Story and photographs by Leslie Lynn Lucio
For many centuries, people have been using herbs in their daily lives for both medicinal and culinary purposes. Use of herbs for food and medicine has long been tradition amongst many, and these roots inform the work of a new community of herbalists and growers working to sustain this custom. Here in the Pioneer Valley, there is a longstanding, as well as a growing, community of people who are incorporating use of herbs in their daily lives.
Alongside the Florence organic community garden is Sawmill Farm, a small-scale farm run by Susan Pincus and her crew. She’s now in her third year of leasing land through Grow Food Northampton (GFN), a community driven nonprofit organization working to promote local food security through sustainable community agriculture; working with GFN has been helpful to the farm.
Susan had been growing organic vegetables with others farms prior to growing herbs at Sawmill, but a focus on herbs was always in her future plans. She was already growing herbs for her own use, and has taken them since childhood. She first got into medicinal and culinary herb farming because she felt there was a need for high-quality and fresh herbs in the Valley.
“Herbs are excellent preventative medicine, bolstering our bodies ability to fight off sickness. We can turn to herbs instead of pharmaceuticals for everyday situations: first aid, headaches, colds and fevers and flu, coughs and aches and pains. By growing herbs for the community I am hoping to expand interest in and use of herbs, both in cooking and in daily medicinal preparations,” says Susan.
The more Susan learns about herbalism, the more she understands why so many cultures around the globe use herbs. Currently Sawmill Farm grows over 80 varieties of medicinal and culinary herbs.
Sawmill Farm offers a CSA in the Pioneer Valley, as well as herb shares sent to Boston. Susan strives to offer a variety of herbs in their CSA share, offering familiar herbs and many that are unusual. Between May and October, share members receive fresh bunches of medicinal and culinary herbs.
“The CSA really showcases the breadth of herbs that we can grow and wild-harvest in the Valley, from springtime nettles and cleavers to autumn harvest of roots like echinacea and ashwagandha,” she says. Many share members like to experiment and try different things with their herbs. Some will make tinctures (concentrated liquid extracts of herbs, using alcohol, vegetable glycerin or apple cider vinegar), oils, salves, syrups, infused honey, or dry their fresh herbs to make and store tea.
CSA members are able to choose which of a large variety of herbs will be in their pickup. Many members enjoy experimenting and cooking with culinary herbs that may have been unfamiliar with them before. Non-CSA members have the opportunity to try Sawmill Farm’s herbs by purchasing fresh and dried herbs from the markets, tinctures, tea blends as well as other products the farm offers.
Susan finds ways to make the herbs she grows as accessible as possible to the public. Sawmill offers many workshops and plant walks that are open to everyone, always with a suggested donation but no one is ever turned away for lack of funds. This is part of the farm’s way of making sure everyone has access, something of importance to Susan. The farm offers workshops with a variety of herbalists in the Valley, offering everything from education about the different herbs that will help build immune systems to discovering the medicinal properties of the most commonly used culinary herbs, and more.
“One of the primary goals of the farm is to create a community around herbalism in the Valley—to host interesting events that encourage people to explore something new to them and to act as a meeting place for those with a common interest.” Susan is also planning to start having community work days when the public can come out and volunteer at the farm and be around the herbs.
Susan takes pleasure in people coming out to the farm.
“Often people will come to the farm and discover a plant that they’ve never experienced before. When they walk among the plant, see it, smell it, touch it, I can see a connection being made. It’s really powerful to be a part of that,” says Susan.
This past summer, Susan’s big project was building a greenhouse on the farm. The goal of the greenhouse is to have a space for drying herbs in large quantities. Sawmill is using the greenhouse during the summer and fall, which will give them an abundance of dried medicinal and culinary herbs available for the winter months. Depending on the time of the year, the crew will harvest flowers, leaves, and some of the roots as well.
Susan’s plan is to keep focus on providing high-quality fresh and dried herbs to our local community and Boston, she is planning to continue to increase the diversity of herbs grown on the farm as well. Susan believes in seed saving from every season to use for planting in future seasons, part of her sustainable farming practices. She also wants to plan for even more ways to make the herbs as accessible to the public as possible, by offering more workshops and plant walks. This year, Sawmill partnered with GFN to provide subsidized shares for low-income CSA members, which has been a helpful and gratifying experience.
Susan would also like to build a season-long farm internship program for students. Sawmill aspires to help create an herbal network in the Valley, in building relationships with other growers, herbalists, and businesses. The most rewarding part of running the farm for Susan has been the relationships she has made with CSA members, volunteers, interns, farmers market customers, and herbalists.
“Everyone has a different experience with herbs and has stories about the plants they feel an affinity towards. It feels rewarding to make those connections and have those conversations because of the herbs we grow.”