July 15, 2006
RIDGWAY - As the heat rises about this time of year, Sheila Manzagol becomes obsessed with water. During the day, the 47-year-old dashes around in a dusty station wagon, checking irrigation ditches and adjusting head gates. At night she's listening in the darkness for the hissing sound of her Rain Bird sprinklers as they sweep across 2 acres of medicinal herbs she grows outside Ridgway. "When I turn on the water it brings me incredible peace, because (water) is so hard to get," she says, noting that if new plants go without it for 24 hours, she can lose valuable crops.
Her life is far different from the way it was 11 years ago, when she and husband, Tim Manzagol, lived in the San Francisco area with baby daughter, Brittney. Instead of worrying about water and machinery at their 40-acre farm, Shining Mountain Herbs, the two spent most of their energy battling traffic and other urban stresses.
"Sheila had always wanted to live in the mountains," says Tim, an engineering geologist. "One of our deals as spouses is that we would not live the rest of our lives in the San Francisco area."
In the 1990s, they began looking for a farm in Colorado where they could grow and process valuable crops at a substantial profit. Their choice was organically grown medicinal herbs. She knew the medicinal properties of plants such as nettles, pot marigolds and valerian flowers, as well as endangered herbs being overharvested in the wild, from her studies to become an herbologist. She also knew she could grow them in Colorado, with a little water and a little luck.
"We wanted to show that a modern farm could be self-sustaining and be used to raise high-profit crops," Sheila says. "You just have to be creative."
While Sheila and her two employees nurse seedlings, hoe rows of plants and irrigate, Tim makes sure the farm's head gates and buildings operate at peak efficiency. He calculates the amount of pressure the farm's irrigation pipes can safely handle, manages farm equipment and maintains the business computers. He also works part-time in San Francisco, his income as a consulting geologist keeping the Colorado operation afloat.
So far, the herb business has doubled its revenues each year. But the Manzagols have invested more than $600,000 in their new lifestyle, so their break-even point is years away.
"When we started this, we thought it was going to be a 3- to 4-year project," Sheila says. "It turned out to be an 8- to 10-year project."
She's not disappointed, though. The low valley where they live is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, and a creek cuts through their property, drawing birds and other wildlife. Ridgway's restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores and schools are only a mile away, and traffic jams are almost unheard of, except during an occasional pancake breakfast for the fire department or when Ride the Rockies passes through.
Even better, the Manzagols can retreat into their homey farmhouse that Tim, 55, remodeled with the help of a local contractor.
The two found the property in 1995.
"It was at the end of a long day, and the Realtor wanted to show us just one more house," Tim says. "Sheila almost said 'no.' But when we came over the hill and saw this farm in the valley, we just knew this was going to be the new home.
"Sheila didn't want me working as hard as I was in San Francisco, but I knew I could make a go of this place.
"I was the one who really fell in love with it because of its potential."
At the time, single-family homes in the Bay Area averaged around $500,000. So the farm's $370,000 price seemed like a sweet deal, and included water rights, mountain views, outbuildings, and a few roaming elk. It also included a two-story home that had been built in the early 1900s.
"We were really happy to find an existing home, because it already had that feeling of history," Sheila says.
They looked beyond the home's '70s-era popcorn ceilings, shag carpeting and faux wood paneling, instead remembering that the previous owner had been a kind-hearted and popular rancher in the area.
"We just walked around and you could feel the energy," Sheila says.
Their first task was to strip away the outdated decor. Their contractor removed low ceilings that had been covered with popcorn soundproofing. He knocked out walls to make some rooms larger or improve mountain views. He also built a 350- square-foot addition to the front of the house, following Tim's view-capturing design.
Today, the finished space contains a dining and living room area where wrap-around windows look out at the 13,000-foot Courthouse Mountain peeking just above the Cimarron Range. In another direction, toward Ouray, they can see the Mount Sneffels Range, one of the most dramatic in the San Juans.
The remodel let Sheila express her natural instincts as a designer. To visually connect the home's interior to the rough mountains and arid surroundings, she covered the main entryway and living-room floors with worn oak planks salvaged from an old South Carolina tobacco barn. Finished with organic linseed oil, the floors are ruddy in color and texture, and look as if they have been there forever.
"When we first put it down and hit it with the sanders, this house smelled like tobacco," Tim says.
Making sure nothing went to waste, they turned leftover scraps into cabinet doors and moulding around windows. However, to prevent the home from feeling like summer camp year-round, Sheila added a few civilizing touches. The couple's antique sofa from San Francisco is covered with deep red velvet; polished granite covers the windowsills; their old mahogany dining set gleams in the natural mountain light; Oriental, tea-stained rugs cushion every footfall.
They've also added a covered porch onto the back of the house so they can relax when their farming routine allows.
At the same time, they upgraded the farm's buildings and equipment to transform it into a modern operation. They surrounded two 1-acre herb plots with wire fencing high enough to keep out grazing elk. Tim designed a $60,000 underground irrigation pipe system, with special straining screens, to funnel clean water to their hay fields and herb gardens three-quarters of a mile away. They also added a greenhouse where Sheila starts herbs from seed and a commercial kitchen where she, their daughter, 14, and employees process the herbs into oils, tinctures, teas and salves for sale.
The most recent improvement is a round wood-and-canvas Mongolian-style yurt constructed near the lower herb field. Someday, when the plumbing is finished, it will serve as a comfortable summer guesthouse.
When Tim is away, Sheila stays busy with business details such as product development, label design, promotion and sales. Once a week, she and Brittney load tables, displays and products into a truck, drive dozens of miles to a farmers' market and spend hours educating walk-up customers about medicinal herbs. Other times, when Brittney is in school or at a sleepover with friends, Sheila and her employees process orders they receive through their Web site at www.shiningmountainherbs.com.
"I've had the luxury of building a foundation for this business, because Tim has been supporting us, so everything is in place to go to the next level," says Sheila, who dreams of someday selling her herbal products at Vitamin Cottage.
"It's like a circle. When I bring water to this little piece of land, I am able to give back. I'm able to take medicine from the earth and bring it to people."
If you're interested in making your own herbal remedies, you don't have to go far for materials. Many medicinal plants are probably already growing in your backyard.
Here, Sheila Manzagol, owner of Shining Mountain Herbs, identifies seven common herbs and their healing properties and provides instructions on how to prepare them.
(Check with your physician to see whether you have a medical condition or take a medication that might conflict with use of an herb.)
Comfrey grows 3 to 4 feet tall in Colorado gardens, producing furry, arrow-shaped leaves. By June, tiny clusters of nodding flowers appear at the tops of the plants. Available at many nurseries.
Considered a weed, this plant was brought from Europe by early settlers, who valued it for its food and medicinal properties.
This drought- tolerant perennial produces purple, daisy-like flowers with high, dome- shaped centers.
This bushy, aromatic perennial produces mounds of white-and- yellow daisy-like flowers and is sold at garden centers that specialize in herbs. Plant in well-drained soil in full sun to part shade, and water regularly until established.
Tall, silvery stalks of yellow mullein are common in vacant lots and along dusty roadsides. This biennial also is becoming more popular as a drought- tolerant flower for the garden.
Pour one cup of boiling water over 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried flowers. Steep for 15 minutes, strain and drink three or four times a day. For ear drops, cover fresh-picked flowers with olive oil for several weeks, strain and store. This treatment is even more effective when combined with olive oil infused with garlic.
This common annual is available at garden centers in the spring and produces cheerful orange flowers.
Also called garden heliotrope, this 4-foot-tall, clump-forming perennial produces fragrant clusters of pinkish flowers throughout summer.
September 15, 2004
Eight years ago, when Sheila and Tim Manzagol looked out over a 40-acre parcel along the Uncompahgre River, they saw more than hayfields and rolling pasture, they saw a chance for a dream to come true.
The Manzagols had bought property on Log Hill Mesa three years earlier, but that land didn't quite fit their vision nor provide the incentive for making a permanent move from northern California.
"We were looking for suitable bottom land with water rights that would be ideal for an alternative, small sustainable ag business," Tim recalled. "When a realtor persuaded us that we should look at this white farmhouse and land, we immediately knew 'this is what we are looking for,' so we bought it. Then we thought, 'now what are we going to do?' "
What the couple did five years ago is begin the process of remodeling the house, installing infrastructure needed to return the land to farming, and planting the seed of their own business. The result: Shining Mountain Herbs.
"It's been a lot of hard, but gratifying work and a multi-layered educational experience," said Tim in reference to all the tasks that had to be done – from designing irrigation systems, researching and growing 25 different kinds of herbs, meeting the legal requirements of organic certification, commercial kitchen requirements, bar code requirements, product labeling artwork and legal verbiage, to successful marketing of the final product. He added that their three to five-year business plan (two of which were spent in experimental plots to find out which herbs grow best in this climate) realistically is ending up to be a six or seven year plan. Still, this year they are finally beginning to reap what they have sown.
"This is our first year of being in production and we are just beginning to launch our products locally," said Sheila. "It's definitely been a labor of love so far, which will eventually become profitable."
The couple gives much credit to this year's crop success to Jaime Sumner, a native of the farmlands of Pennsylvania, who joined them last April as a "greenhouse and field farm manager."
"Jaime has a green thumb,” said Tim. "He's a great asset and we rely on him in many areas for his plant growing expertise."
"Beside Jaime," Sheila said, "we are also very fortunate to have Manie Getter on our team. Her sparkling personality, hard work ethics, and herbal knowledge are a welcome addition to the Shining Mountain Herbs family."
Jaime is in charge of plant cultivation, Manie helps both in the field and in herbal preparations, Sheila is responsible for herbal product formulation and production, and Tim is in charge of infrastructure.
"We are pushing the envelope as far as farming at 7,000 feet," Tim said. "It is a lot more work with season extension issues, and it limits what we can grow, but we've been surprised to learn about the numerous indigenous, medicinal plants that can and do thrive here. We have a short intense growing season, but the quality and potency of many herbs grown at higher elevations are known to be superior."
Like many people who eventually settle down at the edge of the San Juan Mountains, the Manzagols and their daughter, Brittney, discovered Ridgway during the wandering course of life's journey.
Their first search for a "slower pace" took them to King's Mountain, a small community in the Santa Cruz Mountains near San Francisco. But Sheila, a biologist, had fond memories of working in Boulder as a student.
"I loved Colorado, that's what drew us here," she said. "We drove all over the state and when we got to Ridgway we knew this is where we wanted to be. We like being here in the valley and are very pleased with the beautiful environment, Brittney's school here in Ridgway, and the people in our community."
Tim, originally a native of Detroit and an engineering geologist, moved to California in 1973. He continues with his geotechnical consulting practice that is based in California.
"As much as I still enjoy the faster pace and technical challenges of my science and engineering profession in the San Francisco area, near the end of each business trip I yearned to be back with my family and reconnect with my farm life," he said.
heila, a native of the San Francisco area, worked as a biologist at Stanford University as well as a research associate at a couple of biotechnical firms before becoming a full time herbalist. She studied herbs for 10 years prior to the family's move here in 1999.
The Manzagol's are committed to organic and sustainable growing practices. They feel that adhering to organic standards of cultivation improves the soil viability, while at the same time increases crop production. Their philosophy follows that of Ecological Medicine, which is based on respectful relationships with not only humans but also other species and the natural world at large. It is based on care and reciprocity — we take care of the Earth and she takes care of us.
"Our philosophy is one of deep respect for the earth and the bounty that it provides," Sheila said. "We are in a place now where we want to give back to the community, and the world at large, by sustaining agriculture locally and by growing herbs that promote wellness. Herbs are a valuable source of maintaining good health, however the general public still need to be educated on how and when to use herbs."
Sheila said the first goal of herbal medicine is to establish the conditions for health and wholeness – which in turn will prevent disease and illness.
"Herbal medicine is different from conventional medicine in that it generally takes a commitment to adhering to a protocol, which is long term," she said. "It also usually requires life style and dietary changes. A diet consisting of 'fast food' will not be supported by herbal medicine. There are no 'silver bullets' in herbal medicine. The 'silver lining' to this however, is that those that adhere to the protocol generally experience a wellness that goes beyond their initial symptoms."
As an example, Sheila described a "client" who had taken their product of Herbal Bitters for gastric distress. Within a period of time, the client experienced increased energy and athletic performance due to better absorption of nutrients.
"One of our goals with Shining Mountain Herbs is to promote the continuation of a viable and evolving agricultural industry in the Uncompahgre Valley," Tim said. "We would like to demonstrate that small-scale specialty farming is still an option and a lifestyle open to those with a desire for providing alternative high quality food and health products to the local and regional community. We are also interested in promoting a 'bigger picture' with this farm through mindful and sustainable farming practices. This farming philosophy is but one ingredient in the concept of "Ecological Medicine," which we mentioned earlier. As a natural scientist and now an organic farmer, it is becoming crystal clear that these are critical concepts that must be implemented during this decade if we are to survive as a species on Earth."
Some of Shining Mountain Herbs' initial products – in particular those that focus on the immune system, digestive tract, nervous system and general wellness – have been available this summer at the Farmers Markets in Ridgway and Telluride. Consumers will find organic Shining Mountain herbal products soon on the shelf locally at Food for Thought, the Ridgway Pharmacy and in Montrose at the Natural Market.
"We are already shipping bulk fresh herbs throughout the United States and have been pleased by the favorable response we've received from herbalists and stores regarding the quality of the herbs that we are now able to produce here in the Uncompahgre Valley," Sheila said.