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Heartsong Farm Healing Herbs: Village Herbalist Nancy Phillips and Apple Grower Michael Phillips

Apples Meet Herbs on a New Hampshire Farm

by Barbara Berst Adams

featured in the July 2004 issue of Acres USA

In the steep, rocky hills of New England, Michael and Nancy Phillips have nurtured four of their 58 acres into a thriving full-time business they call Heartsong Farm. Michael once operated a leased organic apple orchard and is author of the title, Apple Grower. Nancy is an herbalist and herb grower, and has recently authored The Village Herbalist along with Michael. Together, their new apple orchard and herb farm serves customers across the country. From children's herb classes held on the farm, to bulk dried herbs mailed nationwide, the Phillips have woven a successful farm tapestry that uniquely fits their talents, gifts and evolving wisdom. "The hills get steep, the soil is rocky, and down beyond the wetlands the spruce-fir forest is more for the deer and snowshoe hares," said Michael. "Apples, however, work well on slopes, and we gather medicinal herbs from many plants that are not part of the cultivated gardens. Approximately two and one-half acres are in apples, though the planting of the new block (which I'm including in that figure) won't be complete till spring 2005. Our herb gardens cover about one and one-half acres spread about the farm. These vary from teaching gardens up near the house to regular field production in the two larger plots."

Nancy, Michael and Gracie Phillips: family tree -- photo: Frank Siteman
Nancy, Michael and Gracie Phillips: family tree
(photo: Frank Siteman)

Heartsong grows a unique variety of apples, which include "Sweet Sixteen," "Bullock," "Adam's Pearmain," "Baldwin," and "Reinette Simirenko" which they describe as similar to a juicier "Granny Smith" with a hint of citrus. "The bottom line challenge for organic orchardists is becoming more time efficient," Michael said. "This means being on top of management techniques that take into account the orchard as a whole.

The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist by Michael Phillips -- click for book summary The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist

"You can go out and mow six or more times, for instance, because that's what Americans do with grass. Or you can understand how apple roots interact with mycorrhizal fungi beneath a haphazard mulching plan that encourages flowering meadow species in the aisle ways which provide nectar for adult parasitic wasps that lay their eggs in codling moth eggs. There's a full day's course in that statement, of course, but the point is we affect everything in the orchard when we do something as seemingly benign as mow the grass. The biodynamic concept of the farm as its own organism intrigues me immensely. Most of us have a tremendously large list of inputs we bring in to fertilize the trees, foliar spray the trees, protect the fruit from diseases, protect the fruit from insects, and so forth. Each one of those inputs comes accompanied with a bill. Don't get me wrong: certain products are essential given the current state of our limited understanding. The ideal orchard is part of a farm where animals provide manure for fertilization, certain herbal concoctions can be used to induce systemic resistance to disease, and one's own cider vinegar (see below) keeps the grower going."

Michael, who consults other orchardists, is revising Apple Grower for publication sometime in 2005. He stated that much new information has come together as far as what can be achieved in an integrated organic orchard. "I find myself humbled again and again," he said, "by all sorts of amazing insights from other growers, researchers, and spirit. To be honest, it's a daunting task to be the storyteller of such a fine tale."

Heartsong's apple production creates a mutually beneficial relationship with the farm's herb crops. "Apples and medicinal herbs complement each other nicely, both labor-wise and as companion plantings," Michael said. "Many of the larger trees are ringed by comfrey, for instance. This particular herb serves as a living mulch, growing two to three feet high, blooming delightfully for the bumblebees (a very important pollinator that needs summer-long bloom to build up populations), and then falls over to smother competing sod. We harvest second and third growth leaves from the comfrey to dry for medicinal sales, and also dig the rather large roots of bigger plants in the fall. The spring flush of comfrey leaves are thought to contain excessive amounts of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, so our cross-use of the plant works out well."

The farm's other herbs further serve as food for the soil, as Michael describes here: "Many of the herbs brought into the solar drying tunnel are dried stalk and all. The leaves are then "garbled" off the stalk by quickly rubbing across wire mesh frames. That leaves a heap of nutrient rich canes from wild raspberry and woody stalks from golden rod, for instance. These are scattered beneath apple trees as mulch being composted in place. The woody material creates precisely the kind of soil environment in which tree root mycorrhizal fungi thrive. Health of the whole system is enhanced across the board."

The hawthorn produces another sideline product within the Phillips' crop of apples. The trees grow along the edges of the orchard. "Normally," Michael explained, "an orchardist would cut such down as a source of insect pressure for the fruit trees. Here, the hawthorn gets harvested as a very profitable medicinal herb. Generally speaking, you find dried hawthorn berries on the market as a cardiovascular tonic herb. The young leaves and unpollinated blossom clusters contain the same medicinal virtue." (Michael can be found in these thorny trees each spring, up on his picking ladder, picking bucket strapped across the shoulders, earning about $30 an hour during the three to five-day harvest window.) "I do my fair share of bleeding," he said, "to gather hawthorn blossoms, though, as that's inevitable when you grab a hidden thorn in being a fast picker. Basically every other blossom cluster is stripped from the tree, much like thinning in the apple orchard, so that the tree can bear a proper annual crop each season."

As you will read more below, Michael and Nancy have foreseen a new direction in herb marketing and production, where, for example, some herbal remedies are crafted fresh with very concise methods, right on the farm. This has created yet another apple/herb product. "One intriguing cross market product comes from the real cider vinegar we make and age in genuine wooden barrels," Michael said. "You have to understand that many of the health benefits long claimed for vinegar are not to be found in the modern industrial product on the supermarket shelf. Aging in the presence of wood is what develops the enzymes that make vinegar such a cure-all. Another desirable trait of real vinegar is its ability to draw out calcium from nutrient rich herbs. Thus we tincture plants like borage, milky oats, horsetail, nettles, and raspberry leaf in our own organic vinegar to make the High Calcium Tonic sold in our herb catalog."

The Phillips are taking herb production and marketing down a new path, where the life force of the herb, including where and how it's grown, are as important as the species of the herb itself. They describe this as "Earth-based herbalism." "Herbal medicine definitely takes two forms today," Michael said. "The pharmaceutical version of herbalism in many health food stores and chain drug stores more often than not misses the point. Plant connection and plant spirit underlies what we do here on our farm. The herbs speak for themselves through their vibrancy and vibes. A small-scale, hand-crafted farm effort works as you build this awareness on many, many fronts."

The Herbalist's Way: The Art and Practice of Healing with Plant Medicines by Nancy and Michael Phillips -- click for book summary The Herbalist's Way: The Art and Practice of Healing with Plant Medicines

Many of Heartsong's herbs are dried and sold in bulk across the continent, along with a number of value-added products produced and sold from the farm. Some of the preparations are sold only seasonally, and the demand has been high. Nancy's herbal mouthwash concentrate, for example, contains echinacea, spilanthes, white willow bark, and the essential oils of peppermint and tea tree. Customers add a minimum of five drops of this mixture to water.

More and more of the population are developing a respect for herbs, which are finding their way into mainstream media. But because it is more than the herb species alone that brings forth its desired qualities, more education, often directly from the farmers, is beneficial to bringing in customers who want a quality product. "There's no turning back once you understand how much of a difference high-quality herbs make in a holistic healing approach," said Nancy. "Good dried herbs look, smell, and taste very similar to the living plants out in the field and garden. Herbal products made in small batches by community herbalists feature that same superior quality. On the flip side, too many people still gain their information about herbs from glossy magazine ads and from walking down pharmacy store aisles. The understanding imparted from these sources falls into what I call the "take this herb for that condition" approach to herbal medicine. In truth, herbal medicine at its best is about supporting the body's innate ability to heal itself. I'm glad people are becoming empowered to take responsibility for their own health. It's a journey that guides us back to the connecting with the place -- and the plants! -- where we each live.

"Plants are ancient beings," she continued. "We have evolved on this planet with them, and accordingly our bodies know how to work synergistically with the plant constituents as well as subtler energies. Our spirits are nourished as well in our relationship with plants. Sitting with these ancient ones can sometimes be just as powerful as ingesting the herb, if not more so. The plants are eager to share their healing. Gratefulness and reverence are all they ask in return."

The farm itself can be the best place to educate humanity while generating farm customers at the same time. Besides attending a number of herb conferences each year and consulting other farmers, the Phillips offer educational and experiential camps to people of all ages right on their farm. Adults may camp on the farm or stay at inns nearby. Children's classes also offer camping opportunities on the farm. Kids will not only become the earth's future stewards and customers, their interest in nature camps can spill over to their parents, being their parents own best teachers, with their enthusiasm drawing adults into the world of sustainable farming who would otherwise have overlooked the treasures to be found on a small farm.

"Many children grow up removed from the natural world," Nancy said. "More of their time is spent inside buildings and vehicles than out in the woods and meadows. Yet what delight they show when they finally get their hands in the soil or wade out in the brook! I simply love having Nature & Spirit camps for children here at our farm each summer. We go out and learn about individual plants, feeling and smelling each herb. The kids get to pick their own salad vegetables from the garden plus some wild edibles in the field. You can't find a better way for people to learn where their food and medicine comes from than this. Kids need to know that Nature is indeed an option in their lives."

And, according to Michael, bringing children to the farm seems to help family bonding and keeping the kid in the farmer alive. "Farming is all about being too busy most all the time. I think the (kids') nature camp idea fits right in with doing things with your own children. Gracie (the Phillips' daughter) loves having other kids here. We put on nature skits in the teepee -- which might never get set up if I let the farm rule the order of my day. Nancy helps the kids create an herbal first aid kit with safe remedies the children make themselves, like Peppermint Tummy Potion. The process tends towards the hilarious, which can't always be said when adults focus solely on making a living. The kids come out to the orchard as part of a scavenger hunt, and somehow we get to following the trail of a fox, finding scat, and even playing at being fox kits scampering on the big boulder ourselves. I guess what ol' Daddy Fox is trying to say is that there's more rewards than a farmer might think in this kind of venture."


Barbara Berst Adams is author of Micro Eco-Farming: Prospering from Backyard to Small Acreage in Partnership with the Earth (New World Publishing):

article copyright © by Barbara Berst Adams
photograph of the Phillips family copyright © by Frank Siteman

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