Organic Essential Oils
Organic Essential Oils
Two years ago Suzanne and I began refining the focus of our modest essential oil enterprise. Since that time quite a few new folks have become customers so I thought it might be helpful to have a short update on what that focus is and how our enterprise continues to evolve. First of all we felt, at that time, that after 5 years of business we had a better sense of what we enjoyed offering to all of you through White Lotus Aromatics i.e. quality organic and wild harvested essential oils and CO2 extracts as well as traditional Indian attars and a select line of absolutes. We also felt it was important for us personally to always be seeking out a few new items each month so that our knowledge and enjoyment of the world of natural aromatics would remain fresh and zestful as well as providing you, our customers, a wider selection of materials for your aromatic creations.
At the time we were refocusing our energies into these activities we also realized that our real enjoyment of the enterprise came in our intimate involvement with every detail of the operation which included not only sourcing the essential oils etc directly from distillers and extractors around the world but packing the items, doing the book work, ordering supplies, answering customers enquirie by e-mail, writing newsletter etc. It became clear to us that we were not the type of folks that could expand our business beyond what we could do between ourselves. That understanding continues to influence the way White Lotus Aromatics is evolving.
Such decisions also end up limiting the type of services we can offer those who approach us. Since we tend to buy essential oils, co2 extracts, etc in relatively small quantities-1-5 liter/kilos of a specific oil or extract at a time-sometimes even less of expensive absolutes, we are not able to offer batch specific gc's which for some folks are critical for their products. As many of you know, the only meaningful gc is a batch specific one, as any natural essential oil can vary considerably in chemical profile from batch to batch. With the cost of a high quality gc varying from $75-$150 one quickly runs into financial limitations as to what one can and cannot have analyzed. Not only that but as we are the only two people involved in running the business-the paperwork we become unmanageable as we stock upwards of 150 items with new ones being added each month. In short-once one would sell out of a specific stock of a particular oil, one would need to have a new gc done on the next consignment of that oil. There are companies much larger than ours that have a lot of financial resources and staff to handle such paperwork so we do our best to direct folks towards them.
Of equal importance to some prospective customers is official certificaton documents for the essental oils listed as certified organic. In order to gain permission to sell any certified organic essential oil under ones own label one has to go pay each third party certifier like EcoCert, SKAL etc around $900 per year for that priveledge along with a lot of added paperwork, etc. Again we decided that this was not an arena which we wished to enter. Again we felt that it was better to direct people requiring such documentation directly to companies that could fill those needs.
What we have done is kept ourselves directly involved with the distillers and extractors in various parts of the world doing, in our opinion, fine work and then sharing their lovely natural essences with those of you who are making natural perfumes and cosmetic products etc but do not require the paperwork. The money that might have gone into gc's and official certification work has instead been invested in having new experiments done with special absolutes and essential oils done with distilles and extractors who have an interest in the infinite possibilities inherent in natures treasurehouse or unique botanicals. By good fortune we were able to help support the distillation and extraction of Templin(Fir Cone) essential oil, Orris Root/Violet Leaf Absolute, White, Blue and Pink Lotus Absolutes, Rose Petals Codistilled with Geranium Leaves, and several other aromatic elixirs in different parts of the world.
What is very clear to us is that our main reason for being involved in this world of natural aromatics is because we enjoy it tremendously. There is always something new to be appreciated and explored-the sense of wonder and mystery that keeps the heart enthusiastic and alive is nourished-we get to interact with people who love the subject as much as we do. It is, in short, all and much much more that we could ask for in terms of a modest home business.
"I don't know what smell of wet earth or rotting leaves brought back my childhood with a rush and all the happy days I had spent in a garden. Shall I ever forget that day? It was the beginning of my real life, my coming of age as it were, and entering into my kingdom. Early March, gray, quiet skies, and brown, quiet earth; leafless and sad and lonely enough out there in the damp and silence, yet there I stood feeling the same rapture of pure delight in the first breath of spring that I used to as a child, and the five wasted years fell from me like a cloak, and the world was full of hope, and I vowed myself then and there to nature and have been happy ever since."
Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth & her German Garden (1898)
Many years ago(or it seems like many years ago) my dear mom, a truly simple, beautiful and gracious soul, and I bought an old homestead in the Sierra Nevada mountains in an area that did not have electricity, city water and sewage, etc. It was a back to the land endeavor, that if we thought about rationally, we probably never would have done. As it turned out though it was a most incredible experience of living and working with the land. Aside from totally remodeling a turn of the century home from top to bottom we took on the challange of bringing back to life 1/2 an acre of land so we could grow our own fruits and vegetables along with a cash crop of fresh and dried flowers for the local farmers market. We had little money but ample enthusiasm and so we began the process of double digging the entire half acre of land by hand and laying out the garden beds in 4'x25' segments. These 100 square foot rectangles with walking rows in between became the plots in which our crops were intensively planted. Water was supplied by a renovated ram pump and 1/4 mile long pipe line which ran back to a small spring. We had very little water pressure so we had to devise a drip irrigation system that would allow us to gently the garden on a schedule devised to be on 24 hours a day.
"Soil . . . scoop up a handful of the magic stuff. Look at it closely. What wonders it holds as it lies there in your palm. Tiny sharp grains of sand, little faggots of wood and leaf fibre, infinitely small round pieces of marble, fragments of shell, specks of black carbon, a section of vertebrae from some minute creature. And mingling with it all the dust of countless generations of plants and flowers, trees, animals and yes our own, age-long forgotten forebears, gardeners of long ago. Can this incredible composition be the common soil ?"
Stuart Maddox Masters, The Seasons Through (1948)
In the beginning the soil had little life and vigor as it had not been cultivated for several decades. In the first year of our experiment, we had little soil amendment to add so our home grown seedlings had to go into rather undernourished soil. In one of our beds we planted Sweet Peas, a great old fashioned favorite with the most incredible fragrance imaginable. I use to lie in my upstairs room in the evening with the window open and "bathe" in the fragrance of sweet peas as they released their odors onto the cooling air.
Here gay sweet-peas, like butterflies,
Flutter and dance under summer skies;
Blue violets here in the shade are set,
With a border of fragrant mignonette;
And here are pansies and columbine,
And the burning stars of the cypress-vine.
Julia Dorr., An Old Fashioned Garden
In the first year of our fresh and dried flower enterprise, that particular bed of Sweet Peas produced only 25 bouquets. During the course of then next several years we began adding healthy amounts of chicken manure, rice hulls, and homemade compost to build up the tilth of the soil. Kelp meal, cotton seed meal, and ashes from the wood stove were supplemental fertilizers. We also grew a variety of "green" manure crops(fava beans, vetch, rye, etc) betweem plantings of annuals to build the soil. With this added concentration of amendments and fertilizers, the soil began to exhude a vibrant life as micro-organisms, earthworms, and all the hidden miracles of the environment came to dwell there. Within 3 years the same bed that was producing 25 bouquets of Sweet Peas was producing 250. And what a delight to the eye and nose. My mom and I use to pick flowers for 6 hours every Friday morning and then make bouquets all afternoon in the cool cellar. Early Saturday morning we would pack up the truck with 100 plus bouquets and head off to the market in Nevada City. In the beginning we had few customers but after awhile we had to hand out numbers as people waited in line for their floral treasures. OK-a bit of a anecdotal diversion but the point is this. Organic growing of plants is a wonderful way to go but it takes an incredible amount of work. The rewards certainly cannot be measured in money-the time spent engaged in that work are some of the finest one will ever spend but one has to be very philosophical when one figures their actual wages(we figured we made about 25 cents an hour)
The compost pile examine now and turn,
And, if 'tis not completely decomposed
Into one mass of vegetable mould,
With an unsparing hand throw in more lime.
When unremitting cold retards the stage
Of fermentation, heat, then, genial heat,
Must be applied; nor hesitate to use
A little casement sloping to the sun
Like garden hot-bed: covering but a part,
The process, once begun, pervades the whole.
So when one goes and applies this type of labor intensive technique to growing aromatic plants on a commercial scale for production of essential oils, hydrosols, absolutes, CO2 extracts, etc. one must realize that those oils are generally going to cost a lot more. There is a reason why most commercial agricultural ventures rely heavily on the so-called labor saving techniques of big equipment, herbicides, pesticides, petro chemical fertilizers etc. It is, at least on the surface, much less labor intensive. It is true that the long term picture may not prove as labor saving as was once thought but the economics of the time are such that long range understanding of environmental impact often takes the back seat.
Some people may think that organic gardening techniques are well suited to countries like India, Africa, China, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc. They certainly are but even with a lot of people power supplied by extended families living on small farms, there are some real constraints as to how far such labor intensive practices can go. And there is one very interesting thing that we sometimes fail to realize. For many years the Western countries have done a hard sell on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc . One can then see how simple farming folk might become a bit frustrated when with their own eyes they have seen their lands grow out of balance with the passing of the decades and then be told that it would be better that they grow things organically(as they had been doing for centuries)
It is a very big subject, so only a brief glimpse into its complexity can be illuminated here. But equally complex is the mentality that we may have on this side regarding the cost of "organically" grown products. As mentioned before, I do get many enquiries for such oils but people expect that they should magically be available for around the same price as the conventionally grown ones. It is not a criticism. Just an observation. In reality one should expect to pay 1.5 to 3 times as much for an oil produced from organically grown plants. There are of course people who are idealistic enough to do this but I would say that the ration is roughly 5 people who would chose the oil produced from conventionally grown plants to 1 from organically grown ones.
One also has to consider that if a farmer or a co-operative of farmers is going to go into organic aromatic plants that they have to have some market for their product. Sometimes hundreds or even a couple of thousand kilos of fresh material has to be grown to distill or extract one kilo of oil. It is certainly a risky business even from the point of view of growing plants by conventional methods. It is a completely different world than we may be use to thinking of. On our side we may want the beautiful organic oils at minimal cost and that is natural. But we have to expand outside ourselves and think of the farmers and distillers who do the actual work. If we really wish to have beautiful oils produced by organic methods we have to practically support the work of the farming communities by buying their products at higher prices. It means that in some small way we understand our responsibility, become well educated in what goes into producing the oils and then educate those who procure oils from us.
There are two types of organic projects going on that I am acquainted with. One is happening strictly on a local level and is arising because of the specific interest in the subject by some local person or persons. In India several such projects are going on that I am familiar with, one with the growing of organic patchouli and the other with jasmin. In this case no third part international certification group is involved like ECOCERT or SKAL(there are many more often specific to a country-please see links information). In fact in most parts of India there is no local representative for doing third party certification although I think such a thing is going to happen very soon. So in the above scenario one has to know the farmers and if possible directly observe their practices. Many small farms in India are "almost organic" by the very nature of what they do, and the funds they have at their disposal. With enough people to weed by hand, they seldom rely on herbicides. Petrochemicals are sometimes used in combination with organic ferilizers supplied by the cows, goats and other farm animals. Pesticides are rarely used in the places I visit due to economic reasons. Farm residues left over from harvested crops are also tilled back into the soil. In fact if you go onto any small land holding you will find very little waste and a sharp eye on the economy of the operation. I feel that with a little encouragement and financial support the transition to organic operations would not take long in India and other countries. But as mentioned before it also requires a change in our own attitudes on this side with regards to the prices paid for such projects.
The second type of organic operation is that which is going under the rules and regulations established for growing of organic crops by organizations like ECOCERT and SKAL. The oils produced from those plants are able to carry the special Logo of those organizations. One of the first criteria that farmers wishing to have their crops certified organic is that their operation must be under observation for three years before official sanction is given. Their entire work is closely monitored. It results in a more expensive investment as one has to pay for this service. Usually those who move in this direction especially with regards to having organic oils produced from their crops, are more financially sound and often have serious money behind them. I am personally acquainted with two companies who have the financial muscle power to support organic activities.
But whether it be the former or later case, people who are engaged in this work have a love and appreciation for the environment that is reflected in their committment to nurturing the soil with compost, green manure crops, etc. They have come to the stage of the journey where they understand that plants can only extract from the soil what is in the soil itself. In other words, they look not only to the major building block plant needs like Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosporus but also are aware that the soil needs a host of micronutrients, etc so that the plant can draw into its system the things which it needs to grow into a healthy and beautiful creation.
The oil produced from those plants will, if careful attention is paid to distillation technique yield a more complex oil. Often we tend to simplify the constituents of an essential oil into its major ones but it has been seen time and again the complex aromatic profile that reveals itself in each unique oil is dependent upon aromatic molecules often found in very minute amounts which are called as minor and trace components. These components come into existence via the plants ability to extract them from the soil, air, water, etc in which they live. If a rich variety of food is not available for the plant to draw upon then some of the components that could give it added personality and richness may be missing. In short we are talking about a type of caring that is very very special. It takes a unique understanding to the whole life process for a person or persons to pursue this type of work because there may be very little financial reward to be gained.
OK I have talked a lot on this subject. It is very deep and could fill volumes. I do want to say that we should not think that some of the oils produced by conventional methods are not good. A huge effort has been poured into this field of endeavor by some of the world's finest researchers and scientists and due to their work some fine new cultivars of aromatic plants have been introduced with higher yields of oil with good aromatic qualities.They have also studies soil science within their own discipline and have done their best to provide individual types of plants with nutrients specific to their needs. The list of their accomplishments is not small and their world and the world of organic farmers could learn a lot from each other, perhaps incorporating the findings of both disciplines into harmonius colloboration where all beings; plants, humans, animals, insects, etc can benefit.
And there is also the simple reality that even if one wishes to move more and more toward a comprehensive environmental relationship, the transition time factor is a necessity. To bring soil to full life and vigor is not some small endeavor. It is not just a matter of adding copious amounts of soil amendment, attending to foliar feeding etc all at one time that brings about lasting change . It is rather a long slow building process that requires years of sincere work. There are many unseen beneficient forces that need to be welcomed back to the land through ones good intentions coupled with practical hard work. The two things walk together hand and hand. And also it must be financially feasible to do this work or it will be difficult to come out of the cycle of quick fixes using easy to apply fertilizers, pestides, herbicides, etc.
There is a place where idealism and philosophy meet with practical reality and the only way that all the parts can coexist in balance is when everyone from custodians of the land to consumer understand in a simple way the vision of beauty that exists when the earth and all her children are loved and cared for. This is a work each one of us is attempting in our own small way. It is accomplished by many hundreds and thousands of small steps which comprise the profound life journey of each person . It is a journey in which we gradually become aware of the simple joy and beauty of giving and receiving-the dynamic power that allows beauty, joy and happines to flow into ones life through awareness of what is around them.
In the future I will be adding more certified organic essential oils. These will often be more costly then their conventional counterparts. I hope the newsletter has given some insight into the reasons why. I already carry a substantial number of oils distilled/ extracted from wild harvested crops. These have their own unique beauty. Growing in environments that are perfectly suited to their existence, they are nurtured soley by what nature provides them. But it is important to realize that they should not be labeled as "organic" by the definitions which have evolved in our times. Amyris, angelica, balsam peru, balsam copaiba, calamus root, carrot seed, Himalayan cedarwood, Virginia cedarwood, Atlas cedarwood, cinnamon bark, eucalyptus, elemi, frankincense, galbanum, gingergrass, juniper berry, linaloe berry, myrrh, nagarmotha, orange, palmarosa, rosewood, sandalwood, spikenard, St. John's wort, sugandh kokila, tomar seed are some of the oils that fit this category.
I would like to end by repeating once again, that this information is just to highlight some of the points regarding organic cultivation of aromatic crops and some of the benefits to be derived from such practices. One should not think that there the conventionally distilled/extracted oils are lacking in beauty. I am constantly analyzing samples from around the world and have found many to possess very lovely olfactory qualities. But there is a lot of merit in considering the advantages of oils produced from organically grown crops and I think that in due course of time( and by this I mean not just the one short span of our life but many generations) it may come to pass that more and more emphasis will be placed on understanding the beauty and wonder of taking care of the earth in a gentler more loving way. Friendly regards, Christopher PS Once again I kindly request any of you who wish to have your names taken from the list to inform me. These newsletters are just the ramblings of an aromatic enthusiast and many not appeal to everyone so do not hesitate to tell me and I will immediately remove your name.
"The longer I live the greater is my respect for manure in all its forms."
Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth & her German Garden (1898)
You can get a tremendous amount of information on Organic certification, organizations, associatons, farming etc from: http://www.forestrade.com/links.htm