They found markets, and markets discovered them.
Lady Clairol, First Nations sweat ceremonies, the New England states, Harry Potter. At first glance it would be difficult to find a common link. Yet there is a connection. Some of the botanicals (parts of plants, wild or cultivated) used by each of these, are supplied by a small agribusiness in southeast Saskatchewan. Never Rest Farm in the Pipestone Valley, south of Broadview, is home to wildcrafters Sietse and Dorothy Rienks.
Going “back to your roots” takes on a literal meaning for them. As a kid, Sietse had gathered Seneca snakeroot for spending money. Years, and several life changes later for both, circumstances guided them to this unique form of diversification. At 60-plus years, health issues and a recognition that their quarter section was not suited to farming in the traditional sense, propelled them towards wildcrafting. They set on a quest to locate a market for snakeroot.
What the Rienks found instead was a market for red willow bark, and one for Dakota sage. With the purchase of a computer, Internet hookup and “learn-as-you-go” training, Dorothy was able to set up their wildcrafting business, providing for markets far beyond the small scale of local needs.
Online requests for sweetgrass increased. Unable to locate any locally, they ordered plants from a seed company and now have almost an acre of the fragrant grass. “Customers soon realized the superb quality we diligently strive to maintain.”
They read seed catalogues to see what was not available in flowers and plants and also checked ingredients on the labels of shampoo bottles for herbals they might be able to supply. They found markets, and markets discovered them.
To describe this form of agribusiness in their own words, “wildcrafting is gathering the wild plants, bark and berries and other botanicals from the wild for people who do not have the time or knowledge to do it for themselves.”
The Rienks’ wildcrafting operation provides seeds for hard-to-get plants found in the wild, like western lilies traditionally grown from roots and bulbs. They have experimented with numerous varieties and have provided some urban parks in the province with much sought-after botanicals unique to the area.
On a larger scale, the Rienks provide herbals that eventually make their way into larger markets. For example, sweetgrass goes to an incense manufacturer. Fireweed and yellow dock go to an extraction company that in turn sells the essences to cosmetic manufacturers such as Lady Clairol.
Sietse has a shed where he has set up a grinder — woodchipper and hammermill combined, for grinding sweetgrass. In the house, two-foot braided tails of sweetgrass are hanging. Sietse says they have many uses, mostly ceremonial or decorative, and are especially good for damp-smelling basements and laundry rooms. The Rienks have sweetgrass available loose or chopped for smudging, as well as in plugs to grow yourself.
Requests from the New England states, home of the Salem witchcraft trials, have mainly been for botanicals for sale as tourist memorabilia. The demand for willow branches for wands is thanks to the Harry Potter series.
In addition to harvesting in the wild, Dorothy and Sietse enjoy dabbling in controlled pollination in the three-storey greenhouse attached to the south side of their home. With its abundant south exposure it serves as a living laboratory, also providing heat to the house.
In the growing season, their garden has been home to wild plants not of this zone, acclimatized to produce a hardy seed. Sietse has developed 150-plus variations of colours in irises. There are also peonies grown from seed. They sell the root to customers, but grow the seeds themselves to see what other variations they can get.
One of the specialty crops they grow is sacred tobacco, prized by First Nations customers. It originates from heritage seeds from the West Coast, carbon dated to over 1,000 years old. As with all their plantings, the Rienks are careful to rotate the crops of different varieties to regulate pollination.
During the winter while the earth rests, Dorothy and Sietse prepare the requested botanicals for their worldwide customers. Sietse works at braiding and hones his skills at drum making from the birch and hides he has prepared. Dorothy looks after the business in addition to designing jewelry to sell online and at summer markets.
While nature takes a break with winter, the Rienks of Never Rest Farm slow down just a wee bit until April. Then when the earth awakens, a whole new cycle of wildcrafting resumes in earnest.
Dorothy and Sietse Rienks can be located online at http://www.zibbet.com/agardenofmagick.
Brenda Scheirer writes from Kenosee Lake, Saskatchewan