Sunday, July 30, 2017

Cultivating the art of practical magic on a Rockport farm

[Press Herald] The first indication that agriculture is practiced differently on a biodynamic herbal farm is the ritual before the rose petal harvest. Farmer Deb Soule, the founder of Avena Botanicals, sits quietly on the grass next to the hedgerow of rosa rugosa. It’s a cool morning and the petals are just opening. A trio of harvesters wait nearby, holding flying saucer-sized baskets. Soule is meditating and giving a silent thank-you to the rosa rugosa, which stretch about 40 feet away from her and are at least 5 feet wide.
When she feels that the time is right, she begins the harvest and the others follow, tenderly taking only the open roses, whole, with their yellow middles, and placing them in the baskets where they sit, like bright pink fried eggs over perfectly easy. The season for this crop runs about three weeks and will result in about 40 pounds of rose petals in the brightest of pinks. They’ll be distilled or dried and turned into various herbal concoctions: rose petal elixir, rosewater spritzer, a tea called “peaceful heart.”
The sounds of pollinators – from bees to hummingbirds – fill the air. A bird’s nest, likely a robin’s, is found in the thickest part of the hedgerow and the harvesters give it a wide berth. A chipmunk waltzes by within a foot of Soule and it seems quite possible that it will perch on her knee, Walt Disney-style.
Avena Botanicals, one of Maine’s oldest herb farms and its first certified biodynamic farm of any kind, is a serious business, producing over 1,000 pounds of herbs every growing season and more than 300 different species on three lush acres. But it’s also the agricultural equivalent of a soul spa, capable of making someone feel, setting foot on the property, as if they have just had a massage or fallen under a spell. Soule, a Maine native who has been exploring herbal remedies since she was a teenager in the 1970s, is the presiding queen of the magic. Other herb farmers describe her as an icon and an inspiration.
“She kind of crosses barriers from earthliness almost into fairyland,” said Lauren Pignatello of Swallowtail Farm, another herb farmer and herbalist who runs Milk and Honey Cafe in Portland. “She has that otherworldly energy.”
Soule rolls a few bright marbles in her hand and mentions that she keeps a basket of them nearby so she can hide them in secret places around the garden. “I like to make a simple offering.” That would be to the plants, and to, she says, the fairies who make the gardens grow. She means the team of gardeners (there are three on staff) but for a moment, maybe because of the hypnotic powers of the sweet haze of rosa rugosa, you might think she was talking about less corporeal fairies. And that seems almost reasonable. Read More