Farm Bill Spotlight: Tooth of the Lion Farm and Apothecary

Tooth of the Lion Farm and Apothecary owner and farm manager Katelyn Melvin used Farm Bill funding- a Value Added Producer Grant- to build her herbal business and support marketing for her farm-grown tinctures and teas during her critical first season.  

This is the third in a series of interviews exploring how policies in the Farm Bill influence people, programs, and food systems throughout the region.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, and how did you end up doing it?

I grow herbs and flowers in Schuylkill County, PA. Currently, we grow on about 6 acres including a few greenhouses, with about ⅓ of that acreage in cut flowers and ⅔ in medicinal herbs for our products.

I always enjoyed working outside and working with plants, and I enjoy the combination of the manual labor with the larger picture. I started in vegetable farming-- I left college to start farming, and then was able to finish my degree at Goddard College where I was able to study plants a little more in-depth, with a focus on plants as part of the relationship between plants and people. Not only using plants for medicine, but also in a broader sense across space and time, what people's relationship with plants were.

My studies there enabled me to start my own very, very tiny business. I just grew very small amounts of herbs and made small quantities of tinctures that I would sell at local fairs, and for friends and family. I did that for a few years while I was farming in and around Philadelphia, and I always had a dream of bringing the two together, but it seemed difficult to grow herbs on the scale at which I like to grow vegetables. And then I read a book by Melanie and Jeff Carpenter, The Organic Medicinal Herb Farmer, and I was like, "Oh, wow-- I guess you can grow herbs in the same way using the same skills that I had been learning and the same type of equipment, well, similar to, vegetables”. So, that was why I felt like my skills and what I had learned in vegetables was able to transfer.

While I was making blends and selling them at fairs, and working with friends and family, I was also getting the feel for what people wanted and needed. It was a pretty odd sample pool, obviously, but it enabled me to think about what kinds of herbs people wanted access to in the area. Basically, I figured out that there are all these herbs that are super easy to grow and that people want to use in their lives. So, I really wanted to bridge that gap for people. Even when I say it now, it still sounds so simple. Obviously, having a business and marketing is so much more complex, but there's a need, and people want it, and I want to give it to them.

What do you see as the central issue, or issues, that Tooth of the Lion was created to address?

It is really about enabling people to connect with plants in new ways. People who garden usually know lemon balm, or peppermint. But I also use some plants that they don't necessarily know yet, but the customers are excited to get to know them through our products, and then maybe grow them themselves, or just have this new relationship via ingesting herbs. Because so many people see echinacea as a landscape plant, and they're like, "Okay, that's purple coneflower." And then, they spot echinacea tea bags at our stand and they're like, "Oh, that's echinacea." There's this gap between plants that are around you and then plants that you buy at the store.

All kinds of farmers try to bridge that gap and I think herbs are especially exciting. Because they are just fun and they're so diet-diverse, and there are so many different kinds, and types, and textures, and tastes, and just general bodily experiences you can have. Which I know sounds psychedelic, which is not actually what I'm into.

I get it. They really engage all of the senses.

Right, exactly.

What have been one or two of your greatest challenges, or successes, in starting a farm and business from scratch?

My greatest challenge has been learning that a hobby is a hobby and a business is a business, and making a business around this thing that I love and care about a lot is hard in different ways. I have to think about it differently while keeping that seed of why I started all of this alive within myself.

Then there is the overall challenge of running a business. I didn't have very much life experience before I started farming, and I started this business young. I didn't have much experience hiring people, for example, or all these other facets of business that I'm like, "Oh, wow. People go to business school to learn this stuff, and I'm just figuring out how to do the books, and pay sales tax, and all those things." I'm always up for a challenge, but integrating all of those little things into my daily life - the office work balanced with the farm work - has been hard. There's been a lot to learn, and a lot of things that I didn't expect that I would need to learn to do this.

One success: I like doing farmer's markets, because you have that very intimate connection with people who appreciate what you do. I remember the first time, last spring, that we had put together flower bouquets and they had some of my favorite early spring flowers in them like larkspur. I set up the stand and I cried a little bit, 'cause I was just like, "Wow, this is really real." I planned this out for years in so much detail and so many spreadsheets before I started the farm. And so, every step of the way, having that tangible thing-- making tangible products and the fact that people enjoy them-- is really exciting.

How has Tooth of the Lion interacted with farm bill programs and issues?

We got a Value Added Producers Grant (VAPG) to start. I was working at Pennypack Farm, vegetable farming, and I had already started the lease on this farm here, but I still felt like I needed the income so I was in-between. Getting the VAPG made me feel like, "Oh, I can quit my job and focus full-time on this." So it came at a really good time. I had applied for it in the middle of the summer, and it was a totally crazy amount of paperwork, and I remember I had to take a day off even, because I was up all night the night before it was due. Which was crazy and was like, "I am never doing this again. What did I get myself into?" And then, when I got it I was like, "Oh, wow. That was actually pretty easy."

I just applied for my last reimbursement. The grant was for 18 months altogether. I started the business making products and buying in herbs, and then slowly, as we grew our own herbs, we used those in our products. I had to wait until last spring, once we had grown and harvested enough so that we were growing at least 50% of what was in our product, to start the grant. We now are able to grow more than 95% of the herbs in our products, which is really exciting for me.

The grant was something like 15% of our total income last year. The margins on the farm are so razor thin that that 15% may have pushed us into being profitable, which then may have pushed me into being eligible to apply for a mortgage- that kind of buffer is so valuable especially in the start up phase, and I really hope other farmers have the opportunity to take advantage of it.

What did the Value Added Producers Grant enable you to do? What did it fund?

It was specifically for marketing. The grant covered things like labels, label design, printing, and packaging, and also the labor of all of the packaging, and selling at Farmers Markets. Basically, anything after we harvest the herbs. We dry herbs and sell single, dried herbs like tulsi, or peppermint. And we have herbal tea blends and herbal tincture blends, which are our biggest sellers - our Dreamers Elixir with valerian root for sleep, for example. We also do do an herb CSA, which we make special “small-batch” products for and offer a monthly newsletter to go along with it.

So the grant had mainly paid for some packaging and the labor of us doing farmer's markets and making all those products. Which is huge, because it is a lot. Making those value-added products is what makes our farm profitable. But, they take a lot of time. It always feels hard to fit all that stuff into the week. The first season was hard because there were so many different things to try to work out, especially making herbal tinctures. We have to follow all the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) for herbal supplements, since there is no small business exemption or anything, and it is a a lot of paperwork.

I had someone the first season who was just the Apothecary Manager, managing the processing, but now the farm crew is a little more integrated with the apothecary, which works a little better. People are able to work outside with the plants, and then also feel good about the products that we're making.

So, the grant really helped us in the first year and a half while we set up our systems around the farm and also while building a market for our products and getting the word out. Now, the business has a lot of systems to rely on - we’ve set up processes for inventory, GMP paperwork, harvest procedures, and built some infrastructure that we can rely on for future seasons.

How do you engage with racial, gender, or economic equity in your work?

I moved from Philly to start this farm here in Schuylkill County. I still feel somewhat new to the area. I didn't know anyone, really, from the coal region before, and I had never really been here. I think the longer I stay here--and hopefully I can stay here-- I would like to be a little more integrated into this community.

I love a lot of our farmer's market customers, and there are a lot of different kinds of people at the markets, but at the end of the day, I think herbs are not like vegetables that most people eat every week, or something like that. It does seem like you need to have a little more extra income in order to buy our products. It’s been challenging to create this business and make a living at it, while also keeping our products priced basically as low as possible so that they can be more accessible.

I will say that, as a woman, farming definitely played a really unique role in my life, learning that my body was capable of things that people always told me it wasn't. I never really knew that until I started farming. When I started, I thought about the fact that this farm could have any kind of a culture. I think it's something that if you don't think about, then you can create a culture that is just re-creating things from our wider culture, which are maybe good, maybe not so good. So I gave the whole crew a talk during their interviews, and then when we started working here-- and I got this from my friend who teaches first grade -- there’s no body talk. Working for men in the past, I think, there's this thing that happens; we are working with our bodies and so it's easy to say, "Oh, I'll do this and you do this," assuming different levels of capability. It is really important for people to just decide that themselves. For me not to assume, either way, about their strengths, or tallness, or whatever. As a workplace, I try to embody those values.

Do you have plans to use federal policies and programs to support Tooth of the Lion in the future?

The farm has been a lease-to-own for the past two years, and I actually just applied for a mortgage through the Farm Service Agency (FSA) Direct Farm Loans for Beginning Farmers. I can qualify for a direct loan because our business was in the black last year and because I've been farming for less than ten years. So, I haven’t been approved yet and there may still be things I need to negotiate with the current owners, but my fingers are crossed that it works out soon.

For me, as a young person with limited credit and almost no down payment money, this is pretty much the only way that I could buy a farm without getting another co-signer involved. Especially just as a single person. Lots of people start farms as couples, which is probably wise. I've gone at this just on my own in a lot of ways, but honestly, it takes a village and I have to give a shout out to all the staff I’ve had help me here the past two seasons- folks on the farm and apothecary crew: Kelly, Martha, Katy, Cara, and Stephanie; and this year’s market crew: Olivia, Julia, and Ajaye. And especially to my mom, who puts in countless hours doing flower deliveries and weed wacking and really anything that needs to be done - she’s amazing. But the FSA loan program is a really awesome program that I didn't know about until I started looking into how could I realistically purchase this farm once I got turned down from banks.

Do you have any other hopes and dreams for your business in the coming year?

I would like to be able to sell products at more storefront places in order to have a more stable income. That's the underlying basis for a lot of my hopes and dreams--to feel a little more stability and sanity in what I'm doing. Of course, getting approved for a mortgage to buy this farm is the imminent hope and dream so that I can keep on doing this. It is crazy how many people start farms by renting them on a year-to-year lease. It is really hard to throw your whole self into something under those circumstances. I knew what I was doing and did it anyway, but it is a little difficult. I’d really like to work towards the farm being a sustainable income for myself and a small crew, and to balance that with being able to provide quality herbal medicine (and flower medicine!) at a reasonable price to local communities.

Connect with Tooth of the Lion:  Instagram: @toothofthelion

Take Action

Value Added Producers Grants (VAPG) needs your help! The program is authorized through the Farm Bill, a multi-part piece of legislation that gets reauthorized once every four years. The 2014 Farm Bill just expired and Congress has not yet passed a new bill, meaning important programs including the VAPG are unable to offer new funding until a new bill is passed.

Tell Congress to support the Senate’s proposal to improves the VAPG by combining it into the Local Agricultural Marketing Program (LAMP), a move that gives the program more reliable funding into the future. Make sure VAPG and other local foods programs stay intact by supporting LAMP!

Call: Your two Senators and your Representative

Script: Hi, my name is _____ and I’m a constituent. I’m calling to express my support for local food, and to let ___ know that both farmers and eaters suffer when they lose important funding for valuable programs because the 2014 Farm Bill expired. I urge Congress to pass a new Farm Bill soon- one which supports local foods and includes of the Local Agricultural Marketing Program with permanent baseline funding. Will _______ legislator contact [House OR Senate] leadership and let them know he/she supports LAMP and the passage of a Farm Bill that supports family farmers and local communities? Thank you!