by Sabine Rhyne
There is no question that Jeff Carpenter, co-owner of Zack Woods Herb Farm, has farming in his blood. Asked about his favorite season, he waxes on about spring's optimism, renewal, the smell of the new earth. “There’s so much potential, the buds are ripe, there is so much hope, dreaming, and visioning.” This is what drives so many of us after the long winter, but farmers most of all. Melanie and Jeff get out there and prep new fields, disc harrow the older fields, spread manure and compost, and seed and nurture the little fellows back in the greenhouse. The cycle begins...
Jeff talks about his family’s background in agriculture, specifically dairy farming, and his time on the farm, always intrigued and enamored by the whole scene, the land, the landscape. He always knew that farming would figure in his life somehow. So, after college and time in the Coast Guard, he started working for a plant nursery. Though he and Melanie were high-school sweethearts, this was around the time they got serious. Melanie then owned Sage Mountain Herb Products, and Jeff apprenticed with Melanie's mother Rosemary Gladstar for a time, and together with Melanie, continued to work on herbal products for several years. “It was, well, boring,” he said. “All that time indoors, tediously labeling, on the phone… we wanted to be outside!” Along the way, they realized how difficult it was to source local herbs for their products, and they were also not impressed with the quality of the products that they sourced. “We thought there was a great opportunity to provide the world with good quality herbs, and get out into the sunshine, doing something that we wanted. So we took the leap, sold the herbal-products business to some friends, and started Zack Woods Herb Farm in 1999.” They started farming one acre, sold out at the end of that season, and they were off. Despite steady growth, they have only relied on word of mouth to date, managing steady growth with a commitment to hands-on production.
Jeff and Melanie have two full-time and three part-time employees working alongside them. One has been with them since the very beginning. But Melanie is also a middle-school principal, and juggles her life at school with the farm until the last bell rings in June. Then, she is able to throw herself into their herbal pursuits exclusively. Perhaps that is why her favorite time of year is high summer, when everything looks so lush and vibrant. “It’s exuberant here, the essential oils are high, everything is alive and green, the vitality is intense!”
Asked about being the daughter of local herbal legend Rosemary Gladstar, Melanie laughs, “It’s humbling. She is the best herbal fairy godmother ever! She is such a delight on so many levels, that sweetheart connection is there for so many people; to have that as part of my life was such a profound blessing.” In addition, Melanie says, “Rosemary is also irreverent and silly, a perfect model in many ways, doing what you love, expressing gratitude. She instilled in me to never forget your roots, and I have consequently dug my roots even deeper!”
Zack Woods Herb Farm has a mission to supply the highest quality herbs possible, and to be good stewards of the land. This means to be supportive of native plants that may be threatened due to loss of habitat and over-harvesting. In 2006, Jeff and Melanie were awarded a grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to ultimately demonstrate that threatened medicinal herbs could be cultivated profitably in Vermont. They are actively making their case! Herbs native to Vermont that they are cultivating include goldenseal, black cohosh, ginseng, arnica, and butterfly weed. These are all on the United Plant Savers’ “species at-risk” or “to-watch” list.
Cultivation is a big part of farming. But cultivating community is part of this too, Melanie underlines. They network with farmers and small businesses nearby, a helpful practice in many ways. “Farming can be an isolating profession, spending so much time out in the fields working,” she said. “Having other farmers to talk to helps to share both bad times and successes. It’s essential to support each other, because society is sometimes hard on farming.” Businesses that value local production also help to educate and inspire people to choose their products. Farmers markets were a big boost to Jeff and Melanie at their start. “You put some of these plants in a pot, and, my goodness, they act like supermodels! We talked face to face with people, who were lured by the plants, and before you know it, they were inspired to run home and make a cup of tea! Plants are always bringing us together.”
Farming is all about cycles, and now, Jeff and Melanie don’t attend farmers markets anymore. Others starting out are in their place. “It’s so important to have herb growers in your community,” they said. “We need more of them! We work with people all over the world to encourage them. There is incredible opportunity and room for growth in the industry, so we encourage farms to diversify to include herbs. We are just now mentoring two farmers in Maine.” They also spoke of working with Jovial King from Urban Moonshine (BFC Producer of the Month, Nov. 2011), who apprenticed with Rosemary Gladstar, worked with Jeff and Melanie, and began her own business. They continue to grow their mutual efforts, providing her with herbs for her tonics and bitters, sharing ideas and friendship.
Jeff grew up fishing with his grandfather in Zack Woods Pond, about a mile away from their current farm, carrying that place and the inspiration of his own family’s farm forward. Now, he and Melanie inspire others eager to learn what they have to offer, and the cycle moves forward, sweetly smelling, fully tasting, and so very alive.