantly a huge demand,” Jeff recalls, “because people would go into health food stores and see these big jars filled with what I call ‘mass market herbs’ that come from the Far East and Europe, where they use questionable agricultural practices and don’t have quality concern in mind. Those herbs are harvested by big machines and dried in the sun, so they lose many of their medicinal qualities that way.”
“We, on the other hand, strive for the finished dried product to resemble its live form as closely as possible in color, look, smell and medicinal constituents. We wildcraft, which means that some of our herbs—such as Hawthorn berries and wild cherry bark—are sustainably harvested from our own certified organic land, and we produce the rest of our herbs by feeding the soil the proper nutrients, harvesting by hand, and using strict standards for how the herbs are dried and stored. Customers really like that we’re certified organic and locally produced.”
Customer response has been so positive in fact, that the Carpenters are expanding their marketing efforts this year. They’ll continue to sell fresh, dried, and live herb plants via their web site, but are also placing some products in Vermont retail outlets, including Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier, Buffalo Mountain Coop in Hardwick, the Plainfield Coop, LACE in Barre, and Healthy Living in Burlington.
They’ll also continue to sell wholesale to establishments like Brattleboro’s Twilight Tea Lounge, whose owner, Anneka Kindler, uses Zack Woods herbs in teas she blends herself. “We have a big localvore community here,” Anneka says, “and a lot of people specifically ask for local products. But we also buy from local suppliers like Zack’s because fresh herbs have so much more flavor that most people notice it right away. Skullcap, for example, isn’t bitter when it’s fresh, but it gets that way when it’s been on the shelf awhile. And freshness also makes an herb’s medical value more potent.”
In addition to their work of growing and selling herbs, the Carpenters received a grant from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, funded through the USDA) to research and grow medicinal plants native to Vermont that are threatened by a loss of habitat or over-harvesting. “Ginseng is an example,” Jeff explains. “It used to be plentiful in Vermont’s woodlands, but it’s threatened now, due to a huge market demand. We grow threatened plants at our farm, making a cultivated version of it available to encourage people not to take it from the wild. That way, the wild populations can live on undisturbed for future generations. Goldenseal, black cohosh, ginseng, arnica, and bloodroot are the main herbs we’re trying to protect right now.”
For those new to the use of herbs as a way to improve and restore health, Jeff has some “sage” words of advice. “You can make teas from medicinal herbs, and those that don’t taste very good can be made into tinctures, but you should seek out a qualified practitioner before you start. Some plant medicines are super strong, and you don’t want to use them without knowing the exact dose. One of the best references is ‘Family Herbal,’ by Rosemary Gladstar, and I also like ‘Holistic Herbal,’ by David Hoffman. Reading those books is a good start, but it’s important to consult with someone, too.”
To buy herbs directly from Zack Woods, visit www.zackwoodsherbs.com. To learn how to use herbs for health from qualified practitioners or through classes, contact an herb school such as the Vermont Center for Integrated Herbalism in Montpelier, (802) 613-1018.
Photo courtesy of Zack Woods Farm
HERBS FOR HEALTH
The most popular medicinal herbs for cold weather are ones that boost the immune system. These include:
GARLIC: An “herbal antibiotic” with anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, garlic also lowers cholesterol, is high in minerals, boosts the immune system, and is good for circulatory and digestive health. “Cook with it as often as you can,” Jeff advises. “Remember that food is medicine.”
GOLDENSEAL: Like garlic, goldenseal has anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. Because it doesn’t make a tasty tea, however, most people take it in tincture form.
ECHINACEA ROOT: One of Zack Woods’ best-sellers, echinacea boosts the immune system. It’s commonly taken in tea form; Jeff recommends steeping 1-2 tablespoons of cut, sifted root in 8-12 ounces of water for 3-5 minutes at the onset of cold symptoms. Drink two cups a day for up to a week, “but don’t use it long term,” Jeff cautions. “It’s an immune system stimulant, so you don’t want to overdo.”
Year-round, certain teas have proven to be “perennial” bestsellers at Zack Woods, including:
STINGING NETTLES: “I could probably plant all 10 acres with nettles and still sell out of it,” Jeff says. “Nettle is popular because it’s one of most readily assimilated sources of plant minerals and vitamins you can get, and it tastes great. It’s like a good green tea, earthy and pleasant tasting. A lot of people like to blend it with peppermint or lemon balm.”
MILKY OATS: The head of the oat plant makes a great tea for overall well-being and nourishing of the nervous system.
PEPPERMINT: “Some people find peppermint stimulating and some find it soothing, but it’s definitely refreshing and helps digestion,” Jeff explains.
VALERIAN: This herb is a great sleep aid, and is one of Zack Woods Farm’s best-sellers. “But because its taste is so strong,” Jeff adds, “most people make it into a tincture or take it in capsule form.”
— Rhiannon Hutchinson