One Garden  

An Apprenticeship Perspective
Experiences in the Apprentice Program at Elixir Farm
by Jay Bost

Imagine an orange sunrise over hills clad with tall pine silhouettes and mists slowly drifting down spring-fed valleys. As the sun gathers strength and the mists break, if one were circling in the sky with the raptors, a small clearing full of terraced gardens would come into view. On the banks of a clear flowing river, in the middle of nearly 4000 acres of intact forest, sits Elixir Farm.

Descending, one sees gardeners drinking tea, preparing for a day’s work amid statues of the Buddha drying in the sun. A white-haired acupuncturist, visionary, and caretaker of the land, leads you from plant to plant. She points to Jie-geng and She-gan, which have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine to treat lung ailments and conditions calling for "blood promoting" effects. Where are you? The mountains of Southeast Asia? China?

Welcome to the heart of the Ozark Bioregion, in Ozark County, Missouri, near the small town of Brixey. Elixir Farm is the project of Vinnie McKinney and various partners who have cultivated this beautiful piece of land for thirty years, and intimately know its surrounding natural ecosystems.

"My partner at the time and I were living in a cabin up the river and fell in love with Bryant Creek and the woods here, and decided we had to find a place to buy," reflects Vinnie. "We heard about this place and came down the long dirt road to find a guy on a bulldozer ready to start knocking down trees to sell as lumber. We said we wanted to buy the place and he turned off the dozer and soon packed his things. We bought the property lock, stock and barrel with the bulldozer and ninety head of cattle," she adds. Over the years Vinnie and her partners sold off the cattle herd to make land payments and shifted into other realms of agriculture and homesteading.

Elixir has developed gradually and through numerous synchronistic events. It currently stands poised to further evolve as new resources and people arrive to build upon thirty years of hard and directed work. Elixir is composed of four cultivated acres in long terraced beds, tilled by tractor and irrigated by recycled rubber drip hoses. About two hundred species of plants are grown, the majority Chinese and Native American medicinals. Annual and perennial food and ornamental crops are also grown. Nearly all of the crops are grown for seed, which is sold through Elixir Farm’s catalog and website to both individual and commercial growers. Some of the larger plantings are seed crops grown under contract for Seeds of Change. Other parts of the garden, including two extensive shade houses, largely contain living specimens of rare and/or important medicinals. Many grow-outs (a term used to designate plants grown for seed) are geared toward preserving the viability of Elixir Farm’s extensive seed bank collection. The seed bank includes approximately seven hundred species, seventy percent of Chinese origin, representing one of the largest collections of Chinese medicinal germplasm in the country.

Why so many Chinese plants? The Ozarks and China are not as different in climate and plant geography as one might think. "Go to certain provinces in China, such as Yunnan, and you won’t know if you are here (the Ozarks) or there," says Steven Foster, a long time associate of Elixir Farm and author of Herbal Emissaries and Medicinal Plants of North America.

The similarity of some parts of Asia’s flora to that of the Ozarks and other parts of the Eastern forests is due to what is called, in the terminology of plant geographers, the Interrupted Eastern Asiatic-Eastern North America Range. Botanically, these two regions are quite similar, Foster says, and share around 150 genera of plants. A large part of Elixir’s work involves looking at what are called analogues. This is done in two ways. First, if closely related species from both areas are used in the folk medicines native to those areas, it is very likely that these plants have some true health benefits. Secondly, the analogue concept is used to look at the enormous herbal repertoire of Chinese medicine and find plant genera whose use is well documented in Asia but unknown in North America. In the process it is possible that new (or forgotten) North American medicinals may be discovered.

All of the plants and seed grown at Elixir are certified Biodynamic by the Demeter Association. The farm has been biodynamically farmed for nearly all of its history and Vinnie currently serves on the board of the Biodynamic Association. She began using Pfeiffer field sprays in the early days. Now, 500 pre-potentized horn manure, Prepared 500 horn manure, Barrel Compost (Thun) preparation and 501 are used routinely in the greenhouses and at least twice a year in the perennial seedbeds. The biodynamic preparations 502–507 obtained from the Josephine Porter Institute are used in the compost made with horse manure generated on the farm.

Vinnie calls herself a "secular" practitioner and says that the biggest lesson she has learned from biodynamics has been to look at her farm in its larger ecological context and in terms of its energy flows. "The concepts of energy flow and movement are very intuitive to me at this point. Both are relevant to my work," says Vinnie. Besides being the main gardener at Elixir, Vinnie is also a practitioner of ‘Five Element’ acupuncture.

Seeing the farm in its larger ecological context has been as much work for Vinnie as the gardens themselves. Over the years, alone and with friends, Vinnie has purchased and put into a land trust 250 acres of mostly riparian forest. Included in the trust is a beautiful area where a large spring surfaces and turns into a deep brook, which flows for around a mile before entering Byrant Creek. Vinnie has helped inspire friends in the area to create the Bryant Creek Watershed group and the Alford Forest.

Alford Forest is the long-term project of neighbor David Haenke and is a private reserve of nearly 4000 acres of forest that border Elixir Farm. Some areas of this forest have been declared Ecological Reserves and will remain untouched. Haenke manages the rest of the reserve following sustainable forestry principles. "What we have here now in the Ozarks," says Haenke, "is a forest which is a human artifact, an unhealthy forest which is a result of over a century of the totally ecologically insane practice of high-grading, which means taking out the best and healthiest trees. The effects of this practice have resulted in a de-evolution of the forest, an unnatural selection, leading to weak and diseased trees."

The current plague of borers wiping out the red oaks in the Ozarks is an example of the effects of our poor management in the past. David’s work involves restoring the forest’s health through selective cutting of weak, diseased and crowded trees. He is also demonstrating through his one-man milling operation that it is possible to have both healthy forests and a viable timber-based economy. The work of David Haenke and Elixir overlap in their shared concern for the preservation of the native forest ecosystems that are home to many of the native medicinal species that Elixir cultivates. David and Elixir are in the process of inventorying both the farm and forest to better understand what kind of biodiversity exists in both sites.

The action and excitement is building at Elixir as numerous projects evolve. The newest development is the transformation of Elixir Farm Botanical Seed into the non-profit One-Garden, Inc, which will be based out of a small old church in Brixey. In addition to acquiring Elixir’s seed collection, One-Garden will also inherit the Deep Diversity seed collection of the noted seed breeder Alan Kapuler. The project is being spearheaded by Steven Foster, who is creating an extensive library in the church. He also plans to begin developing research and education programs centered on medicinal plant germplasm conservation and investigation of Chinese and Native American medicinals. The exact future of Elixir Farm is undetermined, but it is certain the land will continue to be a place of plant conservation, education, and personal and planetary transformation.


Jay Bost

Jay Bost has spent the last ten years learning about plants and seeds as a vagabonding agriculturist/ethnobotanist. His investigations have led him from an olive farm in Greece to Elixir Farm in the Ozarks via the Meso-American mountains and rainforest and Prescott College’s Wolfberry Farm. He holds a degree in Agroecology from Prescott College.

This article appeared in the Winter 2004 Issue of Biodynamics magazine and is reproduced here courtesy of Biodynamics.