Valley Bounty: Sweet Birch Herbals
Published November 27, 2021 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Jacob Nelson
For the Gazette:
“People have evolved with plants for thousands of years,” Hannah Jacobson-Hardy of Sweet Birch Herbals in Ashfield reminds us. “And herbal medicine is still the most used healing practice in the world.”
Through Sweet Birch Herbals, Jacobson-Hardy aims to keep her community rooted to the teaching, healing, and all-around wellbeing that local plants and herbs can provide.
“I grow medicinal herbs and make products from them,” she explains, “and I teach classes about gardening, foraging, and making herbal products so you can have your own apothecary.”
Jacobson-Hardy is also the woman behind another local product, Full Moon Ghee, a line of different varieties of ghee (clarified butter) she makes with grass-fed milk from local cows.
For Sweet Birch Herbals, the center of activity is Jacobson-Hardy’s homestead and farm on Creamery Road in Ashfield.
“My property is about 3 acres, so it’s small, but plenty of space for growing herbs,” she says. “Right by the road there’s a little barn with a farm store and animals, a greenhouse where I’ll grow ginger and turmeric next year, and then a big field planted with elderberries, flowers, and garlic.” Up the hill are more gardens, well mulched and fertilized with manure from her animals to build healthy soil without tilling.
“The apothecary (where herbs and products are stored) is in the basement of the house where it’s cooler,” she continues, “and we have a little kitchen down there for making products.”
Teas and tinctures, creams and salves, syrups and ciders – these are most of what Sweet Birch Herbals makes and sells. The potency of fresh herbs is fleeting, but preserving an herb in one of these forms captures its essence and usefulness in something that’s shelf-stable.
“I try to grow everything I can here for making these,” says Jacobson-Hardy, “but sometimes that’s not possible. Like this year I bought ginger and turmeric from Old Friends Farm in Amherst. I love connecting with and buy a lot from other local farms.”
On the education side, Sweet Birch Herbal’s core offering is a year-long apprenticeship led by Jacobson-Hardy. Participants join either a beginning, intermediate, or advanced cohort of 10 others to deepen their knowledge of herbs and uses.
“We meet once a month for a full day, March through November,” explains Jacobson-Hardy. “It’s a lot of hands-on learning – harvesting from the gardens and forest, cooking things, making ferments, making your own herbal medicines.”
While apprenticeships are full for 2022, Jacobson-Hardy also teaches one-day workshops throughout the year, at the farm in Ashfield and by request at other locations across the region.
Jacobson-Hardy’s own journey in herbal education draws broadly from her past. She credits her parents and grandparents, who taught her to grow, find, cook, and preserve food and herbs from a young age, for instilling an understanding that “health comes from what we put in our bodies.” Later, a degree in Plant and Soil Science from UMass Amherst and time studying with other local herbalists helped tune her awareness of how plants help people.
Yet ultimately, Jacobson-Hardy says it’s the plants themselves who are the greatest teachers, as people have just scratched the surface in understanding their range of characteristics, properties, and uses.
“There’s a level of humility that comes from working with plants and herbalism,” she says, “because no person is truly a master. There’s always more to learn.”
The idea that everyone’s a novice to some degree can make exploring herbalism for the first time less intimidating. Says Jacobson-Hardy, “a great way to integrate herbs into your daily life is through your regular cooking routine.” Plenty of culinary herbs have medicinal benefits, like aiding digestion or being antibacterial.
She also suggests familiarizing yourself with herbal teas to understand the effects of different plants. (Always consult a medical professional before experimenting with more potent herbal medicines.)
For those who’d rather use herbs in pre-made products like tinctures, teas, oils, and so on, Sweet Birch Herbals is one of several local businesses making them with local ingredients.
“Elderberry syrups are one of the most popular things this time of year,” Jacobson-Hardy says. “They boost the immune system, are antiviral, and taste really good mixed into seltzer water or tea. We also make a rose cream and a lavender cream, both of which are great for hydrating the skin as the air dries out. And teas are always popular.”
For those looking ahead to the holidays on today’s Small Business Saturday, they also have gift boxes that combine a handful of products. And from Full Moon Ghee, “chocolate and maple ghee are really popular stocking stuffers,” says Jacobson-Hardy.
“Plus I just made a batch of balsam fir essential oil with balsam boughs from Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm here in Ashfield,” she says, “and it’s so nice. It makes the whole house smell like the holidays.”
Sweet Birch Herbals has a self-serve farm stand open dawn to dusk on-site in Ashfield. They also sell online through their website, in person at the Northampton Winter Farmers Market, and through several local retailers in the Valley (their website, sweetbirchherbals.com, has a full list).
Many people use herbal medicine as part of a routine of self-care. Jacobson-Hardy sees a true understanding as encompassing that, and care for things much greater.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved nature,” she says. “It’s my happy place, where I feel whole and safe. Seeing it degraded, I felt the way I could leave the earth a better place was through education. Connecting people to the earth, nature, and plants, and teaching that we are not separate. Then it’s harder to hurt the earth. Because we see it’s part of us.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) For more ideas about locally grown and made gifts this holiday season, visit www.buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.