Gathered Threads is a small family farm-based business located on 6 acres in beautiful Nelson County, Virginia. The inspiration and hard work behind our eclectic little farm comes from Katherine Herman, who has spent 10 years as a vegetable grower in the northern Virginia area before venturing to start off on her own. Her interest in farming began while she lived and worked in Tanzania as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Returning home, Katherine sought an apprenticeship on a small scale, sustainable vegetable farm. She discovered Tree and Leaf Farm, which she would call home for 8 years. Through farming at Tree and Leaf and learning from owner Zach Lester, she developed an enduring appreciation for and connection to plants of all kinds. She remains focused on both perennial and annual plants, including herbs, vegetables, flowers, fruits, shrubs, and trees. Katherine loves the challenge of propagating seeds and plants, which for certain herbs can be quite difficult. There are flats containing seeds in our greenhouse which won’t germinate for several years! Though not yet certified organic, we are personally dedicated to growing all plants sustainably without the use of any pesticides, insecticides, or chemical fertilizers.
Katherine began a journey with herbs around 2005: first as a client to acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, in an eventually successful effort to correct an unidentified disease (possibly Lyme); and then in 2009 when she began to grow and to study herbs more formally. In 2013, Katherine completed a 3-year course at Sacred Plant Traditions in Charlottesville, Va under herbalist Kathleen Maier, where she trained to become an herbal clinician. Her experiences there lead to her conception of Gathered Threads, a small farm-based business focused on the production and propagation of medicinal herbs for the local market area. We recognize that one large problem with the practice of herbal medicine is the lack of quality, consistently potent, and correctly labeled products in the larger industry. Gathered Threads is a small farm where you can meet the grower face-to-face, and local means you can make an appointment to meet your herbs while they are still growing in the earth, soaking in the sunshine and Blue Ridge mountain air, and see the methods we use to dry and process everything.
The abundant harvests she enjoyed during her full-time work as a vegetable farmer led Katherine to experiment with both ancient and traditional methods of food preservation. Vegetables fermented naturally are an extremely healthy addition to any diet, and in many cases are more nutritious and beneficial than their raw counterparts! The basic process is simple: chop vegetables, add salt and water, and ferment until the acidity of the brine reaches a target pH level. It is similar to pickling, but instead of adding vinegar from another source, we basically produce our own, living vinegar that is filled with probiotics! What happens in the solution is that the natural bacteria and yeasts in the air and on the vegetables try to grow in the warm temperatures and wet, nutrient-rich environment. However, because we add a proper amount of salt, the growth of lactic-acid-producing yeast is overwhelmingly favored. Most bacteria can’t grow well in a high-salt environment, but these yeast can, and as the yeast multiplies it causes the solution to become increasing acidic, and almost nothing else can grow in both a salty and an acidic environment, so the food is preserved and protected from spoilage even at room temperatures! Though we do refrigerate after the brewing is complete in order to maintain a fresh taste and crisper vegetables. The one thing that can spoil a good ferment is mold, so we make sure to stir frequently while our veggies are warm and brewing. Katherine has been fermenting and experimenting with cultures since 2007. She is still is coming up with new recipes and combinations, many based on those from traditional cultures, and enjoys those golden moments when a new combination comes together!
In 2012, Katherine undertook formal studies in Foot Reflexology, which is a traditional wellness system in which the various organs of the body find corresponding regions mapped out on each person’s foot. The practice is to give a specific type of stimulating touch to the feet, while looking for and working out any areas of tightness, which acts to relieve stress on the corresponding organs. In the spring 2014, she completed her National Reflexology certification. Still wanting to learn more, Katherine began a Hand Reflexology certification course later that year.
Katherine began sewing as a hobby in 2000, and has since completed over 20 quilts and numerous other projects. She enjoys making tote bags from donated and recycled materials, wallets, and other unique items such as herbal travel bags and knitting needle cases. She attributes her interest and passion of sewing to the time spent with her late grandma Geraldine.
Katherine’s husband Ralph works as truck driver for a beer distributor, and has always had an appreciation for the natural world and a drive to create and build things in his free time. Construction projects, visionary and creative ideas, novel concepts, and wasteful expenditures of both time and money are all his forte, and constitute his primary contributions to the farm at this stage. His study of physics in college gave him a more concrete basis for his desire to achieve harmony and efficiency in human-scale, simple, low-energy, and quirky personal machines for living in interesting times. He has struggled through his life with an undiagnosed allergy to gluten, a fact which he discovered only after meeting Katherine and being inspired by her struggle with what she believes to be Lyme disease. Only after removing all traces of gluten from the diet has he regained himself fully, with the energy and focus to help Katherine to build a successful family farm! His opinion is that the larger society has become overly complex and is increasingly unreliable, and that in general the more things we can do for ourselves, and in community, the better.
The first contribution he made to Gathered Threads was built while we were renting a house in the area outside Gordonsville, when Katherine was still farming with Tree and Leaf, growing and harvesting there while maintaining a propagation greenhouse and doing all of the processing and production at home. With her ever-growing herb harvest, in spring we began to talk about a good way to dry the plant materials she would be bringing home that fall and summer. After a bit of online research about solar-drying approaches, and given that we wanted to be sure the drying material would not be subjected to sunlight and the degrading effects of UV radiation, Ralph settled on a design which would also be small and portable enough to move with us when we did find our own land to buy. The dehydrator is powered by a couple of powerful fans, and is heated solely by a large solar collector which heats the air entering the drying chamber directly; it does work, however we are not satisfied with the efficiency or size of the design, so Ralph is currently building our permanent solar dehydrator inside of a small greenhouse.
His second building project, the first after moving to our wonderful new home in Nelson County, was a walk-in cooler for vegetable and cultures storage. We used an existing barn as the frame, building out nearly half of the inside space to be our own giant outdoor refrigerator! The basic idea was to layer foam boards against the walls, ceiling, and floor, and then build a “floating” space inside with 2×4 and plywood which would be the new walls, ceiling, and floor. The design theoretically eliminates thermal bridging through any framing members connecting the indoor and outdoor spaces – it’s all rigid foam and so is very thermally efficient. This allows us to cool a 100 square foot space using a standard size window a/c unit that cost only $350, coupled to a “cool-bot”, a neat device which tricks the a/c into working at a lower temperature than it is meant to. So far we have had no trouble maintaining 38F through the heat of summer.
Katherine, with the help of a friends and family, has built 4 greenhouses already on our property; two larger gothic-style (14′ x 48′) high-tunnels where we are growing mainly fall/spring crops in raised beds, and two smaller caterpillar-style (12′ x 45′) hoop-houses, one of which is being used as our propagation area for our seed starts and cuttings, with the other being used to house our future solar-powered herb dehydrator and adjacent dry herb processing area. None of our greenhouses are heated by any means other than solar, and in future we may extend their utility by burning wood, but will not be heating wastefully using fossil-fuels or electricity, except possibly under emergency conditions. Ralph is very much about direct-solar heating and good use of insulation!
This season we hope to finish the new dehydrator project, begin putting in our underground irrigation lines and freeze-proof faucets (there is a lot of garden hose in use right now!), and construct a small pole-frame building to house our vegetable/herb washing station and wet processing area.
Our beautiful son Nathaniel was born February this year, 2016, with a strong set of lungs and a vigorous vocal cord! We have high hopes that he will soon learn to love weeding in the summer heat!
We look forward to seeing you at market!