Steve Heil isn't the sort of guy you'd expect to be making — growing, harvesting and commercially packaging — greenthread herbal tea, also known as Navajo tea or cota. For starters, Heil isn't Navajo. He is an elementary school teacher, a darn good one, who happened upon the herbal tea fifteen years ago when he began teaching art classes in Gallup, New Mexico, a small town bordering Navajo and Zuni reservations. “People were saying someone should grow this tea again, it is very traditional and it was disappearing,” he says of the sustainable perennial herb that is native to the Colorado Plateau that he sells under the label PlaTEAu.
Small problem: Heil had all of zero farming experience, so he had to figure out how to farm the herb from scratch (he received several grants to help navigate the process), then develop a product identity/market, publicize and sell the organic tisane. He has documented the process, from germination to harvest, on his blog so other farmers might follow his greenthread lead.
Heil hopes to soon expand PlaTEAu's availability beyond a handful of New Mexico retail shops and online, but that day job as a school teacher — plus the side gig as a commercial farmer, business manager, distributor, retailer and blogger — doesn't leave him much time to hobnob with the corporate folks at various California Whole Foods and other local specialty markets. Volunteers? Turn the page for our interview.
Squid Ink: Why did you start growing greenthread? It's about as niche a crop as you can get. Are you Navajo?
Steve Heil: No, I am not. But I started teaching about 15 years ago on a Navajo reservation. I'm an art teacher, that's how I make my living. People were saying someone should grow this tea again, it is very traditional and it was disappearing. I learned farming in order to be able to grow this one crop. Someone needed to.
SI: That's pretty ballsy.
SH: The thing with the new crop is there is always risk involved. I'm trying to demonstrate the simplest way to go about growing this. This is a wild herb that doesn't require a lot of input like high fertility soil, or water even. It truly likes to be in a rough and rugged space. High winds, extreme heat. I had no trouble locating space like that in Gallup. I found the only thing I could do in my area is lease some land that was just grazing land, which was fine. This area is known for its coal mines and its Native American trading posts, but really that's about it. And this a perennial herb, so it's really great for the soil. So if you can come up with a cultivation method, it's a good thing for the land.
SI: So you are planting a truly native sustainable crop — not something you find on most farms these days, although it sounds like it grows without much help, almost like a weed?
SH: Well, [greenthread] does like a little extra water now and then. You can give it a little extra water when you have a terrible drought, but the problem is then it requires weeding because it doesn't compete very well with weeds. I got a Western Sustainable Agriculture Research Grant to try and control effective weeding, and from that I found a tractor-mounted tool that works fairly well.
SI: You weren't kidding when you said you had to figure out how to farm this crop completely on your own.
SH: Yes, as far as I know, I am the only one that grows it [on a commercial farming scale]. I had my first plot of about 1,000 row feet in 2002. It was in a beautiful little location, sort of the bread basket of the Anasazi where they used to grow corn and beans. I just leased the plot and didn't get to keep it very long, so I had to relocate in 2006 to my new spot. But that was fine.
SI: Have harvests been solid?
SH: My most recent harvest was 925 pounds of raw herb, which would turn into three times as many tea bags from my last harvest the season before. Because it grows wild so well, many people would say there is no need to cultivate [greenthread] on a small scale like I am doing. You can pick it in the wild. But I find even people who still gather it in the wild are out of their last few bundles by March. If you want to share it internationally, to introduce the herb to a wider audience, you need a consistent supply.
SI: You also have to figure out how to market it to people how have never heard of it. It's not like bringing back an heirloom apple variety – folks already know what an apple is.
SH: Well, for things like this, one just has to create one's own market. That's how I got to the boxed product, the labeling, instead of just selling it in bundles as happens traditionally. I got a Specialty Crops Grant from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture to work on that.
SI: That's a whole different side than farming. Do you like the marketing angle?
SH: I really find the whole project interesting from the beginning to the end, from growing to selling. I also document what I do and give workshops at herb growers' conferences because I think that is important for getting other people to grow it. But I think the one thing that keeps people from getting into it is the amount of work they see me doing.
SI: We tasted your greenthread, and it's pretty great, but also hard to describe.
SH: Well, [greenthread] has sort of a smoky flavor and a little bit of a natural sweetness. It's very mellow, not at all like some of the stronger herb teas. Traditionally, [Native Americans] would take the whole plant, all of the aerial parts of the herb, and boil it all day long. When you steep it that long you get this really strong, red herbal concoction. But herbalists today, those who are concerned about the medicinal value not just the flavor, steep it for a little less long so you don't have such strong brew. The tea bags that I produce mimic that finely ground quality of an herbal tea.
I also sell it in bundles, the traditional way, and actually found a new way to serve it too, something that was a benefit to harvesting greenthread on a very large scale. The leaves on the plant fall off naturally, so you can collect the leaves and brew them. They have a very distinct flavor. Originally, this wasn't something really done traditionally because there are hardly any leaves on the plant, so there just weren't enough to gather. But when I harvest, and then dry millions of plants from my two acres on the farm, I have enough leaves to separate them out as something different, so I can package those, too.
SI: Millions of plants – that sounds like a lot of herbal tea.
SH: Well, I have no end of supply right now it was such a good harvest. Or at least for the current places I sell to. For me, with my day job during the school year, that's the time the tea business is booming as far as customers ordering the tea because of the cold weather. Then I do two harvests, one in July and on in August, which is when I am out of school so I have the time. We have serious winters, down to 20 below, so I can't grow it during the school year.
SI: That's probably a good thing as it sounds like you've got plenty going on.
SH: Yes, I need to find the time to focus on sales now, to find other health food stores and places that will sell my tea. But it's not something I can travel around and do right now. That's OK — it's busy, but I like what I do.