HerbalEGram: Volume 7, Number 9, September 2010
The Community Supported Herbal Medicine Movement
When US herbal dietary supplement sales reached an estimated
$5 billion last year—a near 5% increase from the previous year—many industry
insiders labeled it a sign that the American people have become dissatisfied
with the country’s healthcare system and are turning to natural and affordable
forms of “self care.”1 Additional movements are also taking place
across the country, which further indicate that people are increasingly taking
health matters into their own hands.
Farmers’ markets, which continue to pop up in an increasing
number of cities and towns, are undeniably part of the massively popular
“green” living trend that aims to improve environmental sustainability. But
they are also a form of preventative self healthcare, with fresh and healthy
food goods that can be the staple of any diet aimed at preventing illness,
whether through losing weight, eating vegetarian, or replacing highly processed
“junk food” with more whole foods. Doctors in Massachusetts, for example, are
now dispensing “prescriptions” for produce bought at farmers’ markets to some
of their obese child patients, and 36 states fund farmers’ market nutrition
programs for women and children.2
Likewise, community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs)
are a newer, yet growing, movement, with more than 1,000 CSAs estimated to
exist in the United States and an increasing number dedicated solely to herbal
remedies.3 The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a CSA as
a “community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the
farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the
growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and
benefits of food production.”4 Members of a CSA, sometimes referred
to as shareholders, pre-buy such products as fresh produce, free-range eggs,
flowers, or grass-fed beef from the farm, as a way to pledge their financial
support to cover the farm’s operating costs. Members obtain their farm goods by
picking them up at the farm or a designated pick-up location, or sometimes by
having them delivered right to their front door.
Herbal-focused CSAs aim to take the CSA experience beyond a
connection to the land into the realm of plant-based healing, wellness, and
education. They provide fresh herbs and herbal medicines and products to their
members, although each differs in its structure, philosophy, cost, and the
products and services it supplies to its members. Some are called by other
names, such as herb shares, herb exchanges, community supported medicine (CSM),
and community supported herbalism (CSH).
Many herbal CSAs are currently concentrated in the
Northeastern United States. Third Root Community Health Center in Brooklyn, New
York, for example, is a worker cooperative of healthcare practitioners that
offers yoga classes, nutritional consultations, acupuncture, and other holistic
medicine services, as well as a CSH program.5
Now in its second season, Third Root’s CSH provides members
with herbal remedies every week from June to November. Members have the
opportunity to answer health-related questions on their registration form,
which Third Root’s herbalists use to tailor each season’s products to address
members’ needs, said Jacoby Ballard, an herbalist, yoga instructor, and health
educator at Third Root (e-mail, August 11, 2010).
The monthly herb packages include information on the
specific herbs and usage instructions, and the herbal remedies focus on that
month’s theme, such as the November “breathe” theme that features a calming
tea, oil infusion, and lung-centered tincture. Each month, members request a
specific fourth herbal remedy, and pick-ups coincide with monthly health
education workshops taught by Third Root Herbal Education Program students.
Unlike many CSAs around the country, Third Root’s CSM
program is unique in that it functions within an inner city community and is
not based on a single farm. Instead, it depends mainly upon herbs gathered at
the nearby Prospect Park and Flatbush Community Garden and some farms in
upstate New York, said Ballard. Additionally, herbs for the CSM are
supplied by Third Root’s “Sponsor an Herb” program, in which community members
grow herbs in their backyards, on fire escapes, and windowsills, keeping 40% of
the herbs for themselves and donating the additional 60% to Third Root, he
Third Root’s CSM is based on a sliding pay scale in which
members pay according to their income level. Prices start at $100 for a half
share (10 installments) and $200 for a full share (20 installments) and
increase in increments of $5 to $10 for higher income brackets. “In the CSH
program specifically, the sliding scale means that people who couldn’t
otherwise afford a full apothecary can build one over a season and that we can
have a more diverse membership,” said Ballard. “In Brooklyn, that’s key, as so
many immigrant communities have in-tact herbal traditions but can’t necessarily
afford herbal products in stores. Our sliding scale means that we can reach
these communities and validate the kind of healthcare they are more familiar
with in their home country.” More information is available at: www.thirdroot.org/csh.html.
Across the country, the Sonoma County Herb Exchange provides
fresh and dried bulk herbs to its Northwestern California community. The Herb
Exchange is not a traditional herbal CSA in that it does not have members or
provide monthly herb baskets. Instead, it is a large cooperative of about 25
local herb growers who join to sell their herbs to the public at weekly markets
and make all pricing and policy decisions. According to Leslie Gardner,
director of the Herb Exchange, the program has about 300 to 400 customers a
year who can order from a catalog each week or pre-order their yearly supply of
herbs, which are dispensed at their “medicinal peak” (e-mail, July 23, 2010).
Most of their customers are medicine makers, manufacturers, and herbalists, and
several of their growers have obtained organic certification, including the
herb association’s provider of Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs, the Chinese
Medicinal Herb Farm.
“To my knowledge, there isn’t anything exactly like us
anywhere,” said Gardner. “We are locally focused and provide to a lot of local
businesses. We are a non-profit, under the umbrella of the Sonoma County Herb
Association, and provide a number of educational classes and events.” More
information is available at: www.sonomaherbs.org/herbalexchange.html.
For about 4 years, Goldthread Herbal Apothecary in Florence,
Massachusetts has had an herbal CSA in addition to their many other projects.6
According to William Siff, founder and director of Goldthread, the goal in
creating the herbal CSA was to establish within the community an understanding
that herbal medicine is a foundational part of being a healthy human being and
having a healthy family (e-mail, July 21, 2010).
“The CSA movement is a natural vehicle through which to
establish the link between herbal medicine and healthy nutritious
food—essentially that they are one in the same,” said Siff. “Re-establishing
the knowledge and understanding of how to take a somewhat mysterious subject
like herbal medicine and bring it back to the kitchen was one of our [main
objectives] for starting the CSA.”
The herbs and herbal products supplied to the 75 CSA members
come from Goldthread’s herb farm, which was originally created to supply the
apothecary but now also supplies the CSA. The farm also provides a hands-on
educational opportunity to Goldthread’s interns, who learn how to cultivate,
harvest, and process the herbs, and also how to make the finished herbal
medicines that are supplied to the CSA and in-town apothecary.
Popular products include Goldthread’s tea blends, elixir
combinations such as elderberry/lime (Sambucus canadensis/Citrus aurantiifolia) and astragalus root /holy basil (Astragalus membranaceus/Ocimum tenuiflorum) and
honeys infused with herbs such as lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) flowers and sage (Salvia officinalis). Members of Goldthread’s herbal CSA have the
opportunity to volunteer on the farm, though it is not a requirement, and they
are also invited to participate in the medicine making and essential oil
distillation processes. An individual share is $150; a family share is $225;
and a deluxe share is $275. (Shares are provided as one large installment at
the end of growing season.)
Despite the success of Goldthread’s CSA, running such a
farming operation is not easy and is one of the many reasons why the numbers of
local, organic, or small-scale farms are, though growing, still few. “It is
certainly difficult to revive community based agricultural endeavors in terms
of financial gain,” said Siff, noting that all profits made from the CSA have
been reinvested in the farm. “Small scale farming by hand is an amazingly labor
intensive process, and even with the tuition from the interns, it is always a
challenge to make ends meet.” Despite the obstacles, Goldthread plans to expand
into offering culinary herbs and spices to its local cafes and restaurants and
to continue exploring new recipes, products, and herbs. More information is
available at: www.goldthreadapothecary.com/?p=csa.
“Our feedback has been that there is indeed a growing
awareness within our community about the usefulness and necessity of herbal
medicine within a grassroots, everyday approach to taking care of ourselves,”
said Siff. “People appreciate the freshness and care that goes into our
finished products, as well as the education and support that we offer them, so
that [herbs] become very accessible and commonplace in the care of their
According to Danica Holoviak, a member of Third Root’s CSA,
“It rarely comes into my consciousness to use any pharmaceutical or go to the
doctor. I first think, ‘What herb would work for this issue or for this
person?,’ and, ‘Can I make this tincture or tea myself?’” (e-mail, August
23, 2010). Holoviak often uses her CSA’s first aid remedies, the sleep aide
tincture, digestive tea, and lavender essential oil. She recently gave the pain
and headache tincture to her sister, who has a torn meniscus in her knee. “Why
would you want to go to a doctor who has 15 seconds or less to talk with you
and doesn’t listen anyway and then charges you lots of money?” asked Holoviak,
adding that hospitals also charge hefty fees and that prescriptions are
similarly expensive, as well as commonly associated with side effects.
More information on herbal CSAs and their locations
around the country is available in Table 1 and
at the LocalHarvest database at www.localharvest.org.
Table 1: Herbal
CSAs organized by US region
Red Bird Botanicals, Washington, DC area
Rhythm Herbs, Brattleboro, VT
Rootwork Herbals, Alpine, NY
Red Earth Farm,
Spring Herb Farm, Harwich, MA
Herbals, Mendon, MA
Farm Healing Herbs, Groveton, NH
Farm Fresh Cooperative, Baltimore, MD
Herbs and Community Health & Education Center, Providence, RI
Creek Herb Farm, Soddy Daisy, TN
in the USA Herbal Green Teas, Hogansville, GA
Midwest, West, Southwest, and Northwest
Woman, Calaveras County, CA
Sage Medicinal Herb Farm, Vashon, WA
Photo captions in order of appearance:
1) California poppy, mullein, and red sage growing at Goldthread Herbal Apothecary's organic herb farm in Conway, MA. The farm supplies herbs for Goldthread's herbal CSA program. ©2010 Goldthread Herbal Apothecary.
2) An herbal medicine workshop attended by members of Third Root Community Health Center's CSH program in Brooklyn, NY. ©2010 Third Root Community Health Center.
3) A basket of herbs and herbal remedies supplied to members of Goldthread Herbal Apothecary's herbal CSA program. ©2010 Goldthread Herbal Apothecary.
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Accessed July 14, 2010.
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