Apothecary gardens fuel farm-to-medicine-cabinet movement

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Jamie Sims, 29, is an herbal farmer in the farm-to-medicine cabinet movement. He weeds a bed of calendula at Locust Light Farm in New Hope where he and his partner Amanda Midkiff grow their herbs.

At farmers' markets this season, alongside the kale and radishes, there are unaccustomed local offerings. Think tulsi bitters for digestion and relaxation, elderberry syrup for immune support, or raspberry leaf tea for pregnant women. Also new to farmers' market shoppers: disclaimers - that the wares are "not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease."

This is an offshoot of the farm-to-table movement: Call it the farm-to-medicine-cabinet movement.

It's powered by a new generation of farmer-herbalists like Amanda Midkiff, 26, who last year started Locust Light Farm in New Hope, one of a growing number of farm-based apothecaries in the area. Like others in the field, Midkiff started out growing vegetables, but she became enthralled with herbs after she tried nettle tea and found it cured her allergies. She wanted to share the discovery.

"If you want fresh vegetables, you can go to the supermarket or the farmers' market. You have lots of options," she said. "But there's not that much access to fresh local herbs."

That's changing, though, as she and others cultivate and forage the ingredients for their own teas, tinctures, elixirs, balms, smoking blends, and smudges. They're tapping into a growing interest in natural remedies - and a $30 billion herbal-supplement industry that includes everything from small farms up to your local GNC.

"People are getting exhausted with conventional health care and want to turn to something safe that doesn't have harmful side effects," said Midkiff. (Adverse effects from herbal supplements send an estimated 20,000 people a year to the emergency room, still fewer than the 700,000 annual emergency visits associated with pharmaceuticals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

But small producers also are running into financial hurdles and regulatory pitfalls, including the specter of being shut down by the Food and Drug Administration.

It's not yet a full-time living for most, including Midkiff, who with Jamie Sims, 29, sublets 1.1 acres.

It's slow, labor-intensive work, Midkiff said, as she cut stems of calendula to make a healing oil. The brilliant orange blossoms must be harvested by hand, just as they open, then laid out to dry slowly in the drying room, in the loft of a 1702 stone barn.

Midkiff makes her products in a kitchen she had certified for commercial use, then stores them in her basement apothecary, stocked with lavender buds and marshmallow leaves, dried and fragrant in five-gallon buckets, and California poppy petals soaking in jars of alcohol. Once they're processed into tinctures, salves, or smoking blends, they'll be sold online, in local stores, at farmers' markets, or via "community-supported wellness" subscriptions.

Asked how these remedies differ from the supplements sold in chain stores, Midkiff rolled her eyes. At those stores, she said, "there's a huge chance it's ground-up oregano." Fourteen states' attorneys general, including Pennsylvania's, last year demanded a congressional inquiry into the supplements industry after an investigation raised safety concerns.

Small producers say they are the answer to worries about impure supplements - but they are also under increased scrutiny from the FDA, which in the last year forced an apothecary farm in Maine to cease production, and another, in Vermont, to outsource its manufacturing.

That's one reason some herb growers, like Linda Shanahan of Barefoot Botanicals in Doylestown, are selling dried herbs, but are stopping short of making their own remedies.

Shanahan, a registered nurse, who sees herbs as an underutilized form of preventative medicine, recently converted her 18-acre vegetable farm to herbs and specialty crops.

"The vegetable market is increasingly competitive," she said, "so we became interested in defining our niche."

She now has fields of certified-organic chamomile, holy basil, and elderberries, and has converted a shipping container into a large-scale drying shed. But she won't set up her own apothecary.

"I don't want to risk my nursing license," she said, "because then I'm seen as manufacturing drugs."

Others are forging ahead. Lancaster Farmacy has sold herbs and herbal remedies through a community-supported medicine program since 2009.

Recently, it has been joined by lots of newcomers.

Nicole Bauza, 27, of Schwenksville, launched Oma Herbal Teas last year, planting a garden of chamomile, lemon balm, holy basil, and more in her compact garden, and foraging the rest - things like nettles and raspberry leaves.

David Ryle, 38, of Jubilee Hill Farm in East Coventry, has also been brewing an herbal-tea business. His is based in holy basil, or tulsi, an herb with anti-inflammatory and stress-reducing properties. He has been at it six years and now sells more than 400 boxes of tea a month.

He also grows vegetables, but "the tea is getting bigger, so we're kind of pushing all our chips into the middle of the table and going for it." After filling and ironing shut more than 70,000 tea bags by hand, he's looking into a machine to do the job.

There are more farms in the pipeline.

In Unionville, Chester County, Lauren Simko, 29, is planting her one-acre property to grow more of her own ingredients for her Arete Herbs, which sells teas, elixirs, and bitters weekly at the Kennett Square and East Goshen farmers' markets. She has a master's in public health and three years of herbalism training, but to her, the resurgence of plant-based medicine marks a return to folk wisdom.

And Katelyn Melvin, 27, an ethnobotanist by training, has been making tulsi bitters and elderberry syrup for three years as Tooth of the Lion Farm & Apothecary. Right now, she buys ingredients from local farmers, but starting next spring, she will grow them herself, on a farm an hour and a half north of the city in Orwigsburg.

Some customers use her creations as craft cocktail ingredients, while others seek health benefits.

She has noticed that herbs are having a moment.

"It definitely is trendy right now. There's different hashtags for herbalism," she said. (See: #plantwitch.) "That has its benefits and its drawbacks, because herbs are so complicated."

Althea Baird, 29, of Southwest Philadelphia's Dust Sun Apothecary is also ambivalent. She has been selling homegrown herbal remedies through Philly Foodworks, the local-food-buying club, for three years.

"There's a trend of white young people, yuppies and hipsters, starting businesses like this," she said, "but it is such an old thing."

For example, she pointed to a tradition of medicinal herbs in the city's Puerto Rican community. One of Baird's inspirations is Iris Brown, a founder of the Las Parcelas gardens in Norris Square.

Marian Dalke, who now manages the gardens and a farm stand there, said that many older area residents still wanted rue for spiritual cleanses, hoja de bruja for ear infections, and chamomile for tea. "But getting into middle age and younger, it's less typical that people will have knowledge of the herbs," she said.

Herbalists are hoping to educate a new generation. Many, like Melvin and Shanahan, run regular workshops to that end. Whether they succeed will be critical to the success of their businesses.

Bauza, of Oma Herbal Teas, thinks they're off to a good start.

"I think, in the future, people will be as informed about what to do with herbs as they are about vegetables."

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