Gaia Herbs: Rooted in Integrity

Interview with Mariah Rose Dahl
by Joe Romano, 
Marketing Manager

mariah-gaiaEarlier this year, GreenStar Marketing employee Mariah Rose Dahl entered GreenStar in a contest for the best display highlighting the mission of Gaia Herbs. Her display was picked as a winner, and she and others were invited to the Gaia Farm to see their operations. In the interview below, she shares some of what she experienced there.

Tell us about Gaia Farm.

The Farm is on 550 acres in Brevard, North Carolina. They grow about thirty-five different herbs on the farm, which supplies 25 percent of their crop needs. They were certified organic in 1997. Every year, they're recertified under the Oregon Tilth program, which looks at the supply chain from seed to equipment, how they manage the borders around the farm, crop rotation, pest management, what they use for winter crops, and soil test results. One interesting aspect that reflects the balance they're trying to create is the way they deal with pest management. Instead of trying to chemically wipe out Japanese beetles, which had become a serious pest, they brought in Tiphia wasps, which lay parasitic eggs in the beetle grub. The larvae consume the entire grub, and in the spring the wasps emerge and fly up into the tulip poplar trees, which I thought was a beautiful image of a natural cycle.

What did you notice about the day in the life of a farmer there?

Most of the farm hands were not residents of North Carolina. Many of them actually came from Mexico, which at first made me think, "Is this fair and safe and good for the farm-workers?" But a lot of the farmers there, although they live in Mexico and come up for the growing and harvesting seasons, are farmers in Mexico. One of them has an organic vegetable farm in Mexico. For farm workers, they are paid well and insured and their insurance covers alternative medicine.

One of the very cool things I discovered was that they grow a ton of vegetables. Obviously these aren't ingredients in their supplements, and I was wondering, "What are they doing with all these vegetables?" It turns out they have a CSA for their employees, so everyone who works gets fresh produce sent to their homes. They also donate thousands of pounds of food to the to the local soup kitchen. It's important to the CEO, Rick Scalzo, that there is this kind of homeostasis where the employees are eating healthy food grown right on the same land where they work. It's important to Rick that the energy around the farm is a happy one, because he believes that it affects the plants.

What did you learn that you didn't know before you went?

I learned a lot about some different herbs that I might have known only by name, but there I got to learn the medicinal qualities and lots of interesting facts. The company also puts in an incredible amount of background work, testing, making sure that it is the precise time to harvest the plant for maximum potency, and maybe more importantly, making sure that the plants are exactly what they are supposed to be. In the 1990s when everyone was taking a lot of echinachea, Rick found that many of the plants that people were using and selling to the public were not the appropriate species, and had little potency or benefits. He had the interest and the passion and laid the groundwork to be certain that the herbs on the market had the potency that people were expecting. In the processing facility, they test every plant and every batch to ensure that shipments from their suppliers are up to his standards. He has even had to send shipments back at times, which is hard because most of the farmers he's working with are small family farms or one or two people growing or wild-harvesting these plants. Also, I noticed that Rick treats the plants like they are his family members — his tenderness when he was talking to them was a mark of the incredible amount of respect he has for the plants and people.

Did you learn anything that you can apply?

I grew up with a lot of respect for herbs, so I have always taken for granted the idea to think of what was wrong, look it up in the book, and take the herbs that you should be taking. Sometimes my mom would literally take me out to the yard or the woods and collect what we needed. I think I was very lucky that my entire life has been like, "Oh you sprained your ankle, let's get some comfrey and make a compress." That all became a lot more real for me when I found myself surrounded by botanists and herbalists at this elaborate facility where people spend every waking hour of their time learning about medicinal plants.

Going to the Gaia herb farm and seeing the science-based research that has been done on these plants was sort of a "seeing is believing" moment. My understanding and knowledge about these herbs was on more of a "if you have this, you do that" level. Rick went into deep detail about what was chemically in the plants and how they interacted in the body. I used to think, "Ashwagandha? Sure, I know what Ashwagandha is." I found out, no, I don't. I didn't have the deeper understanding of the plants.

Did you have a magical moment?

Each day we were going to a part of the farm and talking for an hour or so about the plants, and then going to another part, which was very interesting. At the end of the third day, it was getting dark and was just about to storm when we got to the valerian fields, which were all in bloom. It was a four-foot-high field of white valerian flowers, and he was like, "Walk into the field!" So we all did. Then he asked us to find a secluded spot where we could be by ourselves, and sit and close our eyes to experience the plant and the energy of the plant beyond a clinical or scientific approach. He asked us to try to feel the plant and the synergy of the plant and the place where it was being grown. So we were just sitting in this expansive field of valerian with a thunderstorm approaching, and we could feel the energy and the electricity. It was pretty powerful. It was calming and soothing and grounding to be sitting in the dirt surrounded by tiny white flowers. A similar experience might be the first time you go scuba diving and see that there is this whole other world that exists below the surface. It was like being immersed in the world of the valerian plant.

Anything that you brought home with you?

Plants have an incredible power to heal and the more we can learn about them and how to use for healing the more we can not only heal ourselves, but also heal the land from the damage that we have done. We can connect ourselves on a deeper level, as Rick has, to the land and the plants and use them to heal and create social change, with responsible practices and sourcing and giving back to the planet and to the community.

While there, we saw a slideshow that showed the personal relationships Rick has forged with growers from many countries around the world. There was a couple from Germany and their family, a family from Costa Rica, and on and on. Gaia Herbs is working with people on a larger global level. When we have more businesses like this that feel a social responsibility, that is an incredible way to effect change.

When I got home, I watched The Secret Life of Plants, which is an amazing, trippy, and crazy-awesome film. This experience was not like that, but it did deepen the concepts of how much we're connected and the importance of not only paying attention to what we're putting in our bodies, but, when we're using things to help us, whether food or something like supplements, to think about where they come from.