Herbs are magic, we’re pretty sure of it. Not only can these unassuming twigs and sprigs enhance the flavors of food, they contain a host of healing properties, as well. And, most of them smell amazing! Katelyn Melvin of Tooth of the Lion Farm & Apothecary leveraged her experience working on a vegetable farm to start her own herb and flower farm last year in Orwisburg, Pa. (about halfway between Harrisburg and Allentown). On the 14-acre plot of land, she grows a gorgeous array of herbs and flowers, some of which are included in her popular herb CSA and also into various wellness products, like teas and tonics that she crafts. Some of these products are sold at farmers markets in Rittenhouse Square, Bryn Mawr and Emmaus.
Love for plants is in Katelyn’s DNA — her nana was a florist, and her pop-pop bred tomatoes. When she was in high school, her mom portioned off a little patch of the yard so Katelyn could plant her first herb garden. As we’re always curious how hobbies turn into jobs, and how people follow their hearts into the culinary world, we asked Katelyn a few questions about how she got her start, what challenges and triumphs she’s encountered, her plans for the future and more!
PA Eats: So, how and when did you come to farming and herbal wellness?
Katelyn Melvin: I actually started Tooth of the Lion in 2012 when I lived in West Philly. I didn’t have any land to call my own, but I had built up quite a medicine chest of wild crafted herbs and things I grew in little garden plots.
The first time I sold my herbal tinctures at a local craft fair, I was overwhelmed by the positive response, but still felt like I had a lot to learn before I struck out on my own. Honestly, I still feel like a newbie all the time. That’s actually what I love about farming — there’s always a new challenge, and you can be a mechanic and a soil scientist and an artist and an herbalist all in one day. It’s kind of hard to stop once you start … it’s more like farming got into me, rather than I got into farming.
Was there a specific moment that you decided to take “the leap” into opening Tooth of the Lion? Or was it a gradual process?
There actually was a specific moment — it wasn’t anything very notable or glamorous, but just one morning I was hauling compost into a hoophouse of early spring greens and I realized, of course I want to do this for the rest of my life! Before that point, I’d been gaining skills and learning everything I could about plants, but didn’t have a clear path for many years. There was something about that morning — the fog, perhaps a little coffee buzz! — that solidified my goals. I love hauling compost.
What was an early challenge, as you started up? A victory?
Oh, it’s a new challenge every day, honestly, way too numerous to list. This first year on the farm was challenging in a lot of ways that I expected — keeping up on everything from weeding to bookkeeping, and just the back-and-forth to farmer’s markets — but also in some ways that I didn’t expect. Everything breaks, all the time, and most of the season it feels like I’m just running between putting out fires and plowing ahead (literally) without an end in sight.
One of the biggest victories for me has just been pulling this thing off so far. I’ve been totally self-employed for almost a year now, and I was also able to hire the best farm crew, and we grew some things and, somehow, everyone got paid. I also remember early in the spring, when we made our first proper bouquets from the farm, all brimming with huge peonies and spikes of larkspur and airy nigella, I was putting them together and setting up for the farmers market, and I actually just started to cry. I had about 10 minutes to get myself together before market started. But, I was really just in awe that it finally felt like I had done something right. Most days it feels like 10 misses for every small victory, so I do have to savor those [victories].
Any advice for someone starting out as an entrepreneur?
One of the hardest things for me has just been leaning into vulnerability. I’m an introvert at heart and, for the most part, farming hasn’t turned out to be the hermit-like lifestyle that I’d hoped for. Turns out, growing things is the easy part. After that, you’ve got to market them, and for me, having to market the herbs and flowers that are my living, breathing soul and my very reason for existing … any attempt to convey that to someone else comes up short.
And then, of course, just asking for help. I tend to dig myself into a very, very deep hole before I ask anyone for anything. It comes, in part, from my stubborn nature, but also in part from being a young single woman in a historically male-dominated field. So, ask for help sometimes. But, other times, it’s more fun to just figure it out yourself. I’ve learned a lot both ways.
Really, though, sometimes I feel like I’ve undertaken this huge thing alone, but that’s really never the case — no one actually does things totally alone. That has been one of the biggest surprises, just how generous most people are when you let them help. My family and friends and farm crew have all been so supportive — not just helping me get things done around the farm, but really helping me be my best self through all the ups and downs.
Can you share any news for the year ahead? Any plans for growth or changes?
With the whole farm crew coming back for another season, I am really excited to expand. Our constant mantra last year was “In year two…,” thinking of all that we’ll do better or grow more of [in the year ahead]. One of the most difficult things about farming is just how tediously slow it is — you can make one mistake in May and then have a whole year to beat yourself up about it before you get another shot. “Year two” won’t be perfect, but it’s going to be pretty awesome!
We’re going to more than double our acreage of medicinal herbs in order to offer more bulk herbs, and hopefully make our herbal products a little more accessible. And I’m also hoping to double our cut-flower production on about the same amount of land through more intensive plantings. I have a few ideas for expanding our line of herbal tea and tincture blends, and I also hope to connect with more retail outlets to get our market spread a little wider than just our few farmers markets now.
What is something you wish people understood more about herbal wellness? Are there any misconceptions you want to set straight?
Probably the biggest, saddest misconception about herbal wellness right now is the trendiness. If being fashionable helps more people get into herbs, then I’m all for it! But my fear is that people see herbalism as just another expensive health fad, like the reputation that kale smoothies have.
If there’s one thing I want to do, it’s just to make herbs normal, easy and accessible for people. Grow some lemon balm, put the leaves in some hot water — that’s it, you’re an herbalist. It’s simple, but for so many people it’s also so much more. The world of herbs is incredibly diverse, and there are so many ways to learn and traditions to get to know; most of us have some plant traditions that we’ve learned already. Reach back in your memory, ask your parents or grandparents, and tease out those traditions, even if it’s as simple as some chamomile tea or the perfect herbs for tomato sauce. That’s the good stuff.
Keep up with Tooth of the Lion on Instagram for updates and events, including events where Katelyn and her team host farm tours and herbalism workshops.
- Photos: Tooth of the Lion