Rita Wollmering and Brooke Finn were planning to wait until retirement to follow their dream of starting an herb farm. Fortunately for their customers, they decided to take a "leap of faith," as Brooke said. "We realized if we waited until then we wouldn't be able to do it!" So in 1997, Rita quit her job to farm full-time and start The HERB FARMacy , a 10-acre herb, vegetable, and fresh cut flower farm and nursery. All of their plants are grown following 100% organic, sustainable principles, which now includes powering their farm with energy directly from the sun.
Both from agricultural backgrounds in the Peace Corps - Rita in the Philippines and Brooke in the Central African Republic - the two met while working in Washington D.C. Their search for suitable farmland brought them to 10 acres in Salisbury, MA, where they feel rather lucky to be. "There's a great spirit in the community of supporting local farmers," said Rita, and Brooke added, "We were really fortunate in their interest in organic."
They started off with one greenhouse, and have since grown to become a diversified farm offering more than 800 varieties of herbs, flowers, and vegetables, with crops such as cold-hardy micro-greens for winter farmers' markets, native plants, and even specialty crops like ginger and turmeric. Over 80 varieties of heirloom tomatoes of every shape and color bring customers flocking to their nursery for seedlings in the spring. "It's almost like a cult!" joked Brooke.
While they always planned to grow 100% organic, Rita and Brooke have also opted to be USDA-Certified Organic from the beginning, a process that includes submitting documentation, fees, and a yearly inspection. It's worth it for them because they are providing their customers with the choice to avoid harmful residues, as well as confidence in what they are buying. Their nursery is a haven for customers to find pollinator plants that haven't been treated with neonicotinoids - agricultural insecticides that poison the pollinators the plants attract. "Unless it's certified organic, they can't be sure," said Brooke.
Becoming solar-powered was a natural fit for their organic farm. As farmers, they depend on a consistent climate for good growing conditions and harvests, but have been facing more dramatic weather events each year. For Rita, her experience in the Peace Corps didn't just imbue a love of medicinal herbs, but also a philosophy for her farm. "When you don't have access to a lot of resources, you use what nature provides you," said Rita. "Solar fits that bill." They had always wanted to go solar, and financing from a USDA REAP Grant and a MA Agricultural Energy Grant Program made it feasible.
They partnered with ReVision Energy not just for the install of the solar array itself, but also to tackle the grant process. "It was complicated to say the least," said Brooke, "but we were able to team up with ReVision to get the technical parts done. It always helps in a process like that to work with someone who's seen it before and can answer questions." Rita added, "We certainly couldn't have done it without ReVision."
Their 37-panel rooftop solar array was up and running in early January of 2019, in plenty of time for the spring planting season, when The HERB FARMacy experiences a spike in electricity usage from electric mats they use to warm the soil. Fortunately with their new solar array, the lengthening days that mark the beginning of growing season mean more free energy to offset that cost. They estimate their bill has only been a third of its typical amount. "Spring is really the peak time for energy costs. We certainly made a huge dent in that this year with solar," said Brooke.
Like the solar array that will provide energy for decades to come after their purchase, Brooke likes the idea that their plants keep on giving after they share them with their customers. For her, the best part of it is seeing their customers' excitement around the plants, especially when they rediscover an old, rare variety that they can't find anywhere else. "It just continues to be more and more reinforcement that we chose the right path," she said.
The HERB FARMacy just opened for the season on April 27th, but Rita and Brooke already know that the new solar array is going to be popular with their customers. "They're psyched that we have solar. They can see it when they drive down the road," said Brooke. People have been honking and cheering as they drive by, and other businesses and local farms have already been inquiring about it. "It's a benefit in terms of how customers view us," said Brooke. "They're happy to support a farm using solar as well. People in the community want a healthy environment and want to support local businesses that are doing their part."