Nestled at the base of the Mission Mountains on a 40-acre organic farm is a small plot of earth, just three-quarters of an acre, planted with what could be mistaken for weeds.
Clusters of stinging nettle grow next to groupings of fireweed and alongside rows of tulsi, a flowering plant related to mint and basil.
Several varieties of tulsi are native to the Indian subcontinent and used to make herbal teas ranging from a clove-like spiced aroma to a fresh lemon-like flavor or a more bitter, peppery note.
Larry Neskey has always grown a little bit of tulsi on his farm, combining the leaves with ginger, turmeric and orange peel to make his own tea blend.
“Several years ago I just started packaging the tea and giving it away as Christmas presents for friends,” Larry said. “It just snowballed from there.”
Along with his wife, Katie, Larry has run the farm, Awesome Acres, outside of St. Ignatius for seven years, experimenting with the full range of agricultural yields.
The Neskeys initially started as a small vegetable CSA (community supported agriculture), but found an already saturated market in the area.
“We got goats, then switched to cows and pigs — at one point we had 55 hogs on the farm,” Katie said. “For close to four years we were doing a bit of everything and growing a ton of herbs for ourselves.”
Around the end of 2019 the couple decided to try something different and follow a recipe that is popular in the Midwest and Northeast: a pizza farm.
“We love making sourdough pizza and we can grow everything needed on the farm,” Katie said. “We were all set to build a pizza oven and had our canned tomatoes left from the previous year, so we’d be able to host a weekly pizza dinner to bring guests to the farm.”
Just a few months later, however, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The Neskeys wouldn’t be inviting hundreds of people to gather at their farm for pizza anytime soon.
After casting about for a way to continue making a livelihood on their farm, Larry settled on scaling up his tea-growing operation.
“We totally pivoted. Tea and herbs are a product that’s shelf stable, and we didn’t know how long the pandemic would last,” Larry said.
Making use of some pandemic grants available to farmers, the Neskeys built a drying shed and a greenhouse and rebranded as Awesome Herbs.
The farm currently grows three varieties of tulsi, as well as mint, chamomile, nettle, clover blossoms, milky oats and a number of other medicinal and culinary herbs.
“Transitioning from growing traditional vegetables to these more obscure plants has been fun,” Larry said. “After seven years of being on the farm, we’re just trying a bunch of things out to see what pays the bills and what we can do that doesn’t drive us crazy. I think the tea and herbs is something we truly enjoy doing. It’s fascinating working with the plants we grow and the drying process has been cool to learn.”
After the tea and herbs are harvested by hand, they’re relegated to a passive solar drying shed that pushes superheated air into the building, turning the once-fresh leaves crisp without using any outside energy.
After a few days in the drying shed, the leaves are knocked off their stems and broken down into the small pieces seen in a tea bag, a sifting process known as garbling. Then specific blends are measured and packaged together.
“It’s been fun learning how to perfect the process. And as far as blends go, we’ll grow a small batch of something experimental that sounds interesting and over the winter we’ll start playing around with different ingredients and combinations,” Larry said. “We enjoy testing out the different blends, and making new recipes based on what we like drinking.”
Currently Awesome Herbs sells 10 different herbal tea blends, including a heavy nettle chai, chamomile and their house blend, the original combination of tulsi, ginger, orange peel and turmeric.
Larry recently plowed another three-quarters of an acre to double the tea production next year, with plans to get products on the wholesale market. Until then the Neskeys continue to sell their tea and herbs at farmers markets in Missoula and Bigfork.
“Pivoting to a shelf stable product where we didn’t have to have human interaction worked great during the early pandemic,” Katie said. “But now that things have slowed down we’re ready to switch back to why we got into agriculture in the first place — helping and providing for our community.”
Part of their community work is grown on the farm as well. Awesome Herbs is part of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a movement that links global volunteers with organic farmers as a work-for-room-and-board arrangement.
The Neskeys have hosted workers from around the world, some who stay for a few weeks and some who stayed around for nearly a year. They promote their farm as safe space for minorities and the LGBTQ+ community, which they say has brought a great group of diverse individuals to their corner of Montana.
“We’ve been able to create such a cool community here with people from all over,” Katie said. “They’re all part of our family now, and that’s what we like most about this. We don’t need to be a massive operation — we just want folks to buy our tea, send it to their friends and enjoy it, and to be a place that welcomes a community to help that process.”
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