Politics Planted The Seed For A Business In Herbs And Teas

Jul 10, 2018

As soon as the sun comes up, Nhia Lee starts working in the garden. Lee tends a half-acre plot overflowing with fresh herbs near her home in Chepachet, R.I. She spends mornings weeding, watering and harvesting fresh lemongrass, lemon balm, lemon verbena and several varieties of mint before heading to a local warehouse to work the 3:30 to 11:30 p.m. shift.

Lee, who came to the United States in 1989 as a refugee from Laos, insists that she doesn't mind the long hours, explaining, "Immigrant people like me want opportunities to reach our goals of having a better life here."

One of those opportunities came last spring, when Lee started selling herbs to Sanctuary Herbs of Providence. She called it "a chance to step out of the box and do something new."

For co-founders Eliza Sutton and Christina Dedora, launching Sanctuary Herbs of Providence was about more than just starting a new business. They founded the start-up after the 2016 election to showcase the important contributions of farmers from around the world who make their homes in the U.S.

"We were so concerned about the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee attitudes in the current political climate and we felt like we needed to do something," Sutton recalls.

For Sutton, a food access activist, and Dedora, a farmer, bringing people together around food was a natural fit.

The pair, who had been involved in various farm and social justice enterprises in Providence, R.I., had connections with both immigrant and refugee farmers and nonprofit organizations working with populations of first-generation Americans. After doing some outreach to identify potential partner growers, the company acquired contracts to purchase locally grown herbs in the summer of 2017.

Herbs such as mint, lavender and chamomile are staple ingredients in herbal teas. Sanctuary Herbs of Providence opted to focus on tea because of its international origins. Once fresh herbs are dried, blended and packaged into teas, no refrigeration is required and tea has a longer shelf life than other fresh, locally grown products.

The company, which launched with 11 tea blends, is also the sole farm-to-teacup business in Rhode Island. Its top sellers are Cloud 9, a blend of spearmint, tulsi and lavender, and Glitter, made with lemon verbena, lemongrass, ginger and peppermint.

Sutton and Dedora sign contracts with the growers, purchasing fresh herbs at market rates. Growers come together at the beginning of the season to talk about planned crops, ensure that the quantities will meet the demand and discuss potential new tea blends and the herbs needed to produce them. The tea, which retails for $7.50 per ounce, is sold at local farmers markets and via the company's online store and served in several local coffee shops and restaurants. The greater the demand, the more income Sanctuary Herbs of Providence generates for its growers.

"We hope that we're improving the lives of these individual farmers by providing income and creating community," Sutton says. "In this time of uncertainty, every little bit helps."

The community thinks so, too. The tea has gained a cult following.

"I hear people tell me, 'I'm addicted to the tea,' " Lee says.

Last year, Sanctuary Herbs of Providence worked with eight farmers. Thanks to demand for the tea, the number of farmers supplying herbs to the company has doubled. Sutton hopes to continue increasing the number of partner farms as business grows. A recent partnership with the African Alliance, a nonprofit that works with refugees from Africa, has helped expand their local grower network.

"We're really committed to these farmers, to doing what we can in this very dire time to make a difference," she explains.

The 16 farmers growing fresh herbs include Manny Costa, a retired millworker who emigrated from Portugal in 1973. He grows several varieties of herbs, including spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, lemon balm, basil and turmeric for the tea company. Sutton and Dedora buy all of the herbs the farmers can grow.

Costa appreciates the additional income Sanctuary Herbs of Providence provides and the pro-immigrant message steeped in its mission.

"Some people make fun of me for growing herbs but I ignore them; those people are closed-minded," he says. "I joined [as a grower] because I like working in the garden [and] I thought it was a good idea."

Other farmers include Chang Xiong, who started farming in Cranston, R.I., after arriving in the U.S. from Laos, and Liberian immigrant Garmai Mawalo, who grows African basil, rosemary and lemongrass.

As the brand gains recognition, several farmers who are not immigrants and some refugee farmers have reached out about selling herbs to the startup. For now, Sutton says, they'll stick with the original intent to boost the profiles of first-generation Americans.

Costa attends regular grower meetings and appreciates opportunities to interact with farmers from other cultures and contribute ideas for what herbs to grow in upcoming plantings. The community, he says, is one of the best things about being involved with Sanctuary Herbs of Providence.

For Lee, the business represents a chance to chart her own path to success —something she's dreamed of doing since landing in the U.S. when she was just 11. After a successful year of selling herbs, she tripled production this spring and hopes to rent additional land to grow even more herbs next spring. She brought in partners, recruiting her mom and two friends to help turn Lee Family Farms into a thriving family business.

"It makes me feel good that I have someone that needs me to provide produce for them," she says. "We're starting small, but who knows where it will take us?"

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