Vitamin Retailer — August 2014
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Back Talk
Beth Lambert, CEO

THIS MONTH :

Beth Lambert is the CEO of Herbalist & Alchemist (Washington, NJ). A Harvard Business School graduate, Lambert had a successful Wall Street career that she left behind to pursue her interest in environmentally based businesses. She is on the Board of the Veterinary Botanical Medicine Association and has helped to develop their Educational Teleseminar Program for veterinarians. She is also on the Board of the American Herbal Products Association and acts as Chair of its Education Committee, which develops both industry education and educational programs for practitioners. Lastly, she is a Vice Chair of AHPA-ERB Foundation, an organization dedicated to the research, safety and preservation of botanicals.

Question: What made you decide to leave your Wall Street career to pursue your interest in environmentally based businesses?

Answer: I met Permaculture movement founder, Bill Mollison, in the late 80s. He looked at the world differently, asking why we couldn’t use fences that grew (hedgerows), instead of cutting down trees for fences that degrade. Site a house to gain heat from southern exposure in winter? Plant deciduous shade trees on the south side to reduce heating costs? Insulate with natural materials? I began to look at the world differently and enjoyed his and others’ systems of design using natural elements. I use many of those same principles in our business and the markets we select.

This led me to want to dedicate the next phase of my life to making choices in how I live, grow some of my own food and work with companies that made products that were good for the earth and healthy for people.

Question: What specifically attracted you to H&A?

Answer: David Winston’s honesty and commitment to quality that is relatively rare to find in the business world. He is in the herbal products business because he could not find quality herbal products for his patients in the late 1970s. The products are authentic, natural products—simply made, but the attention to quality by David and H&A employees was meticulous. And the industry itself was poised to grow.

Question: Can you talk about your work in engaging the herb industry with the farming community?

Answer: We need the next generation of growers. Many farmers who have worked the land for years are scaling back their operations. Physical work can be very challenging and our agricultural education system focuses more on research and not teaching practical techniques.

We strongly prefer crops grown under U. S. organic certification regulations, but there is a limited supply. Many of the herbs we use are cultivated or collected outside of the U.S. Our price paid for herbs reflects the farmer’s compensation for, cost of transport, customs brokerage, warehousing, and often distributors’ margins. Decreasing intermediaries increases income for the farmers.

Concerns about cultivation methods and potential adulteration from imported crops are real issues in our industry. Floods, droughts, fire and other natural disasters affect harvests. Diversifying growing and collection areas is essential for establishing a reliable supply of herbs.

We find the best farmers suited to grow herbs are experienced vegetable growers. They understand that crops need to be attentively weeded, harvested on time and shipped properly. It’s amazing that most of these farmers really do not know the broader class of “herbs.” To them, herbs are “parsley, basil and oregano.” When I tell them elderberry, corn silk and watercress, I get very curious and interested looks. I have found that there are many wonderful young people, people moving back to the land to start second careers, and herbalists that are interested in learning more about what herb company buyers need.

Question: Why are you encouraging farmers to grow herbs?

Answer: The organic farming and sustainable agriculture movements have increased the opportunities in farming. But they have also attracted larger growers whose economies of scale make it more difficult for smaller farmers to grow some of the everyday vegetables economically. Farmers recognize the need to diversify their crops and income stream.

Herbs provide a right livelihood over three very long seasons. In very early spring, one can gather roots and barks. Spring brings the early greens such as cleavers and perennials (lemon balm). Summer harvests include flowers, berries and annuals (elderberry, corn silk). Fall needs include nuts (black walnut hulls), roots and barks.

Question: Can you talk about your company as the first “B” company in the industry?

Answer: Environmental issues have always been important to David and me. It was one of many ideas we had in common when we became business partners. We looked for a certification group that would help confirm that we “walked our talk.” The B Corporation model helped us to examine and benchmark our practices. We really liked that the standards were not just environmental, but involved how we treat our employees, engage with our community and make management decisions.
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