Valley Bounty: Sawmill Herb Farm
By JACOB NELSON, For the Recorder May 12, 2021
Western Massachusetts is home to thousands of edible plants, both farmed and wild. In modern society, only a handful are considered useful as food or medicine. Yet that distinction is often artificial, maintained mostly by our own preconceptions. “Pretty much everyone who has a lawn has medicinal and edible plants growing in their yard,” said Susan Pincus, owner of Sawmill Herb Farm in Florence. Mid-spring marks peak availability for many wild plants including nettles, dandelions, fiddleheads and docks. “It can be really joyful to incorporate these plants into your diet,” Pincus said. “ Just by adding small amounts into meals, you add different flavors, vitamins and minerals.”
“You form a different relationship to food too,” she said. “Instead of buying something or even growing it, you go and find it, and start to welcome back each plant as a new chapter of spring.”
For Pincus, wild plants are one source of herbal medicine and nutrition, and through Sawmill Herb Farm, she connects people to an even wider world of beneficial plants. The farm grows and sells medicinal and culinary herbs, products made from them, and nursery starts for many varieties so others can grow them in their own gardens. Education is also a big part of their mission. Sawmill was born out of Pincus’ farming background and interest in herbs.
“I started learning about plant medicine through farming, reading and cooking,” she said. “I wanted to work with the herbs I was learning about, but I didn’t want to buy dried herbs online — it’s just not the same product. I couldn’t find many types of herbs fresh, so I started growing them myself.”
In 2013 she secured a lease on the Grow Food Northampton Community Farm and her exploration became a business, growing ever since.
This year, Pincus and her team are focusing much of their energy on growing for fresh herb CSA shares. Members can choose five or more herbs to experiment with on a biweekly or monthly basis, with new choices available each week. Shares can be picked up in Florence and are also distributed into Boston and New York City.
“It’s a real mix of people” who join this CSA, Pincus said. “Some like to cook with interesting ingredients, some are really into making their own medicines, or make and sell tinctures, lotions and things like that. Some have been with us all nine years, other are just starting to learn about plant medicine. For them, this is a good way to experience herbs they’re reading about.”
Pincus sees members’ interests change year to year, sometimes as a group. “Last year, people were making a lot of immune-supportive medicine. This year, I don’t know — maybe it’ll be more about dealing with stress and anxiety.” CSA distribution starts in June, with sign-ups now on their website, at sawmillherbfarm.com.
Sawmill also makes and sells their own teas, tinctures and other “apothecary” items from what they grow, sold online and at local retailers. In most years, they offer a monthly subscription box of these items, too. With Pincus expecting a child this year that’s been put on hold, but she expects it will return.
Many of Sawmill’s crops are not easily found elsewhere. Indeed, that’s why Pincus started farming them in the first place. She’s always grown her own plants from seed, but with greenhouse up-grades, she can now grow excess nursery starts to sell.
“That has become a huge part of the business,” she said. “People come from hours away to get starts. It’s amazing.” All starts must be ordered on their website now for pickup in a few weeks.
For customers, Sawmill Herb Farm enables greater access to herbal health and nutrition at whatever level of involvement people are comfortable with. Those who want to grow their own food and medicine can buy starts, others can enjoy fresh herbs and skip the gardening step, and still others choose readymade apothecary products — or all three.
Meanwhile, through their classes and education programs, farm staffers guide people further along their plant-knowledge journey.
“We usually host a lot of workshops at the farm,” Pinus said, “mostly focusing on herbal health and the body.”
She teaches some and brings in other local herbalists to share their knowledge as well. She often hosts educational interns and lets other herbalists host apprenticeships on the farm, offering a deep dive for a small group of committed students.
Many of these activities paused with the pandemic, but she hopes workshops resume later this year.
When beginning to explore more medicinal plants, wild or farmed, Pincus suggests starting small and playing with whatever plants and skills are of interest.
“Work with one plant for a while and get to know it,” she said. “If you’re wild harvesting, notice what it looks like over the year in its environment. Build that awareness and relationship.”
Pincus mentions Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal and Edible Plants as an invaluable resource, as well as the many talented herbalists in the area. Sawmill also has several resources on its website.
This is a great time of year to harvest parts of nettles (leaves), dandelions (roots, leaves and flowers) and Japanese knotweed (roots and new shoots). If harvesting nettle, wear gloves to protect from their sting. Once cooked or dried, the sting disappears.
Making teas or infusions (like a tea but steeped much longer) are easy ways to familiarize yourself with a new herb.
For a simple nettle infusion, “just put fresh nettles in a jar, cover it with just-boiled water, let it sit for a while, then enjoy,” Pincus said. “The nutrition in a nettle infusion is almost tangible, like you can feel the spring energy pushing out the heaviness of winter. ” One way to acquaint yourself with many edible plants — especially dandelion buds — is to “fritter” them with a simple batter-dip-and-fry. All dandelion parts, as well as knotweed shoots, are great in spring salads, she said.
Of course, caution is warranted when harvesting wild foods. Over-harvesting is to be avoided and steer clear of areas contaminated by chemicals or animal waste, such as roadsides. But with a little knowledge and common sense, neither foraging nor practicing herbal medicine needs to be intimidating, Pincus said.
For many, she said, “It’s just exciting — there’s all these new plants to know and use.”
Jacob Nelson is the communications coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.