Purveyors of botanical wonders, Sarah and Alex at Ontario-based Fern and Fungi offer a wide variety of cultivated and foraged herbal and edible goodies, online and in local markets. With a keen eye for design and herbal creations not likely found elsewhere, Fern and Fungi are an excellent representation of what a self-sustaining herbal business can look like.
We reached out to Sarah and Alex to find out more about how they run a botanical boutique, and they kindly agreed to the following interview.
Can you give us a little background on Fern & Fungi? Specifically, how did you get started in the online apothecary/wild edibles business? How’d the idea for Community Supported Herbalism collection come about?
Sarah: I started out on Etsy almost a decade ago selling wild harvested botanicals on Etsy when I lived right in the forest on the outskirts of Vancouver, British Columbia. I’ve made ointments, incense, extracts, teas, smoking blends, as far back as I can remember always trying to incorporate as many native plants as I could into my recipes but also experimenting with old world herbs too like my beloved nightshades. Running the apothecary further fueled my desire to identify and research all the plants and trees native to my area. Etsy had high fees and a low tolerance for herbalists so I eventually hosted my products on my own website and have been doing so ever since.
Vancouver had high fees and herbalists tended not to do well, so I moved to the Ottawa Valley and landed in the perfect place; you can’t shake a stick without finding a herbalist or forager here! I’ve been able to teach foraging, herbalism, and gardening from my home, the local library, my mother’s church, and this summer at the Killaloe Herb Gathering. Alex is a local Ontarian and joined the business once I moved out here and added his mushroom growing and foraging expertise to the mix.
The monthly Community Supported Herbalism collection (or CSH) came from a combined desire to be able to play with new herbs and recipes for the shop and to allow our patrons to feel like a part of the business. They usually involve 4-8 new herbal products with a theme like incense, sleep, or aphrodisiac and we try to keep them under $60. The monthly collections help support the many costs of running our business and keeping things afloat (self-employed people don’t get sick days!). We offer a limited number of themed herbal collections on a first come, first served basis. Our customers love them and we try hard to make them really special which is why it can often take so long to make them and get them all shipped out. They are a lot of fun and give us a great opportunity in the future to work with seasonal herbs that are here today and gone tomorrow.
Are you trained herbalists with any kind of licensing/certification? Why or why not?
Alex: I am not a trained “herbalist”, and certification in my specialty (mushrooms) doesn’t really exist besides formal education in Biology. I have taken courses, and been to a few seminars, mostly I am self-taught though. While I would love to learn more, and receive accreditation for it, I approach my learning, and job in a more zen manner. My knowledge grows organically and I have no desire to get a piece of paper that says I know something.
Sarah: I am not a clinical herbalist, have never acted the part of one, and do not wish too. I don’t want to set up a clinic and see patients. If it was my dream, I would definitely take an accredited course online or at a local college and join the Ontario Herbalists Association. My business has always been online and event-based retail within the non timber forest products industry. There is currently no education for non timber forest products on a small scale within Canada, just a failed program in Manitoba and some online government resources. One of our mutual dreams is to remedy this one day.
I’m a forager, a gardener, a cook, and a folk herbalist (or village herbwife), and restrict my herbal remedies to ones which do not require strict prescriptions or medical supervision. Most people could create my medicines at home to treat every day ailments like colds, flus, burns, bruises, cuts, bug bites, sunburn, indigestion, and also soothing pain and helping to fall asleep. I go so far as to teach workshops out of my home and at events on how to grow and harvest herbs and turn them into various medicinal preparations so that locals gain the knowledge to heal themselves. I believe the basics of herbal healing and identifying native edibles and medicinals should be common knowledge for children and adults alike.
Are you able to make a living through sales/workshops/services, or do you and Alex also have “day jobs”?
Alex: It is a real hustle to keep everything flowing properly, but thankfully this is now my day job.
Sarah: Agreed. Sometimes you really have to hustle and work harder than you would ever believe, but other times you get to enjoy success and take a well deserved break (translation: camping). Some herbal businesses make the majority of their income through online classes and intensive courses, but we like to charge low fees for our day workshops and consulting services to make them accessible to locals. This means the bulk of our income is online and wholesale orders.
I am very happy to be an entrepreneur after having left careers in the culinary and archiving worlds. It took five years for the apothecary to start making a profit and then another five years to be successful. I quit my day job at year six. I moved to Ontario last year for a lower cost of living and to be near family and it has definitely worked out better for my business to be in an affordable small town. When your business is online, you can move anywhere with decent internet. I learned the secret to success isn’t so much a secret as it is a lot of hard work and keeping your business around for years, even when times are tough and you have to work two jobs (or work two jobs while going to school full time like I did, heh).
What are some of the legalities involved in selling and shipping herbal and edible products? What do you have to take into consideration when selling Mandrake Herbal Ointment versus something with wider appeal like Nettle Tea?
Sarah: The rules province to province and even municipality to municipality are different for selling at farmers’ markets and craft fairs than the rules for online sales. We restrict what we sell online versus what we sell locally when it comes to edibles. Online we only sell dried edibles such as mushrooms and teas or low risk food products like syrups and infused honey which can be shipped internationally without issue. Some of the nightshade herbs we use in our pain ointments, such as Mandrake root (Mandragora officinarum), are restricted in Australia and New Zealand and some countries or states may restrict the shipment of alcohol based tinctures.
At local farmers’ markets we would bring fresh herbs, dried herbs, folk medicines, garden produce (vegetables, berries, fruit, and greens), canned goods, baked goods, and possibly wild charcuterie, along with frozen, fresh, or canned wild edibles. The rules are looser at farmers’ markets in Ontario who have a minimum of 51% of the vendors selling locally produced food.
Do you primarily grow your own herbs/wildcraft, or do you have any suppliers you’d like to promote (or keep secret)?
Sarah: We do a blend of growing our own and foraging. We have a few farmers we cooperate with to forage on their property, we forage legally on crown land, and we forage with permission on private land. For growing we have a third of an acre homestead with great soil and my parents’ 83 acre farm. Edibles are only grown or foraged by our own hands. If we run out of important herbs in winter we will buy herbs from a list of trusted local suppliers like Monteagle Herbs or Richters Herbs which are either organic or wild harvested. The gardens will only just be getting established this year, so harvests will be much more abundant in the next 2-3 years.
What methods/tech do you use to process and preserve your supplies? Does it generally turn over fairly quickly, or do you keep any back stock on hand?
Alex: As far as processing goes, we use drying racks, dehydrators, mortar and pestle, metal hand grinders, electric grinders, wooden moulds, etc… We try and keep things fairly natural, things are canned for preservation and local poplar buds and rosemary essential oil are used to preserve our ointments. When we do process things we tend to do it pretty low tech, for instance my patented method of refining spruce resin involves a dollar store sieve and a tinfoil lined bowl in the oven. That being said we do tend to turn over pretty quick, and so we are always processing something new.
Sarah: Yes, things are pretty simple at the moment, but dream technology would be an electric mulcher to process large quantities of botanicals, an alembic to distill botanicals and make hydrosols and essential oils, a massive solar dehydrator, a large mushroom growing shed with all the necessary equipment, and the ancient living technology of our own beehives to produce the beeswax, honey, and propolis we need for the shop. Also wwoofers, this spring I realized we could really have used a couple wwoofers (http://www.wwoof.net/)!
Because we are a small business run by two people, stock turns over very quickly. We tend to only hold products back if we have a farmers’ market to vend at right before restocking the online shop or if one of our stockists has requested a wholesale order.
“I only take a small percentage of any botanical knowing it is a natural food, shelter, or medicine for some native creature.”
We have a strong animist representation on Invironment. Can you share how an animist perspective informs the work you do?
Alex: I’m a Buddhist, all things are connected, and I try to treat every living thing compassionately. This applies to the flowers, and trees, the birds, and the creepy crawlies. I harvest responsibly, and often talk to the plants and mushrooms I work with. I try to be a steward to all the living things in the environment I work in, and treat even the soil with respect.
Sarah: As a forager I believe having an animistic philosophy helps me be more aware of the plants, animals, and insects around me while I am harvesting. I believe all forms of life deserve to be treated with respect. I tread lightly in the woods and don’t hurt any plants around the area of the ones I want just because they aren’t as desirable or of monetary value.
I only take a small percentage of any botanical knowing it is a natural food, shelter, or medicine for some native creature. I too try to be a steward of any land I’m growing on and harvesting from, with a policy of leaving it better than I found it. I do my best to clean up invasive plants and garbage.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers? Feel free to promote your products and services!
I’d love to share some resources for those who may be interested in or are already running an apothecary or non timber forest products business.
Opportunities for Non Timber Forest Product Development
Cultivating Medicinal Herbs with a Focus on At-Risk Woodland Medicinals
Local herbal goodness in the Ottawa Valley:
- The Sacred Gardener http://thesacredgardener.ca/
- The Wild Garden http://www.thewildgarden.ca/
- The Killaloe Herb Gathering http://killaloeherbgathering.weebly.com/
If any readers want to stalk us all over the interwebs and keep up to date with our products and foraging adventures, I’ve included all our details below. Newsletter sign up is at the bottom of every page of the website.
Foraging Blog: http://fernandfungi.com/blogs/foragers-journals
Workshops & Vending: http://fernandfungi.com/pages/events