Planting the Seeds
A medical herbalist from Harvard, Massachusetts is formulating healing preparations for patients under his care. One day, he realizes that they all could benefit from herbal elixir tageted at increasing the vitality of specific organ systems.
He sets to work procuring organically grown herbs, which he extracts into energizing fluids. It’s time consuming. He carries a full patient load in his medical practice, so the tonic project is tackled on nights and weekends only.
Eventually our herbalist is satisfied with the newly created tonic: it’s time for patient feedback. His patients drink, and they feel better. Great news! This drives him onward. The harder he works, the more he believes in this quest to create a system of healing fluids.
Calculations are made to upsize the blend. Greater volumes of liquid are mixed, cases of bottles are purchased. The herbalist is a one-man dynamo, he’s bottling, printing and applying labels, which read: “Elixirs of Life”. The seeds of a new company are germinating.
The next challenge was, how to reach more patients. This is the pre-internet world of 1987. The only way to get the word out is to touch one customer at a time. Pushed by a deep desire to help mankind, the herbalist stocks his car with cases of tonic and takes to the roads of New England.
He stops at health food stores and private herbal practices, where he educates fellow holistic medical practitioners, one by one. It is hard work, but slowly interest swells, and orders start trickling in for more bottles of tonic. “Elixirs of life” is rapidly blossoming.
Very quickly, our man from Mass is overwhelmed with orders and needs to hire people. He’s overworked and overjoyed at once. He begins farming his own herbs on a 5-acre tract. He has two, then three, then four employees. His dream to provide customers with herb-based tonics that are of the highest quality, potency and purity is becoming reality.
This mystery herbalist from Massachusetts is Ric Scalzo, who did not know that years hence he would change the name of his company to Gaia Herbs and this fledgling enterprise would flourish to become a certified organic grower and manufacturer of over 300 different botanical supplements.
Blooming in Brevard
Gaia Herbs is celebrating their 25th year in existence. The business was moved from Massachusetts to Brevard, NC in 1997, when Ric purchased a 250-acre organic farm.
Remaining true to his vision, he wanted to control all aspects of the company’s final product. He calls Gaia a “Seed to Shelf” enterprise.
“The farm is a living laboratory,” says Ric. “We choose which seeds to plant and can monitor the herbs throughout their life. We have the lab equipment that can check a plant’s potency; in this way we can harvest our herbs when they are at the height of their therapeutic benefit.”
Today, the Gaia farm produces over 20% of the herbs used in the product line. The rest are sourced from a network of local organic growers augmented by farms in Italy and Costa Rica. The company strictly controls all aspects of the farming process from the seeds planted, nutrient methodology even harvest time. The herb extraction, processing and packaging takes place in the Brevard facility.
Gaia calls this their chain of custody, which they feel strongly about. Customers who purchase herbal pills, teas and extracts place their trust in the manufacturer, something that everyone in the company takes very seriously.
Meet your Herbs
“We believe that every herb needs to be held to the highest standards of purity and integrity to assure maximum potency and results for our customers,” says Ric. “We also feel that it is not enough to simply state these claims. We are now offering accountability and complete transparency through the ‘Meet Your Herbs’ traceability program.”
Starting in 2012, all Gaia packages have a “Meet Your Herbs” code on the back label which can be entered on the company website to view data about all aspects of its contents. This is more than a simple list of ingredients or FDA required labeling. This code gives customers an unprecedented product view: which plants are used, which part of the plant used, grower name, bioregion, cultivation method and harvest date.
Meet your Herbs also provides testing results for impurities such as heavy metals, microbial activity and pesticide traces. Nothing is left out; customers can even see the names of the lab technicians performing the testing. The label also has a QR code, so that smartphone packing consumers can read the same data while shopping.
The purity and potency commitment extends to Gaia’s choice of packaging materials. For a large percentage of the product line, this means glass bottles, which weigh more than plastic. When the price of fossil fuels went up, so did Gaia’s shipping costs. The subject of bottle material became a hot topic in the boardroom.
Ric was adamant that glass was the best protective container for his products. Switching to existing plant-based plastics went against his ecological ideals. Why? It turns out the plastic bottles marketed as ‘green’ technology are manufactured using bio fuels, not fossil fuels, but once discarded they behave exactly like petroleum based plastics: they don’t decompose.
“My belief is that no matter how good our country gets at recycling, 80% of our trash will still end up in landfills, “ says Ric. “If we were going to reduce shipping weight, the package had to be fully biodegradable.”
Gaia worked with the Clemson University Institute for Neutraceutical Research to create a plant based, biodegradable bottle, which was significantly lighter than glass. In addition, Ric wanted the new material to be as strong, thermally stable and able to maintain the same gas and moisture transmission requirements as glass.
After a $1M investment and a few years later, the “Earth Bottle” was born and patented. Mechanically, it behaves like glass yet is 5 times lighter. It is 100% plant based and completely decomposes in a commercial landfill within 90 days.
A new company called “Earth Renewable Technologies” was created to refine the Earth Bottle and introduce it to targeted markets such as herb companies, cosmetics and drink manufacturers.
This is an environmental home run. The new technology will save oil in the manufacture of the bottles, the light weight will save fuel during shipping and once discarded will decompose harmlessly in a landfill.
Sustainability as a Hobby
What does a medical herbalist turned CEO of a highly successful private company do for fun? He travels to indulge his passion. He has a hobby he calls a sustainability mission. He travels…to places like China where he assists a foundation called Golden Courage
This non-profit organization is dedicated to helping the vulnerable boys and girls of China’s homeless population, some of who are infected and/or orphaned by AIDs or the sex trade.
The foundation was started by Dr. Luke Lu, a man who had the misfortune to be born during the reign of Mao Zedong, who at the time, was purging China of it’s wealthy and educated citizens in his quest for communist equality.
Separated from his parents at birth by Red Guard, Luke lived on the streets with his grandmother for the first 11 years of his life, enduring unspeakable horrors. Miraculously his parents survived, they were reunited and Luke went on to become a doctor. He has dedicated his life to helping the children of China’s floating population.
What Ric brings to the foundation is his love of farming the earth and feeding its people. His plan is to teach Chinese farmers how to raise organic herbs, help them through the rigorous organic certification process and show them how to get their plants to market. Gaia (as well and other herbal extraction companies) will then purchase the products; a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Golden Courage.
Another part of the world close to his heart is Costa Rica, where Ric divides his time between visiting partner farms and a foundation called CIRENAS, which attempts to build connections between people and the environment through education.
The organization offers environmental stewardship courses on site in the Caletas-Ario National Wildlife Refuge. Participants, aged 15-18, take part in research projects designed to help them understand and address some of the region’s greatest challenges.
Students graphically witness the damage being done to heirloom crops by genetically modified seeds and learn how this impacts the global eco system. They work identifying plants and gathering medicinal knowledge about them from indigenous elders, who are a vanishing resource.
There are also research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in water conservation, species inventory, sociological surveys, organic agriculture, sea turtle conservation and wildlife refuge management.
Gaia’s humble beginnings say a great deal about its founder, who had to overcome staggering odds to raise such a successful enterprise quite literally from the earth. To this day, he remains committed to healing the planet and its inhabitants despite the challenges we face.
When asked how he remains so positive despite all the damage he encounters, Ric recites a lyric from Leonard Cohen: “Everything has cracks, that’s how the light gets in.”
Here is a CEO who thinks and acts globally, yet he continues to immerse himself in the daily workings of the company.
“Coming into work during the planting season is special,” says Ann Buchman, Gaia’s director of marketing. “I love walking through the lobby and seeing the muddy footprints that lead to the CEO’s door.”
It makes sense; Ric is a farmer to the core. Wherever he finds them, he’ll keep solving problems involving the earth…one muddy footprint at a time.