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Growing and processing medicinal herbs with Greg Disterhoft

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 June Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson

Greg Disterhoft

Greg will be running a NOFA/Mass education event Growing and Processing Medicinal Herbs on June 25 in Sunderland, MA. In preparation for his workshop, I interviewed Greg back in April to find out a little more about him and his operation. 

The demand for local, organic herbs is rapidly growing with the revival of herbalism and integrated medicine. This workshop will provide an overview of what it takes to grow and manage a successful herbal market garden. Full Kettle Farm’s Greg Disterhoft will walk us through soil, light & water requirements, cool and warm season herbs, annuals vs. perennials, transplanting, harvesting, fertility, and the maintenance of a variety of herbs. Greg will demonstrate how he propagates and cultivates a wide array of herbs (including high value herbs like ashwagandha, astragalus, tulsi, and clary sage).

Greg is 35 years old and he got into farming about 10 years ago working on an organic vegetable farm in CA. He later became the production manager of Red Fire Farm, where he managed for five years. By the end, he had a bunch of back and knee injuries, and the stress of the 65-hour work week was really tough on his body. Around 2012 or 2013 he started thinking that he couldn’t do it anymore, then got an interview with an herb farm in Conway called Goldthread. He became the farm manager there and found it to be a totally different scene.  There was not a lot of tilling, and there were a lot more perennials – a different thing altogether.

Says Greg, “I think that farming as I know it is really problematic and comes from a world view that land and plants and animals are to be managed and controlled and that we humans know what is best for the land. That ethos is seen even in the more progressive organic farms. And we are coming to understand that throughout history, agriculture has been devastating for the environment. I have noticed in the past 15-20 years, that it is really excellent for people to be looking at farming and thinking about how we can do it in a sustainable way. It has a lot of implications for life outside of farming. I think it is important not to be divisive and say that one style of farming is better than another, but to ask where is the common ground about how we grow food.”

“I got burnt out doing the large scale thing and found a ton of inspiration and beauty and a lot of healing in the other form of plant relationship that I found at Goldthread. That was part of a big inner personal journey. I am trying to design Full Kettle to be a part time farm where it is integrated into my life and in a way where it doesn’t take over, but a mandala of life. I work in mental health as well. One is more in the head and one is more in the body. I am trying to design my farm so that it fits into my lifestyle. I work 20-30 hours per week in the summer, and 10 hours per week in the winter. I think it is important that more people get involved in growing food - not just those who work 60 hours per week and own their own farms.”

Essential Oil DistillerFull Kettle is a one acre medicinal herb farm in Sunderland. It is in the back yard of a friend’s house, nice river bottom soil on one acre contained within a 2.5-acre footprint. He does most of the work by hand. He does till from time to time. Half of the farm is perennial and half is annual. Most of what he grows is for teas and dried herbs for herbalists and cafes. He does sell some fresh stuff. He also makes essential oils with some of the herbs.  He has a distiller, and uses the essential oils for a massage oil that he sells.

At the workshop, there will be a demonstration of essential oil distillation. People will get a chance to do some harvesting. He will talk about how he grows things, choosing five or six herbs to focus on, and there will be a little farm tour. Part of that will be to tour the herb drying room that he built.

I asked him about his essential oils, wondering how much spearmint you would need for a two-ounce bottle of essential oils.  He responded that it would take 40 gallons of material! He went on to explain that he is able to sell the hydrosols. {Editor’s Note: Hydrosols, also known as "flower waters," are produced by distilling fresh leaves, fruits, flowers, and other plant materials. With similar therapeutic properties to essential oils, these aromatic waters are much less concentrated.}  The main essential oils that he produces are from balsam fir, which he gets from Pieropan Farm in Conway, and ginger, which he gets from Old Friends Farm in Amherst. Those are much cheaper for him to get and he uses them in a massage oil. He is not able to make much money if he sells them straight, but if he makes a value-added product it is more lucrative. A little bit goes a long way. He learned how to produce these hydrosols at Goldthread. Bill Siff introduced him to the whole thing. He noted that it was so magical the first time he did it, using a wood fired distiller with fire bricks.

Greg told me about his fertility practices: “Everything I learned at Red Fire is in my bones. It is hard to unlearn that. But I use more compost and hay, and chicken fertilizer, the average macro-nutrients that one would use for vegetable growers. I put in oyster shells and pulverized Goshen stone – for micronutrients – which I learned at Goldthread.  {Editor’s Note: Goshen stone is an unusual variably colored variety of mica schist found mostly in New England region of the United States.} “I did soil tests the first year and haven’t since,” shared Greg.

“I think that mine is a good model for people that don’t have a lot of land, maybe even want to have an operation in their back yard.   It is accessible, something that they could do rather than having to buy a big old farm and lots of equipment. I run workshops, and have a variety of products.  I keep one foot in the permaculture world and one foot in the traditional tillage world. I don’t have livestock and would like to get that in there but I don’t think that is going to happen.”

I asked Greg about my favorite topic, carbon. Greg responded: “I might have a weird answer on carbon. I think that it is very abstract to try and change the way we farm based on invisible numbers that scientists are telling us. When I till the soil there is no direct experience for me that the CO2 is going into the air. I don’t necessarily think that focusing on carbon is going to help us treat the land better, but we do need to treat it better, and it is going to happen from direct experience. I was digging up a bed of lemon balm and there were lots of worms. I dug it up so I could till it. It saddened me that I was going to destroy them. I think that kind of direct experience is going to help us figure out how to treat the land.”

“I will till that bed, and I thought about it a lot. There are so many factors that are informing the decision to till. I am here alone, and it is a lot easier on the body, so much easier and familiar to choose. Maybe I will trial a couple of beds no-till this year. What comes up for me is that I don’t know how to do this. There is also another important consideration, which is that our farms are going to look a lot different if we get away from tilling. I imagine that no-till farming requires more labor, and also there is a whole different suite of weeds that would want to grow in that system, different ways to fertilize. My thought is that you can’t change anything without everything else being affected. It might impact your whole model.”

For the 2017 season, Greg is also curating a workshop series about exploring a more beautiful world. The Map's Edge is a workshop series that invites Us to gather in community and explore new personal and cultural territory. It is a space where we hear a new story of the world and see how it fits. It is an invitation to get curious, to question conventional wisdom, to step into "not knowing" and allow our imaginations to take center stage. From this place, what's possible that we have not yet imagined, as individuals, small communities, and beyond? To find out, we must be willing to step off old paths and get a little lost... with our hearts wide open. Learn more here. 
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