At the Gaia farm in North Carolina, things are bursting into bloom and the 350-acre plot of land is lush with color, aroma, and the wonder of nature. It’s the height of summer, one of the most beautiful and pivotal times on the farm.
If you’re a fan of Gaia Herbs, you’ll know that the farm is so much more than just a farm — it’s a living laboratory where we grow and harvest the herbs that make up your favorite products, and things are always being planted, cared for, and harvested. You’ll see bright pink-purple patches of Echinacea, inhale the fragrance of Holy Basil and Lemon Balm, and discover the many facets of Nettle and Astragalus.
Farm operations manager Kate Renner is here with an update straight from the farm, sharing what’s currently growing, what’s ready for the harvest, and what you can expect as summer winds down into autumn.
What’s going on on the farm right now? It’s mid-July — if someone were to stop by the farm and see what’s happening, what would they find?
Kate: You’d see a team hard at work trying to harvest everything possible because everything is coming up at the same time. We’re harvesting Valerian Root and just finished California Poppy harvest. For the rest of the month we’ll be harvesting a second succession of St. John’s Wort, Plantain, Artichoke Leaf, Dandelion Leaf, Yarrow, and Nettle.
Our vegetable program is rocking right now. We grow about 8 acres of veggies for our employees, the lunch program, and the local food insecure community. That is blowing up; we can’t harvest zucchini fast enough.
What is a typical day in the life like for the farm team?
Kate: Part of the reason I love my job so much is that no day is the same. At the end of every day, we assess what we’ve done so we can adapt and pick up from that the next day. We meet as a group, talk about what the plan is, and people spread out to their designated areas: harvesting, transplanting, hopping on tractors to cultivate – it’s rare that everybody stays together.
Once a plant has been harvested, where does it go? Let’s talk about Valerian Root since you mentioned it’s just been harvested.
Kate: Once roots are pulled from the ground, we wash them and they go to a dryer. Roots can take 48 hours or more to dry. Then they’re sent to the warehouse. The Gaia farm is unique in that the fresh products we grow and harvest go from field to extraction sometimes within an hour — Milky Oats and Marshmallow Root, for example. Those are harvested and they’re not washed or dried; they go directly to the grind shaft, where they’re macerated and put in barrels of ethanol.
Are there any special watchouts or summer-related must-dos when it comes to caring for and harvesting the herbs?
Kate: We just had the supermoon, so based on the biodynamic calendar, there’s a lot of moisture happening. Moisture is a huge thing we have to worry about. In peak summer, we get a lot of fungal diseases due to the moisture so we keep an eye out for any signs of disease related to moisture, but also pest pressure. We take proactive approach to keeping on top of any potential pests or disease; we scout the fields and set thresholds for how much we’re willing to accept before we resorte to organic approved fungicide or insecticide sprays.
Because of the bitterness that herbs emit, it’s unpalatable for a lot of pests. Thankfully, growing herbs on this scale, we don’t have a lot of pests because they’re not super tasty.
What’s next? We’re in midsummer now, but what’s on the horizon for August into autumn?
Kate: Early fall is the sign that energy is going down into the energy of plants so we’ll be doing root harvest: Echinacea, Dandelion Root. A bookend for us harvesting Ginkgo Leaf. We sample a lot of herbs on the farm for potency before we harvest, so we’ll sample it and send it to the lab so to make sure it meets Gaia’s potency specs.
Another big thing outside of harvest is being proactive and tucking our fields under cover crop. All these fields that are done [being harvested] will be preparing to seed cover crop so we have a nice living root in the ground going into winter.
What makes the Gaia farm so special?
Kate: So much of it! For me, it’s the team. They’ve been coming for decades and have multi-generational family members on board. The knowledge and the passion they bring … their heart is in it.
The environment [is also special.] You look up and you’re surrounded by mountains and beauty everywhere, as well as the plants we grow, the soil we nurture, and the rivers that come through our property. We try to be good stewards of Cathey’s Creek and the French Broad River. We’re not just working with the herbs, but also the flora and fauna in between.
Gaia is really telling the story of how interconnected we are – reciprocity, making sure that anything the plants are providing us, we provide back to them.