Alex Rea says locally grown medicinal herbs are "having their moment."
by Patrick Dunn
From the August, 2017 issue
Rea and her partner, Ben Hicks, are seizing that moment by starting a medicinal herb farm, Black Locust Gardens, in Dexter. The fifteen-acre farm is part of a 120-acre property belonging to Hicks's grandmother, who leases it to them at what Hicks describes as "minimal rent." Although Hicks and Rea planted and harvested their first crop just last summer, herbalists-those who specialize in the therapeutic use of plants-from Michigan and across the country eagerly bought up their harvest, which included astragalus, sage, marshmallow root, and goldenseal.
Hicks describes the herb farm as a "natural extension of the local food movement" into the world of alternative health and nutritional supplements. People are asking, he says, "Why should I buy all this nice local food and then take supplements from Meijer?"
The paths that led Hicks and Rea to Dexter have been adventurous, to say the least. He grew up in Ann Arbor, she in New York's Southern Tier. After high school, each set out train hopping and hitchhiking around the country; they met in New Orleans in 2010.
They traveled the Southwest and California together, and from there the timeline seems to be something of a happy blur. "Then we went to Maine," Hicks recalls. "Oh yeah! We worked on a blueberry farm in Maine," Rea exclaims. That experience sparked Hicks's interest in agriculture. Rea traces her own fascination to watching her grandma garden.
When they settled back down in Ann Arbor in 2012, Hicks attended Michigan State University's Organic Farmer Training Program and got a job at Ann Arbor's Sunseed Farm, where he's now working his fourth season. Rea attended White Lake herbalist Jim McDonald's four-season intensive program in herbalism, building on previous studies at Ithaca, New York's Northeast School of Botanical Medicine. She now works as an herb and supplement buyer for Plum Market.
In addition to the farm, Rea is marketing her own line of salves, teas, and other botanical products made from herbs she
grows and gathers. "I'm trying to transition out of my nine-to-five and into farming," she says. "But it's such a delicate dance. I think a lot of farmers really struggle with that for the first couple of years."
For now, Rea and Hicks seem willing to take their time. They're trying to focus on rare and valuable crops like ginseng, which is often shipped from China due to heavy poaching of wild ginseng in the U.S. They're also cultivating an orchard, which contains some massive apple trees that long predated their farm as well as pears, peaches, raspberries, currants, and elderberries planted last year. The orchard's handmade fence posts are cut from black locust trees, which dot the property and give the farm its name.
About half the farm is still planted only with cover crop and will remain so in order to fulfill the generally accepted requirement that organic produce must come from fields that have been farmed pesticide free for at least three years. Hicks says he hopes to be working a "critical mass" of twenty acres by 2019 and get a USDA organic certification, which will help the farm expand to larger and farther-flung markets. "With our scale and how we've chosen to expand, which is kind of slowly and meticulously, I think the market can only grow and we can only grow," he says. "But for now it's just really satisfying to see the things we're growing survive the winter and come back."
The term "medicinal herbs" raises certain questions for some who are discovering the farm-and herbalism-for the first time. Rea says it's the one "pet peeve" she's found since starting the business.
"It's like, 'No, marijuana doesn't cure everything,'" she says. "'No, we don't grow it. And no, I don't recommend everyone to smoke spliffs.'"
[Originally published in August, 2017.]
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