We’ve talked about a number of farming operations and business models on the show ranging from field operations to microgreens operations, to online sales to CSA subscriptions. In this episode, we’re going to talk about something different, something not a lot of people have heard about. We’re going to talk about a medicinal plant farming operation.
Today’s Guest: Lindsay Napolitano
Lindsay Napolitano is a trained herbalist who started growing her own herbs together with her partner, now husband, who has been a longtime vegetable grower. Today, they manage their own medicinal herb CSA while creating new, pre-formulated products.
In this episode of Farm Small, Farm Smart
- Diego introduces this week’s episode (00:35)
- Lindsay’s interest in medicinal herbs (02:18)
- Beginning the process of succession (04:57)
- How the property, the landscape, and herbalism fell into place (07:20)
- The challenges of an experimental farm model in the beginning (12:24)
- The biggest is the mental hurdle (14:13)
- A wild system that mingles with cultivation (16:02)
- Wild plants are resilient and can adapt to a dynamic climate (19:33)
- Overcoming stressors becomes a catalyst for change (22:20)
- Business and production: ‘pampering’ plants that need to thrive (23:10)
- Astragalus, a wonderful medicinal plant (25:20)
- Invasive plant management and utilization (27:24)
- Not medicinal herbs per se, but medicinal plant medicine (29:18)
- Are the plants that grow well in your area the best plants you can utilize, or do you still have to do a bit of reaching? (29:53)
- A tense relationship with the landscape (32:57)
- Making a minimal impact on the environment (35:28)
- How much of a mental leap are medicinal herbs from the vegetable perspective (36:08)
- Are you losing a lot of the medicinal properties if a plant doesn’t match its natural conditions? (39:50)
- Do you have to be a trained herbalist if you plan to grow medicinal plants? (44:00)
- From a business standpoint, can this model be reproducible? (48:46)
- It goes back to what you want to achieve (50:43)
- How a medicinal herb CSA program works (55:33)
- Evolved into a range of products (57:10)
- Different seasons, different products (58:48)
- Selling as a CSA model vs. selling from an online store (01:00:36)
- Resources for anyone who wants to take a stab at growing medicinal herbs (01:04:35)
- Where to follow Lindsay and her farm (01:06:40)
- The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer: The Ultimate Guide to Producing High-Quality Herbs on a Market Scale by Jeff and Melanie Carpenter
Get it on Barnes and Noble | Walmart | Amazon
- The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production by Peg Schafer
Get it on Barnes and Noble | Walmart | Amazon
- The Medicinal Herb Grower: A Guide for Cultivating Plants That Heal: 1 First Edition by Richo Cech and Sena Kimi Cech
Get it on Amazon
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Diego: [00:00:00] Maybe you're interested in small scale farming and you're looking for a more regenerative approach. And vegetables really aren't your thing. Have you thought about growing medicinal herbs? Today, I'm talking to a grower who grows them and sells them via CSA. It's a really unique model. Stay tuned to find out all about it. Coming up.
Welcome to the world of farming small and farming smart. I'm your host, Diego. Today, I'm talking about a subject that I've never covered on the show before medicinal herbs represent a subset of plants that can be grown on a very small scale in a very large scale, they can be grown on the fringes of your property or the zone five, the forgotten areas of your property, or they can be grown in areas that see a lot of maintenance in your zone, ones and twos, their plants, which can grow native in your area requiring very little cultivation. And there's also plants that might come from outside your biome that are gonna require special care to get the results that you want out of them. So in many ways, growing medicinal herbs is similar to growing vegetables, but in many ways it's different.
To talk about what growing medicinal herbs is really like on a commercial scale, I'm talking to Lindsay Napolitano of Fields without Fences. Lindsay�s somebody who's a trained herbalist and somebody who's been growing medicinal herbs for a number of years. She's growing a variety of medicinal herbs, both for commercial sales and for property regeneration on her farm in New Jersey. And she's seeing a lot of success doing it.
And I define success loosely here, because as Lindsay we'll talk about in this episode, a lot of what you're looking to get out of something comes down to your own individual goal articulation. Why are you doing it? And what are you after? It's going to be a different answer for everybody. Today, you're going to hear Lindsey's take on what it's like to sell and grow medicinal herbs while restoring a property at the same time, let's jump right into it. With Lindsay Napolitano of Fields without Fences. Lindsay, how did you initially get interested in medicinal herbs?
Lindsay Napolitano: [00:02:20] My introduction to medicinal herbs is very much tied to this particular plot of land. And when we started beginning cultivation on our small farm, which is 10 acres. we've since expanded a bit, but we started on 10 acres. we were dealing with a severely degraded landscape. there was no top soil left. it was pretty much just a compacted clay subsoil. my partner had been in annual vegetable farming for a number of years, I think probably about 10 years at that point.
And the traditional modalities of annual vegetable cultivation were simply not possible on the site because it was in such a severely degraded state. But the irony is that it was historically farmed agricultural lands. So we started asking ourselves, how did the landscape get to a state where it is no longer traversable by, machine or plow, or even by.
BCS or even by foot at certain times of year, how did it get to that Steed? And, through that process, we really started to turn our attention more towards hybridizing, ecological restoration, and agricultural production. Now I'm going to get to the medicinal herbs in that trajectory because oftentimes when we look at.
Natural systems of succession. what happens when you have really ground zero in terms of plant communities existing and for us, we were, there was standing anaerobic water all over the soil. So it really was just sedges and, some thorny multi-floor arose, but there wasn't really a whole lot of plant diversity onsite.
So when we initially began, our farm plan, which had a long view of an ecological restoration till, and that we eventually wanted to move it back into a native forest ecosystem, that would have been typical to the area, prior to agricultural development, some 300 years back in this particular area.
And When you begin that process of succession, at least here in the Northeast, what it usually begins with is an introduction of, of, or this first pioneer species, proliferation of your, what are generally called weeds. So you have, your dandelions and your plantations and your, Docs coming in.
And a lot of them have a really thick root that functions to de compact the soil. And then over time, the soil changes that take place, give rise to the next succession, which is usually a mosaic meadow, which is typically a lot of herbaceous perennials. And then you start moving into the brambles. And so why this is important to the processes because.
A lot of those plants that come in and function as plant medicine in the landscape are also the same plants that we use, from an herbal perspective as plant medicine for the body. And so this reflect this reflective process that was happening in terms of, what is. What plants are a therapeutic advantage in transitioning a degraded landscape wound up opening up this whole field of how are these plants actually therapeutic too.
the human body, as its own landscape. And so there was a lot of overlap there and my introduction to farming as well as my introduction to herbalism mostly came out of those early stages of really developing a connection. With the plant communities that were in this particular area and a desire to learn how to use them, both therapeutically in the landscape, but also recognize their value from a physiological perspective, within the body.
So from there, I. Did several years of self study in herbalism. And then I transitioned into a formal education program, that I did for four years. And, and that was the start. That was the initial spark. And it really came through this deep connection to what was happening, in our own locally ecology.
Diego: [00:06:55] Hearing that story, did this introduction to these plans, which were therapeutic for the landscape, as you said, and then also therapeutic for the body come about by chance or did when you purchase the property was the idea, we want to do something here. And one of the thoughts was, herbalism, medicinal herbs could be at an eventual Avenue or was there another thought. And then once you started really digging into the property, you realize, okay, this is really degraded. We're going to have to go this route.
Lindsay Napolitano: [00:07:29] Yeah, it's a much more sorted story than that. This particular farm is ag was actually a purchase made, by my mother-in-law, as a short sale. And it was abandoned and there was a barn that was burnt down in the 1980s.
Nobody cleaned it up. The bank had owned the house and turned off all the utilities. And initially my, husband's well he was my boyfriend at the time, but he said, my mom bought this house a few years ago. It's been sitting empty. What do you think about moving out there for a couple months and helping to fix up the house?
And, that was seven and a half years ago. So life took a little bit, a bit of a, winding course since then, but initially we once, we had always. had an eye on medicinal herbs because we used herbal products. as far as our growing them. That became more of an interest as a tangential aspect to vegetable growing.
So when my husband was working at animal vegetable farms elsewhere, he was always growing medicinal herbs on the side, and it was very much a secondary endeavor when we moved here and we. Started moving towards a, an ecological restoration approach and understanding that we were going to be doing a polyculture forest garden, set up eventually of course, cause these things happen in situ in succession.
It's not as if one day you have bare soil and then the next day you have a forest garden. we said, How do we utilize the innovation layer, which is going to be very important, especially in the early phases of establishment. And then it was a pretty clear picture at that point of, okay, we need to incorporate these medicinal plants, both from, as I mentioned, a therapeutic, The component to the cology, but also because it, dovetailed with our own interests in terms of that we were using natural products.
we were interested in herbal medicine, and, and then it unfolded from there. So it wasn't a clear path and that we went out, we bought a property and we said, Oh, we're gonna, we're gonna do a polyculture forest garden system on it. At all, it was more, really a curiosity that began to unfold initially.
and it was very much experimental because in that time there weren't any available models of a commercial farm in a forest garden. design schematic. There were of course, forest gardens all over the world, but looking at the materials coming out of, our agricultural, community or Rodale or any of the available models for starting or orchards or vegetable operation, there wasn't anything that.
Explicitly, outlined ways to approach what we were looking to do. So that very much became an experimental component to what we were doing, knowing full well that on the one hand, we're working with a very degraded landscape. And on the other hand, we're working with a very experimental model. so we treaded, slow.
And steady, with our progress, and also, a somewhat experimental market in that we were primarily growing herbs, medicinal herbs, and some culinary herbs. in the first few years of the operation, before our Berry started to come in and rounded out our offerings, and this is a somewhat experimental product to be bringing to markets. There were a lot of uncertainties in the process and continue to be to a certain extent.
Diego: [00:11:20] What were some of the big challenges with that experimental farm model in the beginning?
Lindsay Napolitano: [00:11:25] what we started doing was layer in different operations. So we would look at an orchard plan, out of Rodale and then we would say, okay, what happens if we remove this portion of trees and cert, Very shrubs here.
And then what happens if we modify the very shrubs and then do, X amount of feet of a particular herb? and so when we were looking at it, it was challenging at the beginning, just from a planning process, because there weren't any models existing, as I said. so that was very much, it was somewhat of a challenge.
What was more challenging was actually beginning to inactive, in the landscape. And part of that was because we were getting. So much kickback from, just the degraded state that we were dealing with in terms of the soil conditions, in terms of the existing plant communities, it was an experimental model.
So we weren't necessarily investing in employees. we were doing it on our own. We were working part time. so all of these. We were working in a successional capacity and we were working with polycultures, meaning that we were doing all mixed plantings. so there was a lot of dynamism and a lot of movement into what was happening.
And I think in the beginning, the, and I actually have talked about this with, with Mark Shepherd before, because he went through a similar process. What becomes the most challenging part. Is the mental leap that you need to make in order to surrender the tendency towards micromanagement and control to a sincere collaboration with the plant world.
And so once you get over that mental hurdle, because it's really hard to do because there's this tendency to, want to have very neat rows and wanting to be weed free and wanting to have, a particularly structured relationship, all of which is valuable in a commercial operation, but at the same time, when you're working with a dynamic system, that's changing in a succession, every capacity, you have to have flexibility in that.
And so more and more, we transitioned our thinking less about, okay, let's put this exact Irv here and transitioned more into how can we stack populations, within the context of this farm, meaning that we want to see certain plants proliferate. How do we give them the opportunity to, To freely reproduce themselves and we want to see less of other populations of plants.
So how do we interrupt those reproductive cycles? And at that point, it transitioned into, I always joke that my husband does a lot of, consulting offsite now and traveling and, I mostly tend the farm by myself and I always joke, like how does one woman farm 10 acres, In deep collaboration with the plant world. So that I think was the most challenging aspect is breaking free from, the confines of traditional modalities for management and interaction with the landscape.
Diego: [00:14:34] A lot of people listening to this they're in the Veg world and they have a nice, neat rows that are weed-free there's quote �order� there. And there's a lot of management to maintain that human derived order. Hearing what you're doing, and just what you said, one woman, 10 acres, you're managing it. What's going into your day to day management of this? Is it a wild system that you're just harvesting from? Or is there more cultivation in interaction than that?
Lindsay Napolitano: [00:15:09] The answer is yes. And yes, it's very much so there's plantings. If you go out, you'll see our rows are dominated primarily by elderberry, but interspersed in the, within the elderberry plantings are, pawpaw trees, persimmon trees, Apple trees, walnuts, pears, in the beneath the elders we have, current school spirit, moved gooseberries out of the system.
we had some brambles, and then your basis layer is fairly wild. So typically how I'm introducing plants into a system is that I'm planting out populations that I want to see proliferate onsite, and I'm choosing a location to plant them in. I'm not tied to them staying in that. Particular location though.
So the idea is to give a certain amount of autonomy to the plants onsite. Once they've been introduced, I have my idea of where I would like to go, but I'm not tied to them staying there, especially because. What kind of gets lost, especially in the, in, sometimes in the permaculture world a bit that gets very like design heavy, is this idea that you're going to put a plant somewhere and it's just going to stay there forever and be happy.
And that's not the way that plants work, particularly perennial plants because the ecology shifts and it changes over time. And conditions change, light exposure changes. The actual substrate of the soil will change. And with each one of those modifications that are made all of the sudden certain, niches within the system no longer become hospitable to the plants that once were there.
So I give a lot of flexibility in terms of what, where the plants actually want to express themselves on site. So in that regard, Over time, it does become more and more of a wild system. And that is part of a larger mission in what we're doing. And that, there's many virtues to wild plants, not the least of which is that we are in a very critical transitional time, as far as, the climate is concerned, even just observing the last number of seasons in our local area have had wild fluctuation.
We know based on current projections that the plants are not necessarily migrating at a rate that is going to keep up with climate change. So part of dealing with a dynamic, changing climate is that you really need to have resilient plants and a resilient plant stock. Wild plants are resilient.
So we dry farm. We don't irrigate. You have any irrigated since 2015, I think was the last time. do we lose some plants? Yes, but the ones that stick around are highly resilient. they have autonomy in terms of reproductive potential. They are by no means, fanned and, mulched and, pampered and whatnot.
And we really put a certain amount of, of stress on the plants and stress. Is a little bit of a misnomer, but I can't think of a better word to explain what it is because it's not stress in the pejorative context that we often think of stresses. When I say stress, what I mean is, dynamic interaction in relationship.
So how do plants actually derive their, They're medicinally active chemical constituents. they derive them as secondary metabolites. how are those secondary metabolites developed they're developed in response to. Environmental stressors. So for instance, you're going to have a higher volatile oil content on, in, on a Mediterranean herbs.
If you've got a certain amount of, of drought stress on plant, of course, there's a tipping point to all of this, but this is where the actual medicine in the plant is derived from this autonomous wild. Relationship, with its surroundings, that's not so much mediated by a human, by human intervention.
So I was talking to somebody recently and they were telling me they had a hydroponic operation and they were like, Oh yeah, we're growing herbs. And our hydroponic, operation, which is. for those people, for those who don't know, it's indoor growing facility where I'm very much temperature regulated and, nutrients are dispensed at, regular intervals.
And I was like, huh, thinking to myself, like, how do you get a strong herb out of that? Because that's really taking away. Like I said, the opportunity for these. Secondary metabolites to develop in response to, to relationship. And, as an herbalist, I always liked to look at the external ecology and mirror to the internal ecology meeting.
What's happened in our happening, in our own body processes or what's happening in our own life. And, I think an easy way to look at it is from your own, the standpoint of your own, life experience, which is to say. You've been in relationship with the world. You've had wonderful things happen in your life, and you've had really challenging and, difficult things happened.
And each time that you were able to overcome the challenges in your life or overcome the stressors that may, may come into your experience, that is a catalyst for. Change within you. It's a catalyst for resilience and it's a catalyst for developing your own medicine story in the same way that being in that autonomous relationship in the wild is a way that the plants develop their medicine story.
Diego: [00:21:02] Thinking of that and thinking of establishing some of these herbs on site, is there a little bit of pampering that has to happen early on where maybe there are certain herbs within the herbalist repertoire that you want to be able to offer those in certain products. But to get them onsite. It's a little tricky.
And on one hand you have you referenced Mark Shepherd, his stun technique, sheer, total utter neglect. You put it out there, it survives. Great. If it doesn't, it's not meant to grow there. But then on the other side, if you're coming at this from a business perspective and there was these herbs, we need to offer this. It could grow here. When you're establishing all this on site. How much did you have to. Probably not the best word, but pamper some of these to get them to take. In terms of the ones you wanted?
Lindsay Napolitano: [00:21:56] I will say this, I, as far as Mediterranean herbs grow, we're on a very wet site. we're also in the very humid Northeast with very cold winters.
So I primarily keep my Mediterranean or production, inside of a high tunnel where I can control for the temperature. So I stress them out a little bit. I don't do too much watering. I keep it hot. and again, a nice quality or. So it's not necessarily a pampering, but it is a specific, environment that I'm creating for those plants to develop, the volatile oils they need to develop and to also be able to survive, the New Jersey winters.
And we happen to be at about 400 degrees or 400 feet elevation here, on us. Somewhat a slight slope. So we do have a little bit of a colder microclimate happening. So in order to get them to overwinter and in order to get, a nice aromatic herbs out of them, I do cultivate those in high tunnels. As I mentioned, a lot of medicinal plants that respond well to, degraded.
Soil types. In fact, there's one plant that I'm thinking of. That's really funny. It's this plant called astragalus and it's Chinese, or, and so in China, if you buy the herbs, you get this really fat root, and it's really potent and this wonderful medicinal plant. but the problem is a lot of herb growers in, In America or in, in the Northeast, they're planting it in this really wonderful tilty garden soil.
And so what winds up happening is that when you pull up the root, you get this like really small route and it's withered and it's not very medicinally active. And the reason for that is because that particular plant, again, it goes back to responding to its environment and developing its own secondary metabolites in response to that. That plant grows in really degraded soils. That's where it's meant to grow. it doesn't do well. And until the garden soil, now speaking to the larger point of, there's some herbs that you need to have. I adjust my thinking on this a little bit more each year, because.
What am I actually trying to achieve by growing plants that aren't meant to grow in a particular area in that area through intervention, that intervention is an expense. It's an energy resource. And frequently it's unnecessary because the more and more that you familiarize yourself with the plants that are actually growing on site, the plants that are uniquely tuned to your particular eco type.
The more that you build your knowledge of herbs in general, you realize that there's so much you can achieve from a medicinally active standpoint with what you already have growing in your region. So I'm trained in Chinese medicine and trained in Western herbalism. I'm trained in Cherokee medicine, trained in Ayurveda.
there are invasive plant, so quote unquote invasive plants that are, coming out of the Asiatic region that I regularly harvest on site. I'm actually teaching a class later this year that I'm really excited about called, invasive plant medicine, where I'm going to go over how to actively manage, harvest and use, invasive medicinal plants, in a way that limits their spread in the landscape, and also provides an abundant resource to utilize through herbal medicine.
It really is, again, it goes back to that mental leap of saying, okay, I'm looking online at all these examples of herb farms and they're growing X, Y, and Z. so you know, I'm going to grow that and if you have challenging site conditions in particular, I would urge people to consider, what is the benefit and what is the parallel to that particular course?
So early on, I tried to grow, I tried to do Volk rider for sale and I was growing a tremendous amount of very popular medicinal plants and. Nobody was really buying them. People were going to the established, mountain Rose and, frontier herbs, and, some of those big earth purveyors and they weren't really finding, little Fields without Fences, on the coast of the Delaware river here.
So at a certain point I realized it really doesn't make sense for me to be growing all of these medicinal herbs for people to buy in bulk. And what I really need to be focusing on is developing plant medicine. That is very much a reflection of. My environment or a reflection of what plants are, are available to me in this particular region.
They grow well on this site that respond well to this site. And so since then, I've more and more just developed my herbal product line really based around what is most appropriate for my ecological context.
Diego: [00:27:06] Do you find that given the plants that you can grow well there locally that you then produce products that are best suited for people living in that area?
What I'm thinking is if somebody is listening to this are intrigued, they could be listening in Vancouver, BC. They could be listening here in California. They could be listening in Nevada. Do they just look for the stuff that grows well on their site? And then you use your herbalism toolkits and you will be able to find enough products to make out of that stuff that grows well in your area? Or are you going to have to reach across biomes and stretch some to round out your offering enough?
Lindsay Napolitano: [00:27:48] I don't really know the right answer to that. I only know what my perspective is on my own experience. and also what I feel to be most appropriate for. The locally ecology, wherever you are.
and I think a lot of time and a lot of effort and a lot of energy and a lot of resources grow, go into growing plants outside of there. natural. Growing trajectory. So for instance, around here, when may rolls around, it's like tomato fever. Everybody's like, where's the tomatoes at the farmer's market, And in order for growers in our area to even get tomatoes out, by, July. They need to be started in heated high tunnels, around this time of year. And so all this energy goes into growing these tomatoes to get them out to market as soon as possible. And the reason that doesn't directly apply to what we're talking about, but it applies in the sense of how much resource.
And energy expenditure. Are you going to be putting into your endeavor? So if it's your goal to be in earth purveyor, who is going to be readily stocked with every single popular herbs that people are looking for and you want to grow potent herbal medicine. So you're going to be making all kinds of modifications to your growing area, to get the most, optimal, vital plant out of that.
You can, just from a permaculture perspective, it's like that's part of your goal articulation process. that's part of what you were signing up to do. That doesn't work for me. that's not the way that I like to interact with my landscape. I w I changed, there was a period years ago where I found myself getting very uptight about, About what was growing, how fast it was growing, where it was growing.
and what it was doing was it was creating this really tense relationship with my landscape. And what does that mean for growers? most of the time and, we do permaculture consulting and going through the school articulation process. A lot of times people. Come to the details portion too quickly, where they say, I want to be an herbal CSA grower, or I want to be a medicinal herb grower that offers, X, Y, and Z herbs.
When in reality, when you really start to peel back and distill what's happening, it might just be that you want to spend more time outside. Or maybe you just want to develop a closer relationship with the plant world, or maybe you really just want to provide something healthy to your community and feel like you're contributing.
And so those kinds of abstract motivations are what's going to always be the subconscious guiding force in whatever you're doing. So for me, I started to develop this relationship where I was getting really uptight with the demands that I was imposing on a landscape that didn't want to do what I wanted it to do.
And in that process, there's this constriction that begins to happen. There's this mental. Tightening. And once you begin the process of mental tightening, you really cut off the lines of communication and developing new ways of interacting, in a collaborative spirit with the natural world. so you wind up doing things that you're just doing because everybody else did them before.
So how do you do something? Oh, I looked it up and says, you do it this way. So now I'm going to go out and I'm going to do it this way. And. again, just bring it back to your own life. It's like when you blindly follow the lead, not only does it often leave you lead you down a path that isn't reflective of your true nature.
but it becomes a source of. Contention and challenge and difficulty often unnecessarily in your life. So should people be looking to what is growing well in their area? And I don't mean just what's growing, in the native ecology or just what's growing in terms of weeds or, invasive species or onsite.
also if you're in California, you're probably growing really great Mediterranean herbs. And they're probably going to do really well. They're certainly less than they do here in the Northeast. so more looking into environmentally, how can I make more of a minimal impact, in terms of what my energy time, fossil fuel input, is going to be, with regard to needs for cultivation.
Diego: [00:32:19] I think that's really well said. For somebody who's a traditional vegetable grower, and they want to get into growing some medicinal herbs. Let's just say for personal use, how much are they going to have to do that mental leap that you talked about to grow some of these herbs well? If they're used to tending crops, tilty soil, like you mentioned before, how much of a difference does it make when you have a pampered medicinal herbs growing in really nice quote, vegetable conditions, versus if you let it grow in the conditions that should be grown in, is there a dramatic results there and if somebody is going to make this leap or start doing this, how much of a mental jumper they're going to have to take?
Lindsay Napolitano: [00:33:12] it's case specific for each plant. some plants, I don't want to draw a line and say, no medicinal herbs are growing to grow well until the soil, because that's also not a complete picture. plenty of annual, herbs grow really well in, till the soil. And, you look at it from the perspective of, just annuals versus perennials versus, every plant has its own.
Conditions that it's going to prefer. if you're a growing clench Villa in your garden beds, that's a really great plant to introduce into a vegetable garden and to plant, in a polyculture or, introduce so that you're going to be drawing. more insects into your vegetable garden.
you're also going to be able to pick the flowers from that either, make a tea or how I prefer to use that plant, which is infused in an oil. It has this really high resonance content to it. So it's very therapeutic to, the epithelial layer of the skin. so you know, there, it's hard to talk about with a sweeping generalization because there are.
Different plants that prefer different conditions, but if you're growing for your own home use, I would start by looking at well, what do you enjoy? What's in your cabinet right now? and write down all of those ingredients and then take a look at them and say, okay, which one of these, is going to grow well in my garden.
And also the other side of that, It start looking outside of your garden and start looking to the margins of your property. Start looking to the Woodland edges or the wild spaces and start cultivating a relationship with the plants. That are growing there. So you can familiarize yourself with your, native plant community or your invasive plant community or your, weeds that have been around your area for hundreds of years.
And through that process, often I'll do a plant walk and I'll spend, maybe 15 minutes on one particular plant and then remind everybody that we've only scratched. The tip of the iceberg of what this plant can do. so th the virtues of, of particularly medicinal species are so robust and, and often overlap in terms of, what, which cultures use them.
some of these plants strip stretch across the entire, temperate region. Of the globe. So you can find uses for them in, Chinese medicine, you can find uses for them in, Iroquois traditions. So it's about getting, Getting your basic needs met in terms of what are you regularly using.
And if you want to cultivate that for yourself, but then also opening up the space for expanding your knowledge and your understanding of your local environment, I guess.
Diego: [00:36:05] So the second part of that, if the conditions don't match the natural conditions in which that plant would normally grow, are you having something that's really sub-par? Like you mentioned, I think astragalus in the root being smaller or drought stressing some plants and having oil contents go up. How much is that happening? Again, I go back to pampering. Are you really losing a lot of the medicinal properties of a plant? Sweeping generalization maybe needed here. I know it's tough to do, to say, but just more as a 30,000 foot view, is it yes?
Lindsay Napolitano: [00:36:48] I think to a degree, yes. That said if you are growing your own herbs or if you are getting herbs from a local grower, you are already, tenfold, Ahead in potency than anything that you're going to buy coming from overseas, because most of the herbs that are coming from whether it's Eastern Europe or China, or, even India, to a certain extent, these herbs are being harvested with, Highly mechanistic equipment, which is generating heat, which is opening up the cell walls of the plants, which is losing volatile compounds.
they're then being stored in warehouses for, months, if not years they're being shipped overseas, they're going, sitting in, various different holding places before they make it onto the shelf. And, into a product that you were using. there's a scalability to it and that if you're growing herbs, for yourself or herbs that are growing locally, they're going to have, more of a freshness and thus.
More of a medicinal activity, versus something that you're getting that sort of withered and Brown and sitting on the grocery store shelf or, who knows how long, that said there are certain plants that I use. one in which, or two that I'm thinking of are, they're I, a few products that I use ginger and tumeric in, and those are two plants.
Okay, so now I don't want to get too technical on this. So I'm just going to use the tumeric example. Cause the ginger is a little bit more nuanced, but in the case of tumeric, I don't grow that. And the reason that I don't grow that, I actually buy it from India to incorporate into this one product that I have it in.
And the reason for that is because the temperature conditions in India are the S that the tumeric is much more potent than anything I could grow here. I simply don't have a long enough of the season here. and I, and the tumeric will not get to the state of maturity than it needs to get to really have the medicinal activity that I won't see it.
That said, I have tons of friends who grow tumeric, in our area each season. And it's great. They sell it at the farmer's market, great culinary plant. But, I'm really trying to get, to mix one of our most potent anti-inflammatories if I'm using that in my products or if I'm using that for a client because, I'm a clinical herbalist.
So I, I also see clients and prepare medicine for them, that. I need that to be highly concentrated. And so in that case, I'm buying that in from a region of the world where that plant grows to its full maturity. Just to recap two sides. On the one hand, you're going to get a lot more fresh and thus potent herbs, if you're growing them yourself, or if you're purchasing them locally. On the other hand, there are those certain plants that you really, really need the conditions of the local environment, which they're meant to be grown in order to reach their therapeutic potential.
Diego: [00:39:47] Hearing you talk about these herbs, you've a lot of knowledge about them. You've studied them. And you mentioned early on, you went down the road of selling bulk herbs, and that was a challenge. If somebody is going to grow these types of plants as a business, do they have to be a trained herbalist? If you're growing vegetables, you don't have to be a chef. The chefs can buy it home. people can buy it most.
Average people can take these bulker herbs and do anything with them other than maybe throw them in some water and boil them. So do you need that expertise as part of your service? Because really at the end of the day, you're selling a value added product?
Lindsay Napolitano: [00:40:31] Yeah, absolutely. If you're selling a value added product and you're selling it by structure, function, claims, then you need to know what you're doing. For sure if you're growing. That's what worked in my case, but that is not necessarily the same case for everyone. So for instance, you could develop a relationship with someone who's already making herbal products. A lot of herbalists that make products, they don't grow the herbs themselves.
And oftentimes they're going to. Local farmers in their area to get these plants from them. or alternatively, you could go to a major herbal product maker. something like, Or an herbal supplier. So I mentioned mountain Rose and frontier herbs, and you could set up a relationship with them to send them bulk herbs or sell them bulk herbs and have, do more like a contract grow with them.
And that would actually be a really wise. Business plan because it's very upfront and that you're making agreements with buyers, prior to growing what you're growing and your responsibility is to grow it, to harvest it. probably in some cases to do a small amount of processing on it, whether that means drawing it or, or gargling, Garbling is a term when we separate the leaf from, the STEM of the plant.
so maybe you're doing a small amount of processing on that and you just need some general knowledge based on each plant. If you're making herbal products, you absolutely need to be trained, in how to use that, plant medicine effectively and safely as well. So for the most part, plants are safe.
Relatively plants are a spectrum. So if you have on the one hand cameo, which is a plant that I would feel very comfortable giving to an infant on the other side of the spectrum, you have the plant like. Poke root, which in too high a dose is, you're a little bit too dead. there is, there's a spectrum in terms of, herbs and how they're used and when I'm making herbal products for my community, I'm not put I'm hanging out in the chamomile side of the spectrum because ultimately, I don't know who's using these products.
I don't know what pharmaceuticals they're on. I don't know what their lifestyle is. I don't know what kind of conditions they have. So I'm not introducing any plants. That have, any potential contra-indications for what they're already experiencing. And that involves a certain, level of knowledge and expertise, to be able to know what is appropriate and what makes sense, and also how to get proper extractions out of these plants, because once you start processing them, there's different solubilities to different chemicals within the plant.
And so you need to know how to get an optimal extraction. So sometimes, actually my teacher, my herbal teacher who is, David Winston. he would always kind of lament, that he'd be at a natural products expo and he'd see a new product out and, just be massively rolling his eyes because it's some plant in some, product that is in a completely.
Un-bioavailable form, meaning it's not going to be therapeutically active at all. So somebody put together this product is doing this massive launch behind it. And the product is not actually going to impart any medicinal activity to the user.
Diego: [00:44:03] In terms of running this as a business, how has it been for you in hindsight? Is it something that you feel like there's a viable business model here and with work, this type of model could be reproduced in other locations?
Lindsay Napolitano: [00:44:21] I think it goes in speaking from my own personal experience. It goes back to that idea of individualized goal articulation in terms of what you want to see out of it. So I like providing, plant medicine and herbals for my community. So that means my CSA members. That means, folks who frequent my online store or pop up markets at the farm. I'm not interested in taking all 30 of my products to a regional distribution level and getting them in stores all over. I actually have one product that I'm in, interested in doing that.
But when I do that, the reason that it's going to be one product. It was because of the, the GMPs that are in place in terms of making, herbal supplements. So you're held to the same standards that someone from say, like GNC, a GNC product would be held to, and it becomes very cost prohibitive to, launch an herbal business of any scale.
If you don't have a significant amount of money behind it. Now, if you're doing it on the small local level, I have people who just buy farm shares and they get, some herbal teas for me and things like that. it's more of a low stakes endeavor, but it's also more of a low profit endeavor.
So it goes back to this idea of goal articulation and that, what do you want to actually achieve, from your. Your cultivation and entry into medicinal herbs. I would say if you want to have a, if you want to have an herb farm, that is, grossing like 500 K plus, and you're able to employ people and all of that, then you definitely want to go for bulk sales.
And I also don't recommend doing plantings the way that I do plantings and polycultures and this and that because, herb growers on that level are growing entire fields of valerian. And that's the only thing growing in that field. because you need that sort of volume in order to be supplying wholesale bulk markets. Herbalism itself is unregulated.
So I have years of training. I'm an herbalist, Diego, if you wanted to hang a sign outside your office tomorrow, that said, Diego herbalist, We'd be on the same level, there's really, there's not a whole lot of monitors and so some people find that to be disconcerting or frustrating, but there's also an extent to which many of us find it to be very liberating because it allows us to, practice the type of herbalism that we want to practice without, too much.
Manipulation in terms of standardizing a particular approach or a particular practice in the way, for instance, like chiropractory, it might've been, standardized. So there's also not a lot of herbalists who are, rolling in the dough. not to say that people don't make an honest living and do well for themselves, but it's certainly not a get quick rich.
Endeavor. It involves a tremendous amount of knowledge, cultivation of relationship, authentic relationship with the plant world. understanding, in terms of ideal cultivation practices. And as with farming in general, my husband and I were talking about this the other day. And I don't know, I'm probably going to ruffle some feathers saying this, but I don't really care.
You can edit it out if you want. oftentimes there's this, the sort of reactionary thing that happens where it's does it make money? does it make money? yeah, but it does. It, does it make money? And oftentimes the people that are saying that are either people who are maybe interested in getting into farming, but aren't involved yet.
Or people who are just tangentially into farming and haven't actually farmed themselves because among conversations with growers in my community, whether they're orchardists or whether they're vegetable growers, or whether they're herb growers like myself or some hybrid thereof, nobody says that to each other because we all know how difficult it is to do this work.
And we all know how tenuous it is to do this work. And we're operating from a place. Where, yes, we all need to be able to make a living, but there are other goals that are motivating us. Otherwise we wouldn't be in this line of work. So sometimes when we get too angled in on the, I'm either going to do this because it makes money or I'm not going to do it, I would say definitely don't do it because, and that goes for all farming.
Just don't do it, especially if you're new to the game, because it involves a tremendous amount of knowledge, energy and especially to be an independent business owner and be doing your own marketing. And if you're doing products, I pour every single one of the bottles that I make.
It's I'm my own little elf shop. And so to be putting in that kind of energy, into something, to do it, just to make it a viable business, isn't going to sustain you. there's something else underneath it that said, can you make a living with a lot of planning and experience and knowledge and, understanding and pre-planning, and I think I said that already, but pre-planning to what you're doing. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Diego: [00:50:07] A few times you've mentioned your CSA program. Can you talk about how that works? Cause it's very different than a traditional vegetable CSA. people aren't just getting a box of looser herbs and I think people can join because you ship.
Lindsay Napolitano: [00:50:22] Yeah. our herbal CSA program has somewhat evolved over the last few seasons. I think we, our first season that we released it was in 2015. So I've been making, I started making my first teas and bombs and salves in 2013 and then slowly from there began making new products, testing them. And then I had a line of I think about 25 products by the time we launched it in 2015 and at that point I was still doing small, just the single herbs bags as well as the products, but then over time I noticed that the people that were joining my CSS come to me and they'd be like, I don't really know what I'm doing with this bag of herbs. I get the directions on the throat and lung elixir, when to use that, but I dunno what I'm doing with this little bag of herbs here.
So I slowly transitioned those out and I focused more on, just making the, so it isn't loose herbs. They are pre formulated products. So they are herbal teas. There are some body products themselves and bombs and infused oils. There are tinctures, which are, alcohol extracts of the plant.
There are elixirs, which are, more of a, honey alcohol extract of the plant. There are, Tonics, which are usually vinegar based. There are. What else do I have in there? Bitters, digestive, bitters. The CSA is released in four seasonal packages. There's one that gets released in spring, summer, fall, and winter.
And they're themed based on the energy of that particular season. So in the spring, I'm working a lot with gentle. detoxifying herbs like it's a cleansing time of year. It's also physiologically a time of year where, our metabolic processes changing. we have less insulin resistance than we do in the winter.
we're transitioning to have more, more energy because of the way that our liver is responding to that change in insulin resistance and, Our, kidneys are also beginning to work differently. So it, I theme that particular package to as like a spring cleanse package when the summer rolls around, that's more oriented towards, herbs that are demulcent or have a cooling quality because I'm trying to bounce the energy of.
The heat of the summer. a lot of those teas I recommend having chilled. I also have a, Some topical products that are really great to bring around in the summer when we're more engaged with activity and we're out on the hiking trail and we're getting, bites and stings and cuts and all of that.
there's a lot more topical products in the summer share. In the fall, I focus more on immune boosting going into the colder time of year. Again, the body's going under a certain amount of physiological change in terms of a thing. white blood cell content, higher inflammatory state, fighting to prepare and to fight infection.
So I'm dealing with a lot of herbs, or very acne, HSA root things that are going to tonify and boost your immune system. And then in the winter, I like to do some kind of fun. More real laxing products. Like I have a good night moon tank share. It's more of a time of rest and reflection. I have some dreams stimulating herbs.
I have, some relaxing teas. and also some. Pungent spicy herbs that are gonna help to, warm the body and balance the cold nature of the season. So I really try to specialize each package to be responsive to what is going on. Of course, this is speaking from, a temper climate perspective because people in different areas in the region might be having a different or see different experience with their own seasonality. That's local to them. But for my area, we're responding to a four-seasons climate experience.
Diego: [00:54:35] And have you found that CSA model that's been a good way to sell product versus say just having it in an online store?
Lindsay Napolitano: [00:54:43] To be honest? Yes and no. I think that the CSA gets people excited. I think it gets people interested in what we're doing and in the products, it introduces a lot of products to them. So they begin to understand, Oh, I really liked that. Or I really like that. On the other hand, maybe I didn't use that product at all.
but it's a nice way to grow our community that said, to be perfectly honest, I think that there's an extent to which, it's. Still a little bit of a novelty. So maybe if you have a vegetable CSA that you belong to, that you're going to have your vegetables every week, pretty much in perpetuity.
so that's something that maybe you're returning to every year with the herbal CSA. I have some people that have been with us for three, four years now and they come back every year. They love it. and then I have some people that. we'll do it for a year, then not do it for a year. cause maybe they have products leftover.
a lot of these are shelf stable products. So if you didn't use all of your products that year, you don't necessarily feel compelled to sign up the following year. and so part of the evolution of our CSA has been constantly trying to assess after each season, how we adjust our offering, how do we price point?
what is the sweet spot that we need to get to, in terms of creating more of a sustainable, so membership to it? that said, again, not to be. a ruffler and a naysayer, because I love this work and I love, my local organic community, a strong network of farmers out here.
we all know each other. We all have very close relationships and forthright, exchanges with one another. And I can tell you that. Across the board, CSA sales are down and that's not just in, the herbal CSA realm, but that's in, local vegetable operations. Part of it is a kind of market saturation level to it.
if you have a lot of farms coming up in one particular area, there's only a certain amount of the populous that's going to sign up for something like that to make an investment. The other side of it is that there are a lot of, I don't know what they're called, but they are their foods, livery services, like membership boxes that you can get, that like blue apron is one example that we have out here or like fresh nation.
and they basically are kind of middlemen that get. Produce from farms and, consolidated and then bid out through their channels and more and more probably out of convenience. people are starting to utilize those services more and less Oh, I'm going to the farm every week to pick up.
My CSA share. So I definitely have heard amongst my peers that overall, CSA membership gets a little bit more challenging every year. So part of working with that is the fact that we do offer shipping, because if we were to rely solely on our immediate community, I think it would be difficult to reach, the amount of people that we need to reach in order to fill the CSA.
So having the shipping option is nice because it allows us to appeal to a wider, extended community of herbal enthusiasts,
Diego: [00:58:11] And for people listening that want to take a stab at growing some of these plants on their own, whether for a business or just fun or personal use or to get to know them. Like you alluded to what are some good resources out there that you direct people to that gives people some cultural information in terms of how to cultivate these?
Lindsay Napolitano: [00:58:31] these. So there's a couple of really great books out, that are geared more towards commercial growers. And the two that immediately come to mind are, beliefs called the medicinal. For farmer, by Jeff and Melanie carpenter of Zachwoods farm.
And they put out a book a couple of years ago and they are commercial or growers. They do a lot of bulk herbs sales. So if you're looking interested in moving in that direction, they have a book out that's very informative in terms of, Planning, whether that's going to be planning your cultivation rows or also pricing and things like that.
There's also a book that came out a number of years ago called the Chinese medicinal or grower. that is a farm that cultivates. Explicitly, Chinese herbs. but it does go into more of a commercial farming aspect of it. if you're growing on a smaller scale or for personal use, Recho check, has a book, The medicinal herb grower volume one by Richo Chec. and that book is more oriented towards a smaller, cultivation, stat, smaller cultivation plots, but also some of the techniques can be applied to, larger scale production as well.
Diego: [00:59:55] Great. So there's been a ton of good information in this one.
Lindsay, you've shared a lot. It's a subject that we haven't talked about before for people that want to learn more about what you're doing to fall along to maybe come on one of the tours that you guys do on the farm, or get involved in the consulting or join the CSA. Where's the best place to go.
Lindsay Napolitano: [01:00:16] That would be Fields without Fences.org. That's our website. And, we have a lot of educational programming. we have, of course our online store or verbal products, or CSA membership, also the work that we do in the permaculture community, and, Yeah, just encourage everyone to reach out. and, yeah, say hi.
Diego: [01:00:41] there, you have it. Lindsay Napolitano of Fields without Fences. If you want to connect with Lindsay, be sure to check her out on Instagram. There's a link to that in the show description below. And if you want to learn more about her CSA, be sure to check out the link below as well, or you can check out her website, it Fields without Fences.org.
I really want to thank Lindsay for coming on the show today and sharing her experience, doing what she's doing, restoring a landscape and growing medicinal herbs in the process. I think it's a really interesting farming model. If you enjoyed this and you want to hear more about it. Or if you're somebody doing something similar on your farm growing medicinal herbs, and you're having success with it, however you define success.
Shoot me an email. I'd love have to talk more or I'd love to find out if you want to hear me talk more about subjects like this. So send me an email email@example.com and we can look to build future shows around this one. That's all for this one. Thanks for listening today. Next week, I'll be back with another small-scale farmer making a go of it between now and then keep hustling and crushing it and stay tuned until the next episode where it's all about farming Small and farming smarter.
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