Podcast 174: Interview with Shawn Donnille of Mountain Rose Herbs

As herbalism is becoming more popular, the sustainability of plants themselves needs to be a primary focus for all of us. But like all issues of environmental sustainability, it’s not just about individual decisions and habits. We must pay special attention to the activities of large corporations, because they can have much larger impacts than single people – for good or for ill.

One company working for good in this way is Mountain Rose Herbs. They are one of the biggest herbal suppliers in the United States, so it’s important that they’re taking seriously the impact their business has on plant populations. That commitment leads them to make some business decisions that put plants ahead of profits – just the way it should be!

Mentioned in this episode:

Family Herbalist

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Episode Transcript

Katja (00:14):
Hi. I’m Katja.

Ryn (00:15):
And I’m Ryn.

Katja (00:15):
And we’re here at Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn (00:19):
And on the internet everywhere thanks to the podcast. This week we’re going to take a brief interlude in our herbs A to Z series, because we had the chance to interview Shawn Donnille, owner of Mountain Rose Herbs. We talked with him about their sustainability practices and their partnerships, and why it’s a good thing that rhodiola is expensive.

Katja (00:40):
I was really looking forward to having this conversation. And y’all, I promised myself that I would leave my pompoms at home. But the thing is I get really excited about businesses who are trying to do good things in the world. And then we were talking to Shawn, and I got really, really excited. I got a little gushy.

Ryn (01:00):
There was some definite cheerleading happening, but don’t worry. It was still a really great conversation. And I think that you all will enjoy hearing about how Mountain Rose Herbs is focusing on herbal sustainability, and what all of us can do to contribute to that effort.

Katja (01:15):
There’s a lot to cheer about.

Ryn (01:17):
Yeah, for sure. So yeah, here we go. Here’s the interview.

Katja (01:21):
As people in this time and place, we are taught to be consumers. We’ve been taught to think about what we want and to prioritize getting it as cheap as possible. But listen, nothing about that is sustainable. We need a new thought process about everything we purchase, but especially, specifically about how we’re buying herbs. So I want to start right off here with the reality that as herbalists, we are actually not consumers. And sometimes I’m really afraid that as the popularity of herbalism snowballs, that part of the teaching might be being left out. So, we might need to say it together like a mantra. We are not consumers. And what are we instead, or maybe what do we need to rebuild ourselves into? Because literally we all grew up in this consumer economy. It is so ingrained. So, there’s some rebuilding that needs to happen here. So, we need to rebuild ourselves into stewards, people in relationship with plants. Which means in relationship with the earth, in relationship with the growers, and okay, well actually everything is connected here. So, we are not consumers. We are stewards. And if we approach herbalism as consumers, we will in fact consume it all.

Ryn (02:37):

Shawn (02:38):
So true.

Katja (02:39):
So, with that in mind we are super excited to introduce Shawn Donnille, who is the owner of Mountain Rose Herbs. And I’m so excited to be talking about sustainability and stewardship and the price of herbs and the cost of herbs and what you are really buying when you buy herbs. So, Sean, welcome. Hi, thank you so much for being.

Shawn (03:01):
Thank you.

Katja (03:05):
I want to launch off, and then I’m going to stop talking and just let you talk for a while. But I want to kind of position this from the start that rhodiola, on the Mountain Rose website this morning, is selling for $117 a pound. And I have to say that when I see that, I feel so excited. A lot of people might think that I’m kind of weird to say that. But what I’m really excited about when I see that number is what it represents. And of course it doesn’t represent that every expensive thing you buy. But because it is Mountain Rose, and because I know so much about your sustainability initiatives, I am so excited about what that number represents. And I want to talk about that today. Talk a little bit about where that rhodiola is coming from, how it’s being grown, and all of the amazing things that we’re getting for that price.

Shawn (04:01):
Yeah, I would love to. Well, to give a little bit… I was going to say, if you are really excited about the high price of rhodiola, you should look at the price of our goldenseal and ginseng in particular. That’s really expensive too.

Katja (04:12):
Yeah. I want them to be so expensive. I’m so excited about the initiatives about how you’re growing those or how you’re partnering to get those grown.

Ryn (04:21):
Right, and again it’s for good reasons. It’s not like manufactured scarcity or something like that.

Why Some Herbs are So Expensive

Shawn (04:27):
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. You know, the ginseng and the goldenseal – I know we’re supposed to be talking about rhodiola – but we spent the better part of 10 years developing cultivation programs with those two botanicals in mind. And like rhodiola, ginseng and goldenseal is incredibly finicky. It needs to stay in the ground for about two or three years. Germination is difficult at best. And we’re probably going to be looking at a future price of about 200 to $250 a pound for those two botanicals. But as we know, those are critically endangered plants. They’re on the CITES list, so their exportation is heavily regulated. And it’s an at-risk botanical for the United Plant Savers. Rhodiola, to go back on rhodiola a little bit, we were originally getting that from the high mountain regions of the Xinjiang province in China. But the problem we were having there was one, they don’t have an ethical stewardship approach when it comes to wild harvesting rhodiola. But the other problem is that China is notoriously filthy, not in regards to rubbish or trash, but in regards to chemical overloads and pesticide residues. So, what we found was the vast majority of our rhodiola imports actually contained pesticide residues and we would have to destroy it. Unlike other companies, Mountain Rose tests for pesticide residues on botanicals where we deem there might be a drift issue. Or anything that is not certified organic we test for pesticide residues. So, that started making our radar about 8, 9, 10 years ago. And that’s when we realized, okay. We’re trying to get out of China. We don’t want to do business with China anymore. Let’s try to develop cultivation programs for rhodiola.

Shawn (05:58):
And like I mentioned earlier in the program, rhodiola is in the stone crop family. So it’s incredibly, incredibly finicky. It requires kind of dry, arid soils. It requires long, extensive periods of deep freezing. Even the germination is tied into the length of freezing. So, this isn’t something you could germinate in your greenhouse or plant in your garden. You need very specific soil types. And you could only find those in a handful of areas, especially throughout North America. And we are trying to move the cultivation of botanicals here into the United States and Canada. We want to get away from the rest of the world. It’s more sustainable. We have better control inputs. And then we can ensure that it’s done organically correctly. So the rhodiola, we started working out of Canada. There was a growers cooperative that worked with numerous cultivators of the rhodiola. And how that co-op worked is that you’d have, you know, a cooperative center. And that center would work out like tendrils with numerous different growers. And they would consolidate everything into one facility. It’s great. It’s a fantastic program. It’s done organically. It’s done according to good agricultural manufacturing practices,. but we wanted to have much more of a direct working relationship with the actual grower. And so we reached out to our current grower in Alaska, and started working with them and their cultivation programs. And it took them several years to not only develop the infrastructure to begin that program, but it took them another five years from the time it was germinated until the time of harvest for us to actually see a product. And when you’re taking care of something for five years, it’s going to be $117 a pound.

Ryn (07:41):
Yeah, sure. Of course.

Shawn (07:42):
it’s really expensive. And so right now we work with both Canada and Alaska, because it’s a quantity game. And Alaska can’t cultivate the sheer volume that we need. So, we utilize both sources. And it will probably be another 5 to 10 years before our grower in Alaska actually increases the output. Right now we typically need tonnage quantity. I should step back a little bit. Historically we would go through anywhere between one to 2000 pounds a year. These days not so much because the price. It’s just not conducive. We’re just not selling that much. And I’m fine with that. I have no desire to sell a bunch of rhodiola. It’s important medicine. I want to make it available. But it’s also a very delicate plant. It’s delicate medicine, and we need to charge accordingly. So, I have no intention of selling a whole bunch. But then again, I run business entirely differently. And most people who know me know I’m an anti-capitalist by my very virtue, my very nature. Mountain Rose, our goal has never been to sell products. Even when we go to conferences I instruct my staff look. We’re not here to sell products. You know, we’re here to sell sustainability. We’re here to sell the mission of the company. We’re here to sell education. Let’s not put a priority on selling products. And I was part of a conference last week, and we were discussing what makes our business model different compared to other businesses. And I think the overwhelming argument I gave was like Mountain Rose. We’re inherently anti-capitalist. You know, even on Black Friday we shut down. And I don’t know if you ever saw our campaign, but on Black Friday if you went to the Mountain Rose website, it was black. And it talked about how consumption is killing the planet. And that just for one day we want to shut down on the busiest commerce day in human history, just so that way we can contemplate our role as people and stewards of the environment. And just to have a day where we go, you know what? I’m not going to buy anything. I don’t want to buy anything. It’s killing the planet. So, our approach towards capitalism is very distinct compared to other organizations. So, you probably won’t get the same level of commitment from other organizations that you get from us.

Ryn (09:52):
Yeah. I mean, you know, you can go to Amazon. You can search for rhodiola. You can find a million products. A lot of them are cheap in all senses of the word. And you can look at that and then – like you were just saying a moment ago – recognize the difficulty of growing the plant, the kind of conditions that it requires, the inputs that are involved. Not to mention the people, right., who are going to be growing that. And are they being given living wages, or better than living wages, let’s say. And are they being supported to continue as well? So, when we when we see somebody or we have a client or a student and they’re like hey. Where can I get this kind of herb? I don’t have a lot of money. We’re more often going to try and redirect, you know. And say all right, well, there are lots of herbs in the world. I see why this one has captured your interest and your excitement. But is there somebody who grows in your backyard that could help out with the problem that you’re dealing with or could give you the kind of feeling that you’re looking for? And I know that that’s something that you all do as well, is to recommend alternatives, right?

Shawn (11:00):
Yeah. We do. The rhodiola cooperative that we work with out of Canada, they operate under the premise that you just mentioned about people’s backyards. So up there you have a lot of stony soils. And the co-op will reach out to their member network and say hey, are you interested in cultivating this rhodiola on a small scale for our larger co-op. And the co-op we work with out of Canada focuses just on rhodiola. So, they could get anywhere between 5, 10, 15 backyard farmers that are growing small amounts of rhodiola in which are consolidated at the co-op’s facility. And that’s the material we buy. So backyard growing programs are an important part of the entire matrix that Mountain Rose uses to acquire the botanicals we use. And like I said before, I have a deep seated anathema towards wild harvested ingredients in every capacity. And it’s my company’s goal and mission to make sure that everything we offer is a hundred percent organically grown and cultivated. That’s the only way we can sustain the future. Because right now we have way too many people going out into the woods and harvesting unsustainable amounts of plants, especially here in the Pacific Northwest. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to play any part in that. It’s just the equivalent of blood money. Like I don’t want blood money on my hands.

Katja (12:17):
I know that you have projects like this with goldenseal, with ginseng, and those are two really important herbs that I really don’t work with very often simply because of the sustainability issues. And to be honest I don’t work with rhodiola super often either. It’s an important herb for me personally, but I work with it sparingly. Because as I was introduced to it in Iceland, already there was a lot of pressure on this plant. So, like my whole relationship is built around working with it sparingly. But I think that so many people have maybe heard of rhodiola as the happy herb, or take it if you think you have ADD, or take it if you feel sad or depressed or whatever. And listen, there are so many herbs. There are so many plants. And rhodiola has some real specific indications in which it is exactly what you need for that very specific sort of situation. But it’s not an across the board kind of plant like catnip or tulsi. And those plants, those sort of first and second and even third tier plants that you might choose to work with depression or ADD management, or anytime you want a happy herb, all of them are cultivatable. Tulsi, catnip, chamomile, rose, blue vervain, like any of them, linden even, so much more available than rhodiola. And that is one of the things we’re getting for that cost, is the reinforcement that I should be saying to myself do I really need rhodiola in this situation? You know?

Herb Sales as Trends and Moving Towards Extracts

Shawn (14:05):
Yeah, that’s interesting. So we noticed rhodiola sales escalating in 2016. And the interesting thing about Mountain Rose is that we can follow trends. We can follow political trends. We can follow socio-economic trends. We can even determine which illnesses are plaguing particular parts of the country, because we’ll get a ton of orders from the Midwest just for say elderberry. And then that’s when we realize okay. There’s obviously a flu pandemic going on in the Midwest right now. But rhodiola was interesting because it was national. Everybody in the United States was buying rhodiola right around 2015, 16, and 17. And not to politicize it, but that was the age of Trump, and this political demarcation. And people were miserable. They were unhappy. And rhodiola was a sensational product that corporations beautifully packaged and beautifully marketed. And it sounded exotic. It sounded fancy. It sounded like real medicine. Catnip, I’m with you. But catnip doesn’t sound sexy. It doesn’t sound exotic. So, we were noticing large swaths of corporations and nutraceutical companies pimping out rhodiola. And people were like oh my God, the happy herb. I want it. I want to buy it. And the sales just went through the roof for us. And then that’s when we said okay, this is no longer sustainable. Not only that but we’re having a really hard time securing safe material that’s free a pesticide residues. And let’s start working on some cultivation programs. And that’s where we are right now. And as a result of that price going up, at least for Mountain Rose Herbs, our rhodiola sales have absolutely plummeted. But I’m A-okay with that. Like I said, my objective is not to sell a ton of rhodiola or make a bunch of money off of this plant.

Ryn (15:52):
Hmm. Shawn, I wonder if you’ve seen something similar like that with ashwagandha in the last couple of years? I just saw that the herb market report came out for 2020, and ashwagandha had like 160% increase in sales, which was already high in the previous year. So you’ve seen that too?

Shawn (16:08):
Yep, absolutely. Yeah. Ashwagandha, great adaptogenic, you know, wonderful for the system, easily approachable. It has that sexy name. It’s kind of exotic. But we’ve also noticed that with both schisandra and astragalus as well. But ashwagandha is definitely on the top of the list.

Katja (16:24):
Which is actually fine with me because it’s cultivatable. Like I grow ashwagandha, you know. I grew it outside the apartment in Boston on the porch in a bucket. It’ll grow. It’s happy to do it. So I’d love to see a plant like ashwagandha be super, super popular, and rhodiola be a when I really need it.

Shawn (16:46):
Yeah. The other interesting thing that should probably mention is that obviously we’re in the bulk herb business, and that’s a large volume of our total business. But in the next 6-12 months, we’re going to move most of our focus towards our extract lines. So, we’re a manufacturer of extracts as well. And the reason why is because the medicine per pound volume is really quite high. So, we could develop probably a year’s worth of ashwagandha material for our customers utilizing 40 to 50 pounds of fresh material. Whereas if we sell on the dry market, we’re going to be selling three, four or 5,000 pounds. So, we’re going to be pushing our extracts really aggressively. We’re going to make that the focus of our herbal products division. Because we sell DIY ingredients, we sell essential oils, we sell body care products, and we sell herbs. So, with the herbal product portion of our business, we want to focus more on extracts, because you can get a lot more medicine out of a lot less material that way.

Ryn (17:49):
Yeah. I feel like I’ve been noticing the last few years more tinctures available on the site.

Katja (17:56):
Me too. So, when we work with clients, since COVID it’s been exclusively online. And we don’t want to mail stuff individually to clients, because we’re not really set up to be a mail order business. That’s not what we do. And so we’ve been just directing people like okay, well have this from Mountain Rose and that from Mountain Rose. And here’s all your links. We send them the email. Here’s all your links. Just click each one and put it in your cart. That’s what you need. And a couple of weeks ago I really wanted a client to have goldenrod tincture. And I was like man, where am I ever going to find goldenrod tincture? And I searched on Mountain Rose. And I was like oh, they have it. And I was so excited because it’s not as common to find that. And I was just thrilled. So, I personally would love to thank you for the expansion of the extract line. I’m very excited about it.

Shawn (18:53):
Yeah, and thank you. Thank you for supporting us. Yeah. We’re going to be focusing. I would like a full and complete line of extracts. Basically an extract version of every herb we sell. But that’s going to take us time to get there. We’re currently managing about 8,000 skus, so we have a lot of products to manage. So it’s a very delicate affair and it kind of takes time. We bought Terrafirma Botanicals about six years ago. And they were a local manufacturer of extracts. And River Kennedy, she was the owner. And she was a dear friend. And she passed because of MS. But we helped her with that acquisition, because she just wanted to see that her formulas and her product line and ultimately the employment of her daughter and her employees continued in perpetuity, while she was preparing for her inevitable death. And so we’ve had it for about six years. And we’ve learned the extract industry relatively quickly, but it’s still a learning process. But ideally I would love to have an extract version of every single herb we sell for that reason that I just described.

Katja (19:59):
Actually, I want to talk about that specifically a little bit, because that was a perfect lead in about how, if you make an extract, you need less plant material. And that’s how we work with Solomon’s seal almost exclusively. Because, Solomon’s seal is cultivatable of course, but it’s maybe not as abundant.

Ryn (20:27):
Just like most roots, you know, it takes time., It takes a while to grow. You have to kill the plant if you want to harvest that part of it.

Shawn (20:33):
And not only that, but the root systems aren’t really complex either. So, it requires a lot of material to get the poundage.

Katja (20:40):
Right, right. Yeah, so working with tinctures is one way that we also teach t. Stretch your plant matter. And I’m so excited to hear you talking about that. And then earlier when we were chatting about grow your own. And I wanted to talk about your seed line, and how I’ve been noticing that the seeds that you carry have expanded tremendously also. We tell our students listen, grow the easy stuff. Grow whatever grows by you, and then save your herb purchasing dollars for the expensive stuff that won’t grow where you are.

Don’t Buy It If You Can Grow It

Shawn (21:23):
Yeah. It seems like every one to two years, the company kind of evolves its message and its mission. And like I mentioned to you guys earlier, there was a good 10 or 15 year period there in the early years of Mountain Rose, where we were very adamant and forthcoming in all of our marketing materials about not buying from us. You don’t buy from us. If you need to great, we’re here for you, but you need to grow your own. And here’s a full line of seeds for you. And true to my anti capitalist nature, who we used is Horizon Herbs, and their Strictly Medicinal line. And I recommend everybody who’s listening to this to go visit them, because they have a much more robust line. But if you happen to do a little shopping on Mountain Rose, yeah. Throw in some seeds in your order and grow your own. But we’ve been working with Richo Cech. He’s the owner of Horizon Herbs. We’ve been working with him for 25 years. Dear friends. They’re in southern Oregon, in Williams, Oregon. Countless hours spent with that interesting fella. But I’m so thankful to have Richo and Horizon Herbs, because there’s nobody else doing it to the scale that they’re doing it. And yeah, I mean we really do need to grow our own. A lot of these plants are so easy, and you develop a much more intimate relationship that’s almost synergistic with the plant. And the medicine becomes more palpable and powerful when you have that relationship with the plant. And yep, and even to this day we encourage everybody to grow their own. It’s just, like I said, our mission and the core message that what we’re trying to convey always changes over a year or two. These days it’s the cultivation of endangered botanicals and our extract line. That’s probably going to be our core message for the next year or two. And right now we’re currently in negotiation for acquiring a farm with the sole intent of cultivating at-risk botanicals. Not popular botanicals, just at risk botanicals. I want to cultivate black cohosh. I want to cultivate bloodroot. I want to cultivate blue cohosh. Because right now there’s no robust cultivation program in the United States for those botanicals. And the sheer volume that we’re talking about, I think the annual tonnage report that I saw showed like 20 or 30,000 pounds of black cohosh. Most of that is being wild harvested, and it can’t sustain that. I mean you can’t wild harvest 20,000 pounds of black cohosh in a very finite region. So, my goal in the next two years – and I told everybody this – we will have a farm in two years. And we will be cultivating at-risk and endangered botanicals. And they will be very expensive,

Katja (24:02):
Yes. Good. I’m so excited to hear that. You know, and I think that to go back to grow your own, there was a 10 ten-year period where I was farming in Vermont at the turn of the century. That sounds so like, whatever

Shawn (24:19):
Woah, that’s right. We can say that, yeah. Circa 2000.

Katja (24:23):
But yeah, I was farming in Vermont. And I’ve got to say that no one I knew, and no one I knew knew anyone who didn’t have at least one person in the family had an off farm job because farming is not sustainable. You can’t, especially in 2000, it was very hard to make a living that way. But now I see here in this region, a lot of small herb farmers who are turning out really excellent material, some of whom sell that to Mountain Rose. I’m thinking about Foster Farm in particular, but there are other farms here too. Where now we are seeing herb farmers who are making a living wage and able to produce really just astounding quality, and to invest in what’s required to produce that kind of quality. Because they know that they can sell their product at a living wage. And they know that you will purchase it. That you’re not going to ask them to sort of underbid themselves just to unload their products.

Shawn (25:31):
Yeah. Yeah. That’s interesting. You mentioned Vermont, you know, the other thing working against Vermont is the sanely short growing season. You guys in Vermont have such a short growing season. Here the farms we’re looking at is in the southern Oregon, northern California region. So we have an 8 to 10 month growing region there. So, usually you have permanent on-site farm staff. You know, some of the farms that we’re looking at acquiring, some have permanent staff that number 15 to 20 farmers. These are full time living wage jobs. But only a long growing season can really afford that. So unfortunately certain portions of the country just can’t maintain numbers like that, because your growing season is so short. But yeah, I’m really excited about seeing a future farm for Mountain Rose.

Katja (26:20):
Yes. I think it’s really excellent when people are growing their own also because most people don’t have that kind of experience. Most people haven’t ever had a chance to be a farmer. So, they don’t really know what goes into herb production. And if you choose one herb – catnip, calendula, whatever – and you say I’m going to grow my year supply of this one herb this year. Even if you’re not a good gardener, you’ve never really practiced before. You can grow a year supply of catnip, right? Like almost everybody can do that. This year for our herb school we had a challenge for everybody to grow their own calendula. And you know, whatever. We pick a different herb every year. But doing that. So, one person maybe they’re going to grow ultimately two dry pounds of it by the time that they’ve grown it, processed it, whatever. And I think that that is such an educational experience. Because once you do that and you realize like holy cow. This was so much work for just what I, personally, am going to consume this one year. And then you start to multiply that out. And suddenly you realize this is a great price actually, you know?

The Difficulties of Growing Herbs on a Commercial Level

Shawn (27:35):
Yup. Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And to go back to rhodiola. That’s the case in point is that calendula is relatively easy to harvest. The dry down ratio is enormous. So, you could harvest 30 or 40 pounds. But once it dries down, you’re looking at it like one or two pounds. But it’s relatively easy to grow. Rhodiola is probably one of the most difficult plants to grow. And it’s so incredibly finicky. And the harvest, the yield, is relatively small. And it requires five years in the soil. So, imagine growing everything you need for one year, but times-ing that by five. And then trying to do it on a commercial level. I want to say in the history of all the cultivation programs, I think that rhodiola and the white wage were two of my favorites, and two that it was really passionate about. White Sage, because it’s powerful and indigenous medicine, and we wanted to respect indigenous cultures by not wild harvesting off of their sacred ancestral lands. We wanted to cultivate some backyard style, and we developed a cultivation program. So, we’re growing it organically on private land right now. So, we’re not engaging in any wild harvested materials whatsoever.

Katja (28:43):
That’s excellent.

New Speaker (28:44):
Yeah. And you mentioned Foster Farm Botanicals. Yeah. Definitely want to give a shout out to those guys. I couldn’t be more proud of my relationship with Foster Farm Botanicals, and I couldn’t be more proud to support them. The United States needs more large scale industrial – I say industrial – but large scale industrial growers of these plants, because it seemed to be really popular in the seventies. You had that first-generation. You had Pacific Botanicals. You had Herb Pharm. You had Trout Lake Farm. You had all these farms that they saw this revival in the cultivation of medicinal plants. Yet, I haven’t seen it in 25 years. It’s really difficult to grow medicinal herbs commercially. The most difficult part is the drying. The growing and the harvesting, not so much. But even that’s really difficult, because look. We’re not talking about corn or soy here. We’re talking about boneset or California poppy. How do I grow 20 acres of this? And where do I get the seed. And what pests are, you know, symbiotic with this particular plant. There’s numerous textbooks on corn and soy, but once you start getting into medicinal herbs, it’s esoteric. It’s a learned language. And we need more large-scale industrial growers to make that leap, and say you know what? I’m just going to go for it. And Foster Farm Botanicals was one of them. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those guys. Not only that, but what they’re cultivating, it’s some of the best quality on the market. Oh, it’s by far the best material in the market.

Katja (30:16):
Gorgeous. It’s so funny to think about the word industrial as referring to anything in Vermont, because everything is so… Like everything is on the side of a mountain. And the amount of flat space you have is very small. You have to like Tetris everything in. But you know, I think also something to consider is just how difficult it is to get access to land these days. Lots of people would like to grow, but it’s so expensive to find. Even if you’re just renting land, it’s so expensive. And then if you’re renting, you can’t guarantee like what if next year they say you can’t grow. And now suddenly where are you going to go? I’ve known several, local, very small farmers who have had that problem, where they were renting land. So, I don’t know if that problem is the same as you go further west. But here in New England it’s a big deal.

Shawn (31:11):
Oh, it’s a pandemic, to be honest with you. It’s an absolute pandemic. Especially in Washington, California and Oregon. The entire western seaboard land is astronomical. To put it in perspective, what we need, what Mountain Rose needs for our future farm, we’re looking at between a 100 and 150 acres. Three would be ideal, but it seems like most of the landholdings these days in organic production tend to be about a hundred to 150 acres. That can cost you to the tune of about $1.5 million minimum. And we’re not talking about equipment, facilities. We’re just talking land. And I remember a few years back, we were that close to buying a herb farm in Ohio that was adjacent to United Plant Savers goldenseal sanctuary. And Susan Leopold, she’d wind that deal up for us. And our goal was to cultivate ginseng and goldenseal on that property. But it was, I think, a 200 acre parcel. Like I said, it’s an Ohio. I think it was about 200 acres. It had a farm house. It had some equipment. And it was $280,000. It was nothing. So land in the Midwest is insanely cheap. So 200 acres in Ohio, $200,000. 200 acres in Oregon is $2 million. So, the barrier to entry, at least in the western United States, is really quite high. And the Midwest seems to be where it’s at with regards to land prices anyways.

Katja (32:37):
Yeah. I think that the prices are similar here in New England too.

Shawn (32:41):
I’m not surprised given the amount of congestion you have going on there.

Katja (32:45):
Well, and also even when you think about Vermont. Where, okay, well, there’s not a ton of people, and there’s so much more agricultural land. But my farm in Vermont was 150 acres. But the majority of that was up the side of a mountain. There were really only about 20 acres that were flat. That was fine at the time, because there were some things that grew up the side of the mountain. So, that was good.

Ryn (33:07):
Yeah, I mean it was a whole forest.

Katja (33:08):
Yeah. But in terms of like what you can plant in quantity, you know, yeah. Your 150 acres in California is going to be all nice and flat. Yeah.

Shawn (33:21):
Yup. Yeah. We call it acres in production. And we have them in Oregon as well. Because Oregon, it’s a very mountainous state. And a lot of the farms here, like in Vermont, you’ll have like 150 acre parcel, but only at 100 acres will be in production. Or you’ll have a 40 acre parcel, but only five acres are in production. That’s because you’re competing with the terrain. And there’s forest grown programs. So, some of the farms that we’re looking at have mountainous terrain as well. But we work very closely with UPS and their forest grown programs. So, we might look at utilizing some of that forest land to develop at-risk botanicals within that forest ecosystem. Bloodroot, blue cohosh, black cohosh in particular would do really well.

Katja (34:05):
Yeah. Awesome. Well, I’m so excited literally for everything that you’re doing. I’m so grateful. I mean I’ve been buying herbs from y’all since 1998.

Shawn (34:21):
Ah. You’re part of the old school.

Katja (34:24):
Yeah. You know, two or three times a year, every year, since 1997-98. And I’m so grateful that you exist. I’m so grateful to have that long perspective, and see how things have grown over time. I’m literally giddy about what you’re choosing to focus on, and your values. And I just love y’all. I just love y’all so much.

Transparency and Responsiveness to the Herbal Community

Shawn (34:57):
Thank you, very much. Yeah. Like I said, Mountain Rose, we date back to 1987. Our origins come from Rosemary Gladstar. So, Mountain Rose Herbs at one time was the brainchild of Rosemary. And she wanted to offer herbs to her students at the California School of Herbal Studies. Within a couple of years, she kind of broke up the business arm of what she created, and that became Mountain Rose Herbs. And even to this day Mountain Rose and Rosemary have a very intimate relationship. And Rosemary, she’s very careful about who she aligns with when it comes to business and commerce in particular. And rightfully so, because I hate to say it. But in the herbal products industry, a lot of them really shouldn’t be in business, because they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Rosemary enthusiastically supports us, because she says you guys do everything right. And for that reason I will continue to love and support you. But with that being said, Mountain Rose is incredibly transparent, and we’re intimately connected to the herbal community. And we hear their complaints, and we hear their criticisms, and we’re subject to criticism all the time. I welcome it. I love it. If anything I’m actually honored by it. Because numerous people have said to us look. If we can’t get you to change this, nobody else will. And that’s my honor badge. I’m like yep, you’re absolutely right. And that’s where the white sage conversation first happened. About five years ago a lot of people in the indigenous community came to us and said you need to stop harvesting white sage off our ancestral lands. And they knew that we would probably be the only company to literally remove ourselves from ancestral lands. And it applies to everything we do. We want to be very ethical and conscientious, and I appreciate and welcome constructive criticism from everybody in the herb community. Because let’s face it, Mountain Rose is big. We’re big, but we don’t want that that size to detract from the mission or the purpose of the organization. And the only way that we could hear feedback from the herbal community is for them to share it with us. So, I welcome all complaints and all criticisms. And I promise everybody, we will try to do business as ethically as we possibly can, and hear all your voices.

Katja (37:14):
Yes. And you know, I’ve watched you do it too. More than just the sage issue, I’ve watched. Listen, nobody can think of everything. Like you do your best, and then you adjust. And some companies just make a profit. And they neither do their best nor adjust. But you know, you’re going out there. You’re saying I’m trying to think of everything. I’m doing my best. And then you hear feedback and you say hey, I can make adjustments to be better. And I just I’ve watched that cycle after cycle. And it’s amazing to see.

Ryn (37:50):
It’s really good to see, yeah.

Shawn (37:52):
Yeah. Thanks for noticing that. Yeah, something that recently came up is just a few years ago, but we sell coconut oil. And there’s an activist movement right now against coconut oil, because in parts of the Philippines and Indonesia they actually use enslaved monkeys to harvest the coconuts. So, we had customers contact us saying is your coconut oil slave monkey free? And I remember thinking myself, what the hell? Slave? What are you talking about? I’ve never even heard of this. Are you kidding me? And we researched it and found out that it was a real issue. So, then what we did is we did a visual verification, visual audit, and got third-party certification. And made sure that enslaved animals weren’t being used to harvest coconuts. We take it that seriously. Or even recently the Palestinian issue has really exploded. And in the herbal community there were a lot of impassioned voices saying Mountain Rose. You guys are selling stuff from Israel. And as you know there’s a Palestine-Israel conflict, and we want you to divest. And I was like whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on, okay. This is all new to me. Let me learn the issue. But it took us about a year to kind of learn the issue and learn the nuances. Because the farmer we were working with in Israel, we’ve been working with for 22 years. And he’s a small land owner. He only has 40 acres. But we heard the voices, and we’re like okay. We’ll divest from Israel. So we really do hear everybody’s criticism, and we try everything we can to do right. And I want to thank you in particular for recognizing that.

Ryn (39:17):
Yeah, sure. You don’t have to get it right the first time. But like having that habit of like looking for the criticism, paying attention to it, taking it seriously. That introspective work, you know, and then making real change. That’s what we’re looking for, right? So, yeah, it’s good to have that out there. And not just because it makes us feel happy about you as like a single vendor, but it also sets the bar for other herbal providers out there in the world.

Katja (39:43):
Listen, it sets the bar for us too. Not necessarily us, Ryn and Katja, but us herbalists. Because people get into herbalism from every walk of life. They come from whatever they came from. I was a software engineer. Like we all come from wherever we come from. And we don’t inherently… like not everybody was a hippie before they did this. Not everybody was an environmental activist. Not everybody was a whatever. Not everybody was a farmer. And so we all come to this with our saran wrap and our, you know, whatever. Whatever it is we come to it with, we’re all doing the best we can and we’re learning as we go. And to see somebody on a very large scale also be learning and adapting. Learning about issues that are going on in the world, but also adapting to the way that the world is changing. And just being aware of it and setting that standard of constantly educating. Constantly being open to the messages that let us know we need to make a shift in our behavior. Like it’s not just an example for other businesses. It’s also an example for each of us as individuals to say I wonder if there’s a better way I could be doing this in my own personal life. I wonder if there’s a… you know? It’s kind of one of those kaleidoscope kind of things, you know?

Shawn (41:13):
Yeah. Luckily for Mountain Rose Herbs the owner, me, has a background in environmental activism. So, I embrace these issues passionately. I’m really excited about them, whereas other companies do not. I give talks throughout the United States about mission-driven companies, and how to set up a sustainable mission-driven organization. And overwhelmingly the people in the audience aren’t necessarily owners. They’re either managers or employees of organizations. And they always say well, what can I take back to my boss or my employer to get them excited about this issue? And I say you know what? Unfortunately, it’s top down. Like if your boss or your employer, if they’re not personally passionate about these issues, then I hate to say it. It’s not going to come across as genuine. And it’s true. We see it in the herbal products industry. And we see it in the larger organic products industry. That there is a lack of sincere dedication to the movement and to doing business ethically. And like I said, for Mountain Rose, Mountain Rose is fortunate and lucky that its owner and current CEO is an activists, because these issues are really important to me. And it shows in everything we produce. I mean, obviously you’ve recognized everything we’ve done. But you can’t say that about other organization, sadly.

Katja (42:31):
Right. Well, I’m just excited, because all of the organizations that you work with, all of these relationships that you are cultivating, all of the relationships that you’re cultivating with herb schools, with conferences, with individual herbalists because they’re customers, because they went to a conference that you supported, because whatever. It is all feeding out, and it makes a change that is bigger than just the change of your own business. It makes a change throughout the world. And it makes a change through all of us. And then if we all make those changes in our lives. And anyway, I’ll put my pom-poms down now.

Shawn (43:17):
Well, actually, you talking about that brought up another issue. It’s probably like five or six years ago. We were growing exponentially. And a lot of small growers and regional growers were shouting at us. Saying, you know, you’re killing the herbal industry and small growers. And you’re stealing all the wind from the room, and you’re making it uncompetitive for us. And I said whoa, that’s not my intention. I’m really sorry. Here’s what we’re going to do. And what we did is we created on our homepage, there’s a growers directory. And you can click that link, and it can show you all the local growers in your area. And we promote that page heavily. And it gets thousands of unique views every month. Our intention isn’t to steal away the potential of other people to make it in the herb trade, which is why we want to promote other people. And I have no problem giving people like Foster Farm Botanicals a shout out, or Zach Woods Herb Farm a shout out. We want to work with those growers, because they’re doing amazing things. We want to see even more growers. So yeah, right now our growers directory on our homepage is actually really quite robust. And nobody in the industry has ever done that before, especially in the commerce side of things. When it comes to commerce we’re really secretive and guarded. Like we don’t want to share the competition, or we don’t want to share our resources. And I say to hell with that, you know. I mean we’re part of a larger community here. And that I was really proud of creating the growers directory. It’s really quite robust. So, I recommend to your readers that they actually check it out, because there are a phenomenal amount of small growers out there.

Ryn (44:50):
Yeah, absolutely. We recommend that to all of our students. And honestly, that’s one of the things, that’s one of several things over the years that I look at what Mountain Rose does. And I’m like this is a really, really good sign. Like this gives me more trust. This gives me more confidence, right? So yeah, keep it up.

Our Next Focus: Permanence and Tradition

Shawn (45:06):
Yeah. Thank you very much. Yeah. Well, I guess we’re preparing to end, but I just want to say one other thing. It’s really another one of our focus. I mentioned focuses, you know. Every two or three years Mountain Rose kind of focuses on a new thing. For us cultivation of endangered botanicals, and then our extract line, because you get more medicine out of less material. But I think from a personal idealistic mission, in our most recent journal – which will be hitting houses in the next few weeks – my introduction letter in that journal talks about the essence of permanence and tradition. And how the herbal industry in particular – not too many people know this – but most of the herb companies that we all know have been bought out by investment firms and bankers and capitalists. There’s only a handful of independently owned herb companies. And it’s Mountain Rose Herbs, Oregon’s Wild Harvest, and Traditional Medicinals. Other than that all the other famous names that we know, they’re owned by either investment companies or third-party investors. And it’s really quite shocking and revealing to see that there’s this much corporate or financial interest in the herb industry. And I don’t like it, because when that happens, you lose competition. And competition and vibrancy and diversity helps our community and our industry as well. But the rate at which companies are being bought out is astounding. I’ve been at Mountain Rose for 22 years. I’ve never seen anything like this before. And in the journal in my letter I make a promise to my customers, and I’ve already made a promise to my employees, that we will never sell. Mountain Rose Herbs will never sell out. We will always be run by real human beings, preferably me. And that we’re not going anywhere. And we’re going to continue to do things right.

Katja (46:55):
I am so glad. Well, again I just want to thank you so much for caring enough about rhodiola to go to all this trouble. Years of development and partnerships so that I can have rhodiola, literally right here on my shelf, that I know is sustainable. And the same with the ginseng project and the goldenseal project and all the projects that you have lined up. But also just the plain old catnip and chamomile and calendula, because all of those are at the same standard. They’re all… you know, they’re easier. They’re easier to grow and everything else. But I just am so grateful that I never have to worry about like negative impact of the herbs that I work with. That’s not something I have to be afraid of. And I’m very grateful that you spend all that time making sure that I don’t have to worry about it.

Shawn (47:58):
That’s true. And if you ever have a concern, you let me know, and I will address it personally.

Katja (48:03):
It’s funny because I tell my students all the time about this one pound of dandelion leaf that I got, oh, it must’ve been in 2011. Yeah. I have ordered probably a thousand pounds of herbs. I don’t know, more than that actually, in the past 20 years. And one pound of dandelion leaf was not good. And I was like, I could send this back. And no question, they would send me fresh. And I was like, I’m not going to. I’m going to keep it. And it’s just literally one bag of dandelion leaf in all of these years.

Shawn (48:50):
Oh dear. I owe you one pound of dandelion leaf.

New Speaker (48:51):
No, it was a very helpful teaching example many times over. So yeah, totally fine.

Katja (48:56):
And every time I’m like, listen. I could send this back, and they’d send me a new one. But I want to show you.

Shawn (49:04):

Katja (49:06):
And I don’t know. I mean, like, it would have been fine. Compared to somebody else’s, it was great. But it just wasn’t like maybe the normal. And I was like no, no. I want to keep this. Because if they bought this somewhere else, they would think it was fine. But I want them to know that it’s not actually fine. Anyway, so yeah. We can go back and calculate all of my orders over 20 some odd years and figure out how many pounds it was, but one bad.

Shawn (49:39):
Thanks for sharing that.

Ryn (49:41):
And hey, thanks for taking some time to talk with us today and being on our pod.

Shawn (49:47):
Genuinely fun.

Katja (49:48):
Yeah. We really appreciate you. So love fest, which that wasn’t my goal. I wasn’t trying to have the pom poms out. But I really am enthusiastic. And I am grateful when there is a big company, and they’re still good. And you don’t get to be enthusiastic about that very often. And so you want to know what, yes. I will wave my pom poms around, because I want to be enthusiastic about you. I just do.

Shawn (50:25):
Thank you. That’s affirmation that I’m doing my job.

Ryn (50:29):
Okay. Thanks to Shawn for taking the time to chat with us there. And we’ll see you next week with some more herby goodness.

Katja (50:36):
I think it’s the Artemesias.

Ryn (50:38):
Yeah, mugwort and wormwood.

Katja (50:39):
Yes. Next week.

Ryn (50:41):


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