Interview with Catskill Botanicals

By River Wharton

Near the first day of Spring, a friend sent me a message about the rebalancing nature of this season. Spring tips the scale back toward movement, toward hope, toward dreams.

We feel the seasons shift from somewhere deep inside at first. It is a deep place and attuned to the kinetic energy of our lives. This is a careful time of first finding our balance before we step out into the high season of our region. All of us have moments of change, how we engage with that change sets us up for the coming act.


Lauren Raba of Catskill Botanicals captures the energy of the seasons in her salves and creams. We spoke with Lauren last week and discussed the nature of change, finding what matters to you, and the power of community.


To start off, give me a little bit of history about you, your business, and your relationship to the Hudson Valley.
I grew up in the Catskills, and around 2011 I couldn't find work in the education system. So I started apprenticing with a local herbalist and nurse here in the community. I apprenticed with her for a few years and soaked up all of the knowledge. I really enjoyed working with plants. I started to take over her identification classes. For a while I was teaching plant identification  throughout the entire Catskill region, including Hudson. I was going to people's houses or businesses to do wild edible and medicinal weed walks. Anyway, with all of the plants that I was collecting, and the infusions and tinctures I was making, I sort of needed an outlet for them at some point, it was just taking over. So I just started selling products. My family owns the local health food store in our town called Good Cheap Food. So I was selling things there. And then one of my friends designed a label for me and encouraged me to go with this - and I did. It's just been moving forward since. The business was established in 2016. 


You said you are from the Catskills. Are you from Delhi?
Yeah. And it's where I am back again. You know, growing up it was very quiet and a little lonely, but now it's a wonderful place to raise a family. We love the mountains and the water and just being here.


I hear more and more people talking about Delhi and that region of the Catskills; it just seems to be growing. 
Absolutely. We're pretty influential in promoting a lot of local products in the community. My husband and I created a farmer's market outside Quarter Moon Café in Delhi. It feels like everyone here in Delhi is connected and helping each other out.


I really love that. Has it always felt like that or has it been new?
Yes and no? In the last 10 years it sort of exploded with so much talent. Many things have been revived and restored. I think through social media, we've all connected and can see what everyone else is doing. So that's made a huge difference in how we work together.


What do you think is coming up next for you?
What's next for me is expanding my production space with new equipment for larger batch sizes. I've been doing a lot of research on equipment and looking at eBay for certain things. I'll be visiting a few people and testing out some machines to sort of get me into the next level of business.


Where's your production now? Are you doing it out of your home or do you have a space?
I work out of 53 Main Street in Delhi. It's the same building that the Quarter Moon Café is in, my husband's restaurant. Good Cheap Food is there, which is my mother's health food store. I use that kitchen, and we have a ton of freezer space. It's where I store all of my oils. My husband has a USDA facility in the back where he makes all of his products and he's looking for more spaces. The plan is when he finds space, I will take over his old space and it'll be easier for my business to grow.


I love that you are all in that same building together. It must feel really good to be around family and to be the center of that community in this way.
It's really great! I often feel like it's the crossroads of the universe, because there are so many people that come in from all over the world. There are a few Buddhist retreat centers around here and in the past, all walks of life were coming through this community and picking up produce and milk. Not really now because of Covid. Our health food store works with at least 400 different farmers that are local. It definitely feels like a network of people and I love working with family. Our kids have been helping out for a long time.

You said you were in education before. I'm sure that there's a bit of education in what you're doing now, whether it's educating people about the plants that are growing in their backyard or educating them about how they can take better care of themselves. Was herbalism something that you had had a passion for before?
No, no, no. This all sort of happened by accident. I've always been attracted to science and I've worked in labs and quality control settings in different labs, but I have my Master of Science in education. I have a teaching certificate as well, in school counseling. I've done a lot of classroom guidance lessons, which I loved. Then I just sort of fell into this hobby of herbalism because my kids would have rashes or complain and I wanted something natural for them. So one of my friends mentioned an herb to use for a rash my son had and it worked. I was attracted to that and I was struggling finding work in the area. I just needed to do what was fun at the time, but it worked out and it actually allowed me to teach plant identification skills to kids, which is fun for me. It's one of my biggest hobbies, just showing them that you can eat this and this is good for a headache and this is good for your bumps and bruises. I like to see the passion in their eyes and to be able to link the two together.


Do you still find yourself very passionate about it and have fun?
Yeah. That's why I'm here. I get excited about it! I'm passionate about it. When I'm not working at fulfilling orders, I'm constantly experimenting and creating and making things. I made makeup with my daughter and candles and more creams - ones that are vegan, ones that are made with animal fats, ones that are made with beeswax. I think I'm attracted to the smell of everything. I think that allows me to continue being passionate about making things. And it creates sparks of life with my kids too. I mean, there's never a dull moment and they're always creating and doing things at home and in our restaurants.


At Hudson River Exchange we love to examine the barriers preventing business owners from making that next leap. Obviously space is one of them, but are there some other things that you are problem solving around to get to that next spot?
The larger I grow the more I'm going to have to work towards a quality control setting. If it's on a smaller level, it's not as enforced, but I think by branching out into other realms, maybe like CBD where all of the laws are constantly changing, it's harder to keep track of them. I think as a whole, trying to make sure all of the products meet certain criteria to sell on a larger level.
Another barrier, which is more of just a risk, is scaling up and having all of this equipment and then not having the sales to support that. I can't grow without making that leap. I mean, at any time somebody could say, “Oh, I don't want to work with you anymore,” or “I don't want to buy your products.” I'm nervous to have a bunch of equipment that isn't being used. I also need it in order to grow.


How do you navigate those risks personally? And what advice do you have for other people looking to do the same?
I put a lot of pressure on myself, but it's my own business. I also am able to slow myself down and just remember - this is fun. I think the most important thing I would tell people who are starting their own business is to stick to your ethics and stick to your morals and know that you don't have to work with someone just for the money, if it's not enjoyable to you, or if you have a bad feeling about a certain connection. Try not to go there. Just focus on your passion and where your heart is - that should lead to great things either way.


I really love that. That feels like a great message for people. It really does. I feel like more people need to hear it.
I mean, it's hard. I've struggled with boundaries for a long time and letting people take advantage of what I was willing to do. The more I've grown with my business, I realized I don't need to do that. I just need to do what feels good and what's ethical, sustainable, and important to my heart.


What do you see happening in the herbalism world? What are people working on? What is interesting to you?
It definitely feels like a movement. More and more people are attracted to it, but then there's like a whole other sect of people that have no idea about it. I think most of the herbalists that I work with are very passionate about sustainability and education, so I can see it moving forward in that way. Just educating the community, educating kids, trying to connect kids to the earth is really important. I think herbalists are aware of that and sort of moving, always moving in that direction. Sometimes it can be a little challenging because we're not always grounded and we try to focus on so many things at once. I see a huge movement with herbalists working with chefs. There's a lot of herbalists and wild foragers who are collecting wild edibles and delivering to restaurants. I think that there's a connection there as well. I think it's the way of the world in a way, or it could be. We have to be careful because there's not enough herbs and plants out there for everyone and we have to keep that in mind.


That sustainable piece is so important to everyone, but it is wild because more and more people are jumping into this life path and you're right. It's a resource that we have to be very careful around. With this community building that you're building, I wonder if you noticed a shift or change since the start of the pandemic and how the community's response to it has been.
I think that the pandemic showed a lot of us the importance of working locally because the supply chains were disrupted. So it did get people out to support our local markets. We're doing the Delhi farmer's market on Wednesdays, which was a small market. Maybe it started with 10 or 15 vendors, but when the pandemic started and the weather got nice, there were 30, 40, so many vendors outdoors, working together and everyone was really respectful and wearing their masks and socially distanced. I am also an organizer and founder of the Taste of the Catskills festival. That's a weekend that we have here in Delhi that brought 5,000 people to the area. 
However, we couldn't do that in 2020, but we plan on doing it in October of 2021. I think that there are a lot more people who weren't involved in that festival that now want to be involved. We're just hearing from so many different people about how to sell products and it feels like we're all supporting one another, working harder together, and I think it's going to stay. So even when things get better with the pandemic, I think that the networking is going to stay.


Find Catskill Botanicals at these Summer happenings 
Catskill Botanicals will be part of a farmer's market behind The Quarter Moon Cafe starting the last week of May and continuing through September. The market will be every Saturday from 12-4pm.
Another event that Catskill Botanicals is a sponsor and a vender of is Catskill Mountain Yoga Festival.
Catskill Botanicals will also be a vender at our the Taste of the Catskills Festival the weekend of October 9th and 10th.



Words + Illustrations: River Wharton

Edited by: Lila Holland