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Local woman receives grant to study herbal products

By Kevin Boneske
Staff Writer

BROWN COUNTY – Sheri Howard wants to know whether freeze drying instead of drying will noticeably improve the quality of herbal products.

Howard and her husband, Rodney, have a farm along Annabell Circle and started Frozen in Thyme to begin growing and selling organic herbs and produce.

She has been awarded a $6,929 grant from the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (NCR-SARE) for her project, “Viability of using freeze dried herbs to improve the quality and performance of value-added herbal products.”

“The whole purpose of this grant was to try to introduce freeze dried herbs into what has traditionally been a dried herb industry,” she said. “So people who make soaps, salves, lip balms, tinctures, teas, oils, today all they have available are what they can grow in their own gardens and what they can order that’s already been dried from a couple of large houses across the country.”

When herbs are dried to eliminate moisture that can lead to molding, Howard said “you lose a lot of the essential oils, the smell, the color, the taste that the fresh herb had.”

She said freeze driers, which are now available in smaller units for home use, are able to retain those properties in herbs by drying with cold instead of heat.

Howard, who is also a part-time business development coordinator at NWTC’s Artisan and Business Center in Green Bay, said she is planning to work with some local individuals who make products using traditional recipes with dried herbs and then make a second batch of those products with freeze dried herbs to compare the results.

“How did they work in the recipes? What do you think of the end products? And do your customers notice any difference? There has to be some value in it before people would switch,” she said. “You have to have a noticeable value. So that is the whole basis of the grant, the research grant.”

Howard said she is looking for a total of five herbal product makers to participate in the two-year grant project with her.

“I do the freeze drying,” she said. “The other nice thing about freeze drying is these products, once they’re properly sealed, they will last for approximately 25 years. They’ll be as good in five years as they are today. With the dried products, it’s a slow decline. A few, 3-4 years and the product has really lost any value.”

Howard said freeze drying makes it possible to buy herbs in bulk at a lower cost and hold onto them for a much longer time and still have the quality.

Given how little is known about the use of freeze dried herbs, Howard said the formal study she is planning to do with the grant will show what happens when freeze dried herbs are used in products.

“At the end of this grant I have to write a paper – I have to write a report on the results,” she said. “That paper gets published, which will help spread the word.”

Howard said she also has an interest in the results with her Frozen in Thyme business, which has been in existence for about 2 1/2 years with locally grown fresh and freeze dried foods and herbs.

“My husband and I are building a new farm, so we can increase the size of our herb production,” she said. “It includes a commercial kitchen. I would like to make this our retirement business. Before I can have a viable product, people have to know about it, and they have to believe there’s some value in it.”

Howard said she believes the research will not only benefit her, but also herb sellers all over the country.

“With a home freeze drier now in the price range of $2,500 and $3,100, it’s easy to start a small business with this,” she said. “So I’m hoping other people will pick this up and start making better products by using the freeze drying technology.”

Howard said she has been growing herbs for culinary purposes and also harvesting wild herbs.
“About four years ago I retired from the corporate world, and I enrolled in a program here at NWTC called ‘Sustainable Food and Agricultural Systems,’” she said. “It’s a two-year associate’s degree, and it covers all aspects of farming. One of those classes was the herbs and herbal medicines class.”

Howard said she attended a Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection-sponsored workshop in Madison last fall on how to apply for a grant.

“I would say that workshop helped me tremendously,” she said. “Yes, it’s a lot of work to do grants, and anybody who’s ever done grants will tell you there’s just a lot of work.”

Howard said the research grant involves being able to demonstrate success or failure in the findings which will be published.

“Once I publish my report, it’s made available and anybody can use the data,” she said.

As a member of the Herb Society of America, Howard said she has already contacted the organization about publishing her findings in its newsletter and on its website.

She also noted her research results will be available on the SARE site and, if selected, also presented at the 2019 Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference in June.

“Next year, in 2019, the second year of my grant, I will have had a good deal of the research completed,” she said.

While the research is in progress, Howard said a website she hopes to have up and running by the end of May, FrozenInThymeHerbs.com, along with a Facebook page, will include a weblog posting her experiences.

Howard said she has been given two years to submit her final report and hopes to begin customer focus groups next January with the five local people who make herbal products to see if customers can tell the difference between products made with herbs that are either freeze dried or dried.

“Putting them in a product and seeing if it’s noticeable, it’s subjective,” she said. “You’re going to have people who may say, ‘Boy, it smells a lot fresher,’ or, ‘The product is much smoother or it’s much stronger.’ And some may not be able to notice a difference at all. Until we get them into the products, we’re not going to know. That’s the beauty of the research. I’m guessing, just from my own experience, they will see a difference.”

Howard said he hopes to write her report sometime around the end of April of next year.

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