This Oregon Company Was Growing and Selling Natural Medicine Before It Was Cool
In 1979, Ed Smith walked into Powell’s the day before he was to move to southern Oregon with his wife, Sara Katv. In what now seems like divine intervention, the bookstore had just acquired the library of a deceased local pharmacist and had stacks of dusty, faded pharmacopoeias, formularies, and herbals for sale. Smith—now known as “Herbal Ed” in natural medicine circles—bought the lot. The couple headed to tiny, unincorporated Williams, in the hills near Medford, and began bottling and selling locally-harvested tinctures with the hand-applied label Herb Pharm.
36 years later, what started as an herb garden and a casual trade among local “Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, and hippies,” as Smith puts it, has turned into a veritable herb empire encompassing more than 100 acres of farmland. Still, director of marketing Michael Gillette says, “we’re basically a craft company. We grow our herbs organically and still make every batch by hand.” Though high-tech chemical testing has facilitated adherence to rigorous purity and quality standards, the company’s mission hasn’t changed—“It’s all about a passion for plants and a willingness to educate people on the healing power of plants, placed above profit,” says Gillette.
Though the idyllic farm in Williams has proved an excellent site for growing a wide variety of herbs, some plants, such as kava, ginger, and saw palmetto, simply require a different climate to thrive. In a process they term GPS (“global personal sourcing”), Herb Pharm purchasers trek from Vanuatu to Sri Lanka in search of farmers growing quality herbs using sustainable techniques and ethical labor practices. In a further demonstration of a commitment to sustainability, Smith and Katv were pioneers in cultivating normally wild-gathered herbs that are growing sparse due to over-harvesting or habitat loss, such as goldenseal and echinacea. “Someone from another company called me up and said, ‘I hear you’re growing Echinacea. How is that possible?’” Smith recalls. “Well, it’s like tying your shoes; if you know how to do it, it’s easy. You just have to figure out what the plant needs.”
Since the beginning, Herb Pharm has also been committed to educating the public about herbal medicine. In much the same way Smith learned herbal medicine from healers in Colombia and other far-flung corners of the globe, Herb Pharm hosts a hands-on internship program in which a dozen-odd aspiring naturopaths and herbalists take up residence on the farm, spending their mornings tending to colorful rows of herbs and their afternoons studying botany and medicine-making. The program has been around since the early days, when Smith and Katv would host one or two young people in their home and pass on their knowledge of traditional medicine.
In spite of all the good work they’re doing, Herb Pharm isn’t a nonprofit. Unlike the early days, when Smith and Katz were essentially alone in growing, selling, and bottling herbal products, alternative medicine is a now multibillion-dollar industry (that happens to be unregulated by the FDA) and Herb Pharm lays claim to a 45% share of the liquid herbal extracts market, according to Gillette. In short, though they may have been considered fringe in the 70s—pre-Herbal Renaissance, as Smith puts it—herbs are big business these days, and Herb Pharm is making serious money.
Despite the big bucks to be made, Herb Pharm is ultimately, says Gillette, about providing safe, relatively inexpensive relief to people who have been let down by conventional medicine. “What we hear over and over from customers is, ‘I suffered with this condition for years, my conventional doctor couldn’t find anything that would work, and it wasn’t until I turned to natural medicine that I finally got relief.’”
Herb Pharm’s products are available locally at New Seasons, Whole Foods, and Pharmaca, as well as from naturopaths, herbalists, and other natural medicine practitioners, and online at herb-pharm.com.