ReGen Brands Recap #72

Alison Czeczuga & Zach West @ Gaia Herbs

How This Supplement Leader Is Implementing Regenerative On Their Home Farm & Beyond

On this episode, Kyle and Anthony speak with Alison Czeczuga and Zach West from Gaia Herbs. Alison serves as the Director of Social Impact and Sustainability while Zach serves as the Farm Operations Manager.

Gaia Herbs is supporting regenerative agriculture with their 250-acre Regenerative Organic Certified® farm in North Carolina and their more than 200+ SKUs of herbal supplements that contain various Regenerative Organic Certified® ingredients. Gaia Herbs can be found at retail and natural food stores across the United States and on Amazon.


It Starts With Us

Gaia Herbs was founded in 1987 by Ric Scalzo. Intent on sourcing the freshest and highest-quality ingredients, ten years into the business Ric moved to North Carolina to set up a farm for Gaia’s own production. He chose North Carolina for its rich farmland and biodiversity, and purchased a 250 acre plot on ancestral Cherokee lands. 

Today, the scale and diversity of herbs grown on Gaia’s farm is mind-boggling. WIth 170 acres currently under cultivation they grow over 5 million plants representing 30 to 35 of Gaia’s ingredients. The farm focuses on growing herbs that are best suited for their soil and climate. They also grow unique ingredients that are impossible to source up to their standards from elsewhere. In the early years of the business, Gaia sourced 80% of its ingredients from its North Carolina farm. Today, due to business growth and expansion of the product line, that share has reduced to 20%, with the remainder sourced from other growers in the US and around the world. 

Gaia Herbs Farm has been Certified Organic through Oregon Tilth since 1997 and began to explore regenerative certification in 2019. The Gaia team ultimately selected Regenerative Organic Certified® for its comprehensive approach that includes standards across soil health, animal welfare, and worker fairness. Zach was first brought in to advise and support Gaia in the certification process as a consultant working for the Rodale Institute, and now works full-time on the farm management team testing and applying regenerative practices. 

The farm is currently certified ROC Silver and is working toward achieving Gold status. Some of the required regenerative practices to become Gold are particularly challenging for an herb farm. No till is one of the most difficult practices for Gaia to adopt, especially because some of their plants are roots which will rot if left alone. Zach and the farm team continue to trial reduced till approaches, such as using a roller crimper to mat down cover crop and plant the next seeds directly into that mulch. Outside of the on-farm practices, ROC Gold also requires a third party social certification such as Fair Trade, which Gaia is also working towards. Overall, Gaia’s ROC story really highlights the unique challenges that farms face in becoming certified regenerative, and the level of learning and testing it takes to find the regenerative practices that work for each type of crop. 


Investing In People To Regenerate Place

Gaia’s mission to improve human wellness extends into how they operate their business. Each year Gaia brings over a crew of 27 farmers from Mexico to work seasonally on the farm through the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program. This is a common practice for large farms in the United States and unfortunately, the program’s standards do not ensure dignified work and living standards for the visiting farmers. Workers are often crowded in small and dilapidated housing barracks that are unjust and unhealthy. 

In 2021, Gaia launched greater investment in their farmworker housing and overall health and wellness. They just completed a new, state-of-the-art onsite housing complex for the workers that meets the Division of Labor’s Gold Star requirements. Gaia Herbs Farm also partners with local organizations like Vecinos to provide regular medical check-ups for the crew. 


From Manufacturing Waste To Soil Riches

Gaia has its own on-site manufacturing facility and lab where it develops the majority of its supplements. Gaia uses only food grade alcohol or water to extract the vital nutrients from the herbs and botanicals. Similar to making tea, after the nutrients have been extracted, there is leftover organic “waste” called herbal  marc. When conducting an audit of the company’s waste streams, Gaia found that the marc constituted roughly 80% of their total business waste. 

To reduce their waste, Alison and her team set out to create a more circular manufacturing process where the herbal marc would be turned into compost for Gaia Herbs Farm. Turning organic waste into compost may seem straightforward in theory, but in reality, the process is very complex. First, the team had to figure out how to remove the alcohol from the compost, since if left in it would kill the microbes in the soil. Zach and his team conducted two trials to figure out the proper aeration method to dissipate the alcohol from the organic waste and enable the right microbes to thrive to compost the organic material.  Now, after final approval of the compost contents from the Department of the Environment, Gaia can move forward with its application to establish its own industrial composting facility to turn its herbal marc into compost at scale. 

“Good compost takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of monitoring to make sure you have the right microbes in place and you have the right micro environment for those microbes. You have to have the appropriate amount of air and the appropriate amount of water… that it’s being flipped on a regular schedule. So there's a lot of little details when you get into the microbiology.” - Zach


Sourcing Complexity, Label Claims, & Consumer Messaging

Certifications and transparency are a way for Gaia to prove their commitment to their purpose of connecting people, plants, and planet to create healing. They want consumers to know all about their 200+ ingredients and where they came from. On their Meet Your Herbs page, consumers can look up their bottle’s ingredients and see everything from lab test results to the source location.

While Gaia continues to pursue multiple certifications including Fair Wild for wild-harvested ingredients and Fair Trade for cultivated ingredients sourced from other countries, ROC remains a key pillar of their sourcing strategy since it supports both their environmental and social sustainability goals. Ultimately, ROC helps Gaia communicate its high standards to its consumers, but it also helps them ensure supply chain sustainability in the long run as well. 

“And those [certifications] are in hopes of being able to label and being able to talk about them more to the consumer, but also as a supply chain resiliency strategy. We know that if we're paying farmers the right price, we're going to be able to have these farmers growing for us for many years ahead. I'm sure you've heard from sourcing people from various different brands, but farmers not farming anymore is a serious threat. So we need to make sure that we treat them right.” - Allison

Label claims are a common challenge for brands like Gaia whose products contain many ingredients from various locations and growing conditions. In order to label a product ROC, at least 95% of the ingredients must be certified. Package claims will be easier for Gaia’s single-ingredient products that are sourced from their own farm but for now, Gaia is focusing on tying regenerative into their overall brand narrative rather than individual label claims on SKUs. 

Communicating a focus on sourcing regenerative ingredients fits naturally with herbalism. As Allison notes, “herbalism is just not producing an herbal supplement. It really is the connection to land, to plants, to each other, to yourself.”  Zach adds on, describing how regenerative and herbalism are similar approaches in that they are proactive approaches that seek to foster long-term immunity, whether that be in your gut or in the soil. In the future Gaia hopes to investigate how regenerative agriculture impacts supplement potency. For now, they are looking into how regenerative practices are improving their farm’s soil quality over time and conducting tests on how phytochemicals, the nutrients produced by plants, are altered based on regenerative farming practices. 

“There's an old saying you are what you eat. We have an internal stomach and the plants actually have an external stomach. That's the soil. So it really is super critical to understand your soil, to know what's in it to make sure it is a fully functioning ecosystem. You know, when you think of the soil you might just think of the little pieces of minerals and there's a lot more in's a huge ecosystem. You have bacteria, you have fungus, nematodes…the list goes on and on. So making sure that that external stomach is fully functioning and complete is going to transfer to a healthy plant and then to a healthy consumer of that plant as well.” – Zach


50% Market Share 4 Regen

For Allison, increasing market share for regenerative CPG brands requires three key efforts: 1) continuing to build the links between regenerative agriculture and health, 2) investing in farmland and farmers, and 3) collaboration between CPG brands in the botanical industry for peer-to-peer learning. She is encouraged by institutions like the Rodale Institute organizing a Regenerative Healthcare Conference to bring medical professionals into the conversation and further research on the connection between soil and human health. She and the Gaia team also continue to participate in collaborative efforts like the Sustainable Herbs Program to learn from other brands and bring them to the Gaia Herbs’ Farm to learn from their trials as well. 

“I think it has to do with linking regenerative to health and wellness, and why consumers should care. I think many people care about biodiversity and climate, but humans are ultimately selfish and care about their own health and wellness. So bringing that back of how this is impacting you, I think, will be essential. And investing in the infrastructure for this to happen. It's not going to happen without investing in farmers and investing in the land.” - Alison


This ReGen Recap was written by Katey Finnegan

The illustrations were created by Stacey Shaller

You can check out the full episode with Alison Czeczuga & Zach West @ Gaia Herbs HERE

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