Shortly after I first moved to Stroud about three years ago I had a big Idea, I called it ‘Transition Herbs’ (as is often the way with big ideas things develop… the name has since been changed to ‘wild harvest foods’). The idea was for me to forage, harvest, produce, manufacture and sell my own brand of herbal remedies and wild food preserves. The herbal formulations and foods themselves would not be that exciting, in fact the essence of the idea was that they would simply mirror popular, existing health food brands that were already on the shelf. The products that I produced would then be sold alongside popular brands in the health food shop where I worked at the time (Stroud has a great independent health food shop where I worked for three and a half years called sunshine health; www.sunshinehealthshop.co.uk).
Stroud is a lovely community, filled with people who really care about the town and the environment they live with, Stroud is a genuinely alternative town. However, one of the things I just couldn’t understand working at sunshine was that while people were willing to think about their health in an alternative way they didn’t manage to remember if what they were doing was both healthy and environmentally friendly at the same time. For example; one of the bestselling products in sunshine was a highly branded Elderberry syrup; to make this syrup the manufacturer uses the best Elderberries in the world, these grow wild in the west country of England. So from the West Country the freshly picked berries are sent up to Swansea to be processed and extracted, from there the extract is sent to Israel where the manufacture is based, to be bottled. From here the finished product is shipped all over the world and to health food shops and pharmacists across the UK. This is probably the cheapest way to distribute a very popular product to the wider world, but I thought that Stroud could perhaps accommodate something on done on a more local level without the frankly crazy carbon footprint of shipping all over the world to process and bottle, before product distribution has even begun!
I didn’t know much about the Transition movement at the time but I did know that my ideas were in keeping with some of what Transition groups within the UK were trying to accomplish. I did however have a friend called Emily Smith who was a member of Transition Stroud (www.transitionstroud.org) and pretty hot on all things ‘transition’, so I went to ask her advice (my hot friend Emily Smith has since changed her name to Emily Joy, making me a very happy man!)
The first year was spent working out decent places to forage elderberries, hawthorns, rosehips and sloes and then refining recipes; I also tried to figure out what would be the best products in the shop to try and replicate. After working out what I would make I spent the next year gauging by the turnover of the shop how much I would have to make to ensure that I had enough to last a whole year. I also kept a supply of everything I was keen to make to see how it would age and what kind of sell by date I might have to put on the label.
My employers at Sunshine Health helped me to work out the costings of the products and a realistic retail price to sell each product for. I decided that Sunshine would be the sole distributor of the product range, I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew and I wasnt sure what kind of demand I would be facing through one (very busy) outlet. One of things i learnt quickly is that there is only one harvest for most of the herbs and foods I was interested in making, one shot at picking, preserving and selling. So the three phases of researching and experimenting, testing the market and then actually releasing a product on to the market was a three year process.
I think this is one of the beautiful things about the ‘Wild Harvest’ project; it was never going to become a multinational company and I had no expectations to be producing thousands of units. Wild Harvest is about doing things as well a they can be done on a genuinely sustainable, local level.
The next stage was bottling and labelling. Myself and Emily designed all the labels and edited them on photoshop. Sunshine health had a labelling printer which helped us make the finnished look quite professional. The bottles came from the Bristol Bottle Company. We bought far too many bottles but it isn’t like they will ever go out of date and the more you buy the cheaper they get. I explored the idea of setting up a bottle depot through sunshine and recycling them with our produce but Sunshine were not too keen on the idea. In the end Sunshine paid for the bottles themselves and we filled them, this meant that all we were selling was the raw ingredient.
By the time harvest came around again and Emily and I were living together we went out into the wild to harvest elderberries hawthorns and rosehips; our early autumn days were spent cutting down berries while getting caught up in brambles. Sunshine bought 250 units of Elderberry syrup which sold by the end of the following summer. Whilst we didn’t outsell the top brand of Elderberry we sold approximately half the amount of our syrup compared to this big brand.
We will publish the recipe and other details of each of the products we’ve produced with this page so you can make them for yourselves. Any advice or tips you might have for this ongoing project of ours we would love to hear them!
When we got the elderberry syrup bottled and into the shop, and when it started to sell well, Sunshine Health suggested that we develop our project in the next years. They suggested using their staff and premises to produce many more bottles of the syrup. At first we were excited but the more we thought about it the more we realised that this was rather against our principles and contrary to the aims of Wild Harvest Foods. We wanted to show people how easy it was to make your own wild products for free, this is why from the start we made all our recipes public and put the locations of where the berries had been picked on the bottles. We also felt right from the start that doing this ourselves with the minimum of equipment and staff would show what people can do in their own kitchens from the countryside outside their doors. In addition to these points, we felt that any money we made was a bonus. Let me explain… we would have gone out walking anyway most of the days we went picking and the extra work preserving and bottling was a pleasure (mainly because we were making small batches) so we were not making these products to make a profit, any money made would be a nice addition to our income. It was hard for a large business to understand our ‘naiive’ way of looking at work but our principles here were more important that the profit we could have made. Hopefully we will continue making small batches to sell that will inspire people to make their own the next year. Yes this means in an ideal world eventually (hopefully!) we will not sell any more products. Unfortunately people often do not have the time to make their own and are also convinced by strong advertising that spending a lot of money on a ready made product is ‘better’ for them.