Herbs, Etc. Warehouse and Farm Tour
A door opens and we are inside a bustling warehouse that is the manufacturing facility of Herbs, Etc., located next to Meow Wolf on Rufina Circle in Santa Fe. Two of us from the Co-op, along with many from other natural foods stores across the country, have been invited on a tour of the establishment and on a farm tour, to follow.
Donning hairnets and lab coats for cleanliness, we are led around one warehouse where herbs are received, identified, cleaned, chopped and stored. We are led past distilling containers, where water mixed with alcohol slowly drips through crushed, dried herbs, and finally, past conveyor belts of bottles, being mechanically filled, capped and sealed. While machines do much of the work, there are employees overseeing the accuracy of the machines and ensuring the uniformity of each product. Each product batch is tested to ensure its purity.
The owner of Herbs, Etc., Daniel Gagnon, joins us and hands around pieces of dried Echinacea stems. When placed on our tongues, the stems tingle, as a sign of their immune enhancing properties. We move on with him to the Tesuque Pueblo Farm where at least fifteen of the herbs for the company are grown. There, we have discussions about the science behind the benefits of specific herbs, receive a farm tour, and meet the Tesuque Pueblo Farm manager, Emigdio Ballon.
It is an honor to be shown around the farm, the seed bank, and through the greenhouses and fields. We are shown various crops of oat, St. John’s wort, rosehip, and stinging nettle. A few of us volunteer to be stung with Stinging Nettle and watch the blisters that form on our arms dissipate under the ministration of crushed Plantain leaves that counteract the histamine effects.
On the tour, we talked extensively about Osha, an herb native to the southern Rocky Mountain region. Osha grows best in what is typically regarded as “bad” soil and between 9,000 and 11,000 feet of elevation. Osha is, therefore, one of the herbs sold by Herbs Etc. that is not grown on the Tesuque Pueblo Farm. Recently listed on United Plant Savers as a species at risk for over- harvest, Osha has been the subject of at least one notable and ongoing research study.
The study tracks the residual effects of overharvest on plots of osha growing naturally in National Forests. It is important to note that Daniel Gagnon has been instrumental in helping with this study, along with United Plant Savers, the Forest Service, The University of Kansas, and the American Herbal Products Association. To date, the study has shown that Osha is incredibly resilient to harvest, and even plots harvested of 100% of the root have begun to repopulate within three years,* an encouraging sign for conservation efforts.
Through the research, sale and promotion of native plants, Herbs Etc. is bringing awareness to these important crops, potentially helping to save them while also minimizing the detrimental effects of their harvest on the surrounding environment. As a company that markets herbs as healing therapies, it is good to know that Herbs Etc. is holding human health and the health of our natural resources equally in high regard.
It’s 9:15 am and a quiet hum is audible from where we stand, in an apiary, in an orchard in the Arroyo Seco neighborhood of Taos, New Mexico. We are here just as the morning is beginning to lift which, we have been told, is a calm time for the bees. Once the afternoon heat hits and the threatening rain clouds roll in, the bees will be worked into a frenzy. Regardless of the morning calm, we are directed to put on bee suits that cover our upper bodies and our faces. This is the home site of Taos Bee, an apiary and skin care company that continues the ancient but often forgotten tradition of using bee products for skin care. A few of us from the Los Alamos Co-op have been invited to come for a tour.
Moira, the owner and bee keeper assures us that the bees really are friendly and that they will mostly be minding their own business as we intrude into their homes. Adequately covered and curious, we proceed, following Moira to watch her open the hives and check in on her hard-working girls. The skin care products for which Taos Bee is known feature pure, minimally processed, honey, propolis and wax. Today, Moira will show us her methods of harvesting and preparing the products.
Moira got her start in beekeeping fifteen years ago as an organic farmer. While acting as a caretaker for her mother, Moira realized first-hand how the honey and propolis she applied soothed and protected her mother’s skin from drying out and infection. It was because of this experience that she began her skin care line. Taos Bee has expanded over the years to include Apiaries in three different locations around the town. The company supplies several Cooperative Markets, including the Los Alamos Co-op, as well as the Taos Farmers Market and continues to grow.
While the company continues to expand, Moira remains firm in her conservative methods of harvesting. She takes from the bees just what she needs to continue her work. This means only harvesting honey and propolis about once a month from different hives. She will stop harvesting completely around mid-August to allow the bees to build up a store of honey for the winter. During the winter, bees do not leave the hive to forage and have to survive on what they collect over the summer.
In this Apiary, there are twenty-three hives and most of them are of a top bar model. They are single-storied, rectangular in shape and have wooden removable bars across the top. The bees attach and hang their combs vertically, from each of the wooden bars in a process called “knitting.” Propolis coats the combs and top bars, securing them down, “bee glue” Moira explains. To collect the propolis, Moira gently scrapes it from the sides. Propolis is a bee product that, along with honey, is used in most of Taos Bee’s merchandise. Propolis is made from the sap of trees, and while varying flora will result in different compositions of propolis, all propolis is made up of polyphenols, specifically flavonoids, which are produced by plants and are thought to have beneficial properties.
To collect the honey, she cuts honey comb from the wooden bar and mashes it in a bucket. After the comb is mashed, she allows the honey to drain from the comb through a sieve for hours. This process separates the wax comb from the honey. She leaves the drained wax comb outside near the hives for the bees to pick clean of the remainder of pollen and honey. The cleaned wax is then placed into a solar melting box, where it is gently heated by a solar panel and melted into wax bars for easy storage. These wax bars are ready to be made into Taos Bee balms, soaps and candles.
Near the end of our visit, Moira encourages us to gather some of the fresh apricots laying around under one of her many fruit trees. They are delicious. The apiary is surrounded by an orchard. Apple and apricot trees provide, even on dry years like this one, at least a modest amount of fruit blossoms for the bees to forage from. In return, the fruit blossoms are pollinated and able to bear fruit. As we leave, laden with the Co-op’s order of Taos Bee products and a handful of apricots, we are reminded of the many ways that bees are useful to us and crucial to the world in which we live.
As a member of the Los Alamos Cooperative Market, you are also an owner. We have 1666 member-owners. Cooperatives exist to serve their member-owners; it is a business that is owned and controlled by its members. In consumer food cooperatives, the members consist of people who use the goods and services provided by the Co+op. As a member-owner you elect a board of directors who represent your interests in the success of our Co+op. You are invited to attend board meetings and the annual meeting (this year it will be April 27 – more details in future newsletters).
Our Co+op has been open for 3 years as of March 1. We are going to have another birthday party where all members will get 10%* off their purchases. So please join us for the celebration! *We do not compound discounts.
~Tracy McFarland, LACM Board Vice-President
Growing Opportunities is a hydroponic farm in Alcalde, NM owned by Kim and Steve Martin, who provide delicious hydroponic tomatoes and cucumbers to the Co+op. Steve and Kim enjoy providing quality beefsteak and heirloom tomatoes and English cucumbers for the community. Their love of agriculture and learning is evident in their products and practices, including their hydroponic greenhouse systems.
Steve grew up around farming and knew early on that he loved working with plants. He held a variety of jobs before taking up farming, including working at UNM-LA as a maintenance supervisor. His desire to practice hydroponic agriculture brought him back to the sunny climate of New Mexico in 1999 when he started Growing Opportunities.
Kim began farming in 2002 at Growing Opportunities when Steve was still using a single greenhouse. As she transitioned out of her previous job and fully into farming, her presence enabled the expansion to two greenhouses. She soon became the face of Growing Opportunities at farmer’s markets and the Co+op.
Their two greenhouses are covered by inflated plastic roofing, which holds up to hail and lasts up to five years before the UV protection diminishes. They maintain the internal environment using fans, evaporative cooling, CO2 generation, and natural gas for heat in the winter. Steve set up an automated system to control all aspects of the greenhouse environment, which gives him better control of daily temperature fluctuations. “The automated system is nice, but it still requires daily monitoring and adjustments,” Steve explains as he checks the system for the third time that day.
In addition to daily environmental care, hydroponic plants require daily care in the form of pruning and adjusting the hanging strings. Each plant is attached to a string hung from the ceiling. Once the plants reach the scaffolding, they are progressively moved laterally to accommodate further growth. Bees – who remain inside the greenhouse – pollinate the flowers in their temperate domain. A single tomato plant takes three months to mature and will produce for seven to eight months. When it is time to turn over the greenhouse, the retired plants are composted on their property – food for the old growth cottonwoods.
Hydroponic agriculture allows the Martins to grow all year, which means local tomatoes at the Co+op in the winter. In addition, Steve says his system “uses one tenth the water of traditional flood irrigation while producing ten times the yield for the same footprint.” The vast reduction in water consumption along with the extended growing season makes this method appealing for desert agriculture.
Currently, the Martins are building two more greenhouses to keep up with the growing demand at the Co+op. which are scheduled to be seeded by March 1st. “We immensely enjoy providing beneficial food for local community,” Kim said while describing progress on their expansion. The Co+op is also proud to provide food grown by local farmers like Kim and Steve, who care about the community and the food they grow.
~Sandra West, Outreach Coordinator