BY PETER BELAND
Herb Pharm is an organic farm in Williams that produces natural medicine and employs 70. It was founded by Ed Smith and Sarah Katz.
// Photo courtesy Herb Pharm
Sourcing material from medicine women in the Amazon jungle or spice merchants in Marrakech is not only good for quality control, it also helps sell your goods. “People love stories,” says Herb Pharm co-founder Ed Smith of his frequent trips abroad in search of rare herbs for the three-decade-old natural medicine company.
What started as something for “two hippies trying to keep from getting a job” has grown to a multimillion-dollar enterprise that controls 45% of the national market share in liquid herbal extracts. Herb Pharm produces 2 million bottles of the stuff a year, largely sourced from an 85-acre certified organic farm in Williams, and employs 70 local workers.
Smith and co-founder Sarah Katz have been interested in herbal remedies for years. On a chance visit to Powell’s Books in Portland in the late 1970s, Smith looked through a recently sold collection of books from a local pharmacist and found a weathered copy of Joseph P. Remington’s The Practice of Pharmacy, a 3,000-page book published at the end of the 19th century that is something of a bible for herbal-medicine practitioners. From the late 1800s to early 1900s, herbal medicine was the norm, and this book outlines with scientific precision how to manufacture all manner of remedies. Smith spent $300 of his $500 in savings on the book. “I knew I’d see money again, but I knew I’d never see those books again,” he says.
Armed with the knowledge contained in those yellowed pages, Smith and Katz went about “reinventing the wheel.” With the help of the first of more than 500 interns who have passed through the Herb Pharm, Smith and Katz took their first batch of herbal remedies to a yoga retreat in northern California in 1979 where Smith was set to lecture on herbal medicines. At the end of the talk, from the back of an International Scout Jeep spruced up with a Guatemalan blanket, Smith and Katz sold $350 worth of goods. One customer asked if they had a wholesale catalog so she could stock her store. “I said, ‘No, we don’t, but we will next week!’” says Smith. Katz typed up a rough version on a typewriter and made copies to send off. In their first year, they made $2,000. Two years later they grossed $50,000.
“We did all the wrong things and the right things,” says Smith. “We were limited by our size, but that was a good thing.” Over the next decade, they figured out how to cultivate herbs by trial and error and using whatever they could glean from old books. Some herbs took 10 years of experimentation before they could cost-effectively cultivate them for medicinal production. Their steady approach meant they never took on debt they couldn’t pay back in 60 days. In that first decade, they had no advertising.
Word of mouth and connections made on the road created the foundation of Herb Pharm’s customer base. According to spokesman Mike Gillette, Herb Pharm’s products are now sold in 2,500 stores and by 1,000 medical practitioners nationwide. “We grow slowly but surely, so we could have our environmentally [sound] herbs and eat them too,” says Smith.
At the core of Herb Pharm’s growth is getting the right product. “Sourcing is a big key that sets us apart from our competitors,” says Katz, who is on the board of United Plant Savers, a national organization that seeks to preserve rare or endangered herb species. Herb Pharm houses an herb sanctuary of rare plants.
“We have a highly skilled herbal staff; we keep trying to maintain our edge with better products and better management teams,” says Katz.