One morning at the Live Oak Farmers Market, Carin Fortin looks me in the bleary, coffee-sipping eyes and says, “Good things take time.”
Her eyes are a leveling gray blue; a lifeline, if you need it, to an oasis of calm. And like any village herbalist worth her salt (and that’s what I’ve come to think of her as), her slips of wisdom can always be traced back to a garden somewhere. Fortin is a grower and producer of biodynamic herbal remedies out of Corralitos, and I’ve come to her Blossom’s Farm booth to blast myself in the face with vetiver molecules and hover. It’s how I like to get my bearings on the world.
Like many, I was attracted first by the hydrosols—plant distillates made on the farm in an alembic, or copper still, an alchemal method that dates back to the 1st century. The finished product is an atomized spritz of plant molecules small enough to enter the lungs and pores, along with each herb’s varied spectrum of beneficial properties, from antibacterial and anti-inflammatory to aphrodisiac and stress-reducing, to name only a few.
Slowly, I discovered Blossom’s evolving line of bitters, tinctures, tonics, salves, and most recently, skin care products like the popular comfrey face creme.
“I call it skin food,” says Fortin. “Whatever you put on your skin you have to be able to eat, because the skin eats it and your body digests it.” Unlike drug store brands with long lists of ingredients that include questionable if not outright toxic fillers, Blossom’s ingredients stand out for their wholesome simplicity.
Good things do take time. Fortin and her husband Delmar McComb, a longtime biodynamic farmer, farmed for six years at two different locations in Bonny Doon before establishing their Corralitos farm seven years ago. They founded Blossom’s in 2010. But it wasn’t until two years ago that they deemed their products ready for market.
In biodynamics, each growing season is an opportunity to grow healthier genetic stock, as seeds from the strongest, most vital plants are saved. “It strengthens the immune system of the plant, so over generations you will eventually have a plant that is from the place, of the place,” Fortin says. “It’s like terroir in wine.
“Do you have any CBD?” a man at the market asks Fortin.
Over the past few months, I’ve begun to linger here, because eavesdropping on Fortin means access to a world of medicinal plants long studied for their effects on the human system, yet largely unknown to the mainstream. It is here I learn about jiaogulan, for instance, “Herb of Immortality,” an adaptogen and powerful blood pressure control agent. And ashitaba, one of the most antioxidant-rich plants on the planet, which Blossom’s received a grant from the Raphael Medical Foundation to grow. Also known as “Tomorrow’s Leaf,” ashitaba has been shown to protect DNA from free-radical damage and increase nerve growth factor (NGF).
Blossom’s grows more than 75 different herbs, and cannabis isn’t one of them.
“It’s beautiful for epilepsy, it’s beautiful for pain,” Fortin tells the man. But, aside from the stigma she holds around growing a plant just for money, she sees the attention cannabis is enjoying post-prohibition as an indicator of society’s thirst for instant gratification. The idea that one drug, one superfood or one plant can be a cure-all is not realistic, she says.
“Healing is a process,” says Fortin. It’s diet. It’s what we are going through emotionally—as individuals and as a society. It’s how we move through the world. “It’s so many things that are all connected. And it’s always changing.”
Blossom’s is one of the only biodynamic operations at the market, and over the years there have only been a handful of others, says Nesh Dhillon, Director of Santa Cruz Community Farmers Markets. “I don’t think people really know what it is,” he says, “Or they have a funny, mystical perception of what it is.”
On a crisp October morning, beehives come into view as I drive through the gates of Blossom’s Farm in Corralitos. The place is thrumming with birds singing in the oak and eucalyptus trees around its perimeter, and a distant rooster crows. It’s only upon visiting this 17-acre slice of paradise that I fully grasp the concept of a biodynamic farm as a living organism.
Its expansive herb garden—where medicinals embraced by various traditions, from Western to Chinese Medicine to Ayurvedic, reach toward the sun—includes blessed thistle, maca root, yakon, burdock, angelicas, elecampane (an expectorant and lung healer that also helps with grief), and tree kale, where companion-planted onions keep the aphids away. Prayer flags flutter in the breeze around a circle of hops, which Blossom’s turns into one of its most popular tinctures that promotes restful sleep and eases tension, muscle spasms and painful menstrual symptoms. But there are also ducks, chickens, rabbits and several plump Scottish Highland Jersey cows.
“They are an essential part of a biodynamic farm,” says Fortin. Manure is harvested from the cows every single day and added to the compost, which Fortin calls the “digestive system” of the farm.
“All waste that’s created is transformed and then used on the farm again,” she says.
In a world where people often take “organic” to mean sustainable—a preposterously false notion, given that “organic” food found in supermarkets is often coming from thousands of miles away—biodynamics may just be the sustainable ideal we think of when we think of organic. Indeed, the book Eco-Alchemy: Anthroposophy and the History and Future of Environmentalism by Dan McKanan reveals that the term organic was coined by Lord Walter Northbourne, to express ideals he had learned from Rudolf Steiner’s original teachings on biodynamics.
And the fat, happy cows that fuel Blossom’s ecosystem are different from what you’d typically see at a large-scale organic dairy operation: they all have horns. “Horns are a cosmic antenna,” says Fortin. Most cows in America are dehorned, which Fortin likens to an amputation. “The horns are part of their metabolic system,” she says.
Fortin is a student of biodynamics and anthroposophy—a philosophy founded by Rudolf Steiner in the 19th century concerned with human life, spirit and humanity’s future evolution and well-being. She is an active member of the BDANC (Biodynamic Association of Northern California), as well as a planning committee representative for the International Biodynamic conference in Switzerland, where she grew up. Healing is in her blood: her grandmother founded a hydrocolonics spa in 1928 in the Swiss pre-Alps.
Standing near a row of lemongrass stalks, she explains that the herbs Blossom’s grows help on physical, metaphysical and spiritual levels. It’s important to see plants, she says, as more than just a substance.
“As long as we stay on the scientific reductionist level of plants, we can only heal so far,” she says. “Every illness, disease, is an expression of a body out of balance. We are more than a physical body, and if you only address the physical body when healing then you will not heal the whole human being.”
When I arrive, Fortin and her helpers are just finishing a harvest of tulsi, or holy basil, in the late morning sun. The sacred healing herb embraced by Ayurvedic medicine will be distilled into hydrosol that has immune-boosting properties and helps with adrenal fatigue.
“We harvest roots normally in the evening and afternoon hours, because the Earth is breathing in, and then the chi is actually in the roots,” says Fortin. “Right now, the chi is in the plant parts and in the flowers, so that’s why we harvest them in the morning.”
Not only is there more oil content in the plants at this hour, calling for a richer hydrosol, but the moon is waxing, which means it’s a perfect time to make a hydrosol, says Fortin.
“Part of biodynamic farming is consciously working with planetary rhythms. Depending on when we work with certain plants, we look at what the moon is in,” says Fortin. “Biodynamics is very much about rhythm.”
The outdoor kitchen might just be the heart of Blossom’s. This is where the copper still lives, and it’s the gathering place for the farmhands to check in each morning with the day’s tasks, but also with how they are doing physically, emotionally and spiritually. This matters, says Fortin, because it helps them team up. “If somebody is feeling weak, they shouldn’t be hauling hay bales all day,” she says. “In our Bonny Doon garden, we had a lot of helpers, and a lot of these young people had substance abuse problems. Gardening by itself is healing, because you work with all kingdoms—you work with the soil, you work with the plants, you work with animals, and you work with human beings, which is totally healing by itself.”
A mural in the outdoor kitchen depicts yarro, valerian, dandelion, chamomile, and nettles, and the planets that each herb corresponds to. In the middle is oak bark—an important component of a biodynamic preparation that involves a cow skull. And though my interest is piqued, it isn’t until I speak with McComb that I better grasp the biodynamic concept of working with “formative forces” to increase the health of the farm, and planet, as a whole.
On a Sunday morning, just after the Camp Fire smoke cleared from the air, McComb and I sit at a table in the middle of the bustling Live Oak market. Our conversation shines a slice of daylight onto my darkened outlook on the future of humanity. If ever there were a time that synergy between humans and the Earth could benefit the health of each, it is now—though it appears there is much work to done.
The tall, blue-eyed farmer commonly seen wearing a hat and hanging around Blossom’s Farm booth (he also loves to eavesdrop on Fortin, he admits), is fresh from the National Biodynamic Conference in Portland, where he gave a talk on his work transitioning Suncrest Nursery in Watsonville to biodynamic methods.
Demeter International, the world’s only certifier of biodynamic farms and products, defines biodynamics as a holistic regenerative approach to farming.
“Yeah, that’s true,” says McComb, “but what the hell does that mean? What about the cosmos? It is really hard to distill biodynamics into a few bullet points, because you have to understand the big picture.”
For McCombs, that understanding began in his early 20s, when he was working as a horticulturist and a former apprentice of Alan Chadwick gave him a copy of the book Secrets of the Soil by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.
“If you’re trained like I was in science, you know you apply fertilizer, certain parts per million of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and then you control pests by spraying this or that,” says McComb. “But then you’re reading this book about these guys around a circle of cow horns in the ground—it’s like ‘what?’”
The book that opened McComb’s eyes to anthroposophy and biodynamics presents holistic thinking around climate, health and various types of farming, “including Vedic farming, where you burn cow dung, rice and ghee in a certain ceremony, and it’s thought to enhance the energy of the land,” says McComb. “So there are all these systems out there, and science can laugh at it, but a lot of these are thousands of years old.’”
After 30 years, McComb says he’s seen these systems work. When the co-founder of Blossom’s, who sings opera in his spare time, became the director of horticulture at Suncrest Nursery, he decided to steer the then-fully conventional operation away from chemicals toward a more holistic and biodynamic approach, which hadn’t really been done in a nursery setting. Slowly, he’s transitioned the nursery to more sustainable practices—they now make their own potting soil and compost, and treat plants with organic pesticides only as a last resort—and he established a whole new Demeter-certified division of the nursery, making it the only biodynamic nursery in the country.
“I think there was a lot of skepticism initially, especially at a nursery that had been pretty chemically orientated for 25 years,” says McComb. “But fortunately we’ve won some converts over, and a lot of support for the idea.”
But what about the cosmos? In biodynamics, “There are nine herbal preparations that have mineral, plant and animal components that are considered medicines for the land, or enhancers of certain processes,” says McComb.
This is my cue, finally, to ask about the cow skulls.
Oak bark is extremely rich in living calcium, says McComb, the best form of calcium according to Steiner. In one biodynamic preparation, oak bark is packed into the brain cavity of the skull, which represents a mini version of the cosmos.
“It sounds weird,” he says, “but you’re creating medicine. The rhythms of the cosmos are going into the skull, and back out, and back in, and each time it’s making the calcium more alive and more powerful. That finished product is then put in the compost. So the use is to enhance calcium, which is very important in farming.”
But the purpose of this alchemical processes is not actually to apply calcium or other substances physically to the land. It’s to enhance the natural, ethereal processes, says McComb. “Where does calcium come from?” I look into the sky, as if the answer is written in the clouds. “It streams from the universe somehow, and it’s also in our bones, it’s everywhere. There’s a pathway that calcium comes into relationship to the Earth, and ourselves,” says McComb. “So you’re enhancing the pathway for calcium to come into being, so that the plant and the soil actually are able to get the calcium they need.”
It’s the homeopathic opposite of a chemical fertilizer, which McComb says makes plants explode in growth, but also makes them dumb to the cosmos. “Which is a problem,” he says, “especially over time, because seeds get weaker and weaker rather than stronger and stronger, so it’s just this whole different paradigm.”
But McComb admits he’s always been a skeptic, which may be why he looked at me sideways when I told him I felt the energy of the farm long after I’d left it. “When you’re working with energy, there are a lot of people that say, ‘Oh, I feel it.’ And I don’t feel anything, but when I see the results and then I can verify it from years of working with it, I’m good,” he says.
But biodynamics and the larger concepts of anthroposophy are not a return to ancient practices, as I originally suspected. Steiner’s cosmology that spirit and matter are interconnected, says McComb, is a world vision that we’ve been severed from. “It’s not to go backwards to an ancient time, because you can’t do that. There is no de-evolution. So the task of our time is reuniting the two streams, but in a conscious, free way,” he says. “When you’re free, you can make all sorts of choices. You can pull out a gun and shoot people for no apparent reason, you can make GMO crops, so that’s the other side of freedom, but our task is to really understand freedom and the moral responsibilities that come with it, and move forward with this understanding that everything’s connected. So it’s not going backwards, it’s going forward.”
It Takes a Village
It’s 2019, and the day of the village has arguably flown, but farmers markets may be the closest facsimile. These weekly gatherings are the lifeblood of local sustainable ag, and the source of the healthiest food on (and for) the planet. But when Blossom’s brought their tinctures, tonics and endless ethereal delights to market two years ago, they fit in like a missing puzzle piece. Now, it’s hard to imagine the market without them.
In July, when McComb suffered a heart attack followed by several days in the ICU, the farming community rallied to help. Ken Kines of New Natives organized a GoFundMe account, which is still active, to help pay for the couple’s astronomical medical costs. “People sent us food from the markets, and helped out, basically everyone was there for us. It was like all of the farmers stepped up to help,” says Fortin. “The biodynamic community seems to be hammered—we have a lot of farming friends who are either ill right now, or whose barns burned down—but it’s beautiful how we help each other.”
Blossom’s is also providing a unique service to the community—one, it turns out, that people have a real thirst for. Fortin acknowledges that climate change, fires, shootings, and political turmoil are inflammatory to our well-being, even if customers’ main complaints are physical in nature.
“I was really impressed with the vertical integration of their business, because it’s not common,” says Nesh Dhillon, Director of Santa Cruz Community Farmers Markets, recalling his first contact with Blossom’s a few years ago. “They were totally committed to local agriculture and using local ag as the raw ingredients to create their tinctures. It’s such a high-quality product, and there’s a lot of potential with that model … I’m excited to see what they do in the next five years.”
On the cutting edge of a growing biodynamic movement, which is spreading rapidly in India and other parts of the world, Blossom’s founders have reached a new chapter. In addition to quarterly CSH (Community Supported Herbalism) shares of herbal remedies, and five local markets, they’ve just begun selling wholesale. Pregnant cows aside, they look forward to just a little more downtime to pursue what comes next.
“Education is important to us, sharing it with people is important to us, transparency is important to us,” says Fortin. Blossom’s participated in the EcoFarm Conference Bus Tour on Jan. 23, and will host on-farm study groups on biodynamic farming and herbalism this summer. Workshops and other farm events for 2019 will be announced on their website and in their newsletter.
“At the end of the summer, and many times up in Bonny Doon, I was really close to burnout,” says Fortin. “And I think now in history we’re at the point where we’re starting to have people on the farm, where I finally can step away from the organism and Delmar and I can do the needed learning to bring us to the next level.”