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Herb Business Reaches Around the World

by Billie Shelter

Published Iowa REC News, October 2003

Combining their entrepreneurial spirits with an interest in herbs and flowers has resulted in an unusual, yet rewarding, business for a mother-daugther team near Woodward.

Prairieland Herbs produces and sells organic products to customers from all over the world from the small Dallas County acreage owned by Donna Julseth, a member of the Guthrie County Rurual Electric Cooperative Association. Along with her daughter and busines partner, Maggie Howe, the two women grow, harvest and dry most of the herbs and flowers used in the products they produce and sell, which range from herbal cleansing grains and lotion bars to canine aromatherapy shampoos and muscle ease mist.

"In a way, we're living and working our philosophy," says Julseth, as she takes a break from picking roses in the flower beds that fill nearly every inch of the yard of her rural home. She says that she's never had much interest in mowing grass anyway. "My goal is to have flower beds everywhere, so I don't have to mow," she claims with a quick laugh. It doesn't look as if she has far to go.

Nearby is Maggie Howe, 26, who appreciates her mother's approach to life and to business. She shares not only her mother's love of flowers but also her industrious spirit. "I alway wanted not to work for someone else," says Howe.

At first, the two women sold dried flowers through farmers' markets and craft shows. Then they moved on to dried herbs, but found that there wasn't enough interest there. Still trying different producs, about five years ago they opened a retail shop on the farm.

"I was just out of college then, and I told my mom it was time to get serious," says Howe, who has two bachelor's degrees from Iowa State University - one in environmental studies and another in public service and agriculture. So Julseth, who has bachelor's and master's degrees in microbiology, quit her full-time job to develop Prairieland Herbs.

"It may seem like the business was an instant thing, but it has a long learning curve," says Howe, who lives in Adel with her husband. "We're still changing and branching out all the time. It works out well because we have opposite strengths. Mom likes to teach, and I'm better at customer service."

Howe does most of the actual product creation and development for Prairieland Herbs, taking what she calls very simple ingredients - such as rosemary, sage, lavender, plantain, dandelion and violets - and "making something good, kind of like baking." On the other hand, many of the concepts for their products come from Julseth, who's been known to burst into the shop door to share a brand-new idea that occurred to her while working in her flowerbeds.

What they sell is in demand because, as Julseth see it, "I think people are starting to understand that we live in a chemical world. That has positive points and negative side effects, and people want to eliminate as many negatives as they can. Most choose the natural product if it gives the same results as the chemical one.

"Many of our customers have sensitivities," she added, "and many purchase natural because they like knowing what's in it and where it's made."

Currently, the bath and body products and soaps are most popular with Prairieland Herbs customers, Howe notes. Shampoo bars and salt and sugar scrubs sell well, and dog shampoos are good sellers too.

The business has had a Web site for four years, and the products are offered on eBay as well. "The Internet makes it possible to be here in Woodward, Iowa," Howe points out. "Thanks to the Internet, we send stuff all over the world - England, Canada, Singapore, France. We've become an international markeplace, and I love chatting on email with our customers." The business also produces a paper catalogue and a newsletter.

They have much the same relationship with customers who shop in person at the store on the acreage. Most are female, yet Julseth and Howe have a hunch that women buy the products and their men snitch them when they get home. Men do stop by, though, to select gifts.

Like all good retailers, this mother-and-daughter team takes every opportunity to promote their products. This includes participating in the downtown Des Moines farmers market.

"Education is a big part of what we do," says Julseth, ad ivorcee who also teaches biology part-time at Des Moines Area Community College. "This is an information business. We find the more information you share, the more people it generates (as customers). I think it's good for everyone when we teach them what we do and why we do it."

In addition, the two women regularly offer a class through the Des Moines adult education; it's always full. Because of these educational successes, they are currently converting a small barn near their shop to be used as space for their own classes.

To be successful in your own business, the mother and daughter agree, you have to be willing to do everything. "And you have to believe totally in yourself and in your product," says Julseth.

"People tell us that this isn't a 'real' business," chimes in her daughter. You have to smile and go on and know that it is real. You have to have lots of belief in your product."

"In our way, we're living and working our philosophy," concludes Julseth. "It's not always easy, but we like it anyway. We're not all the same. It works for us, but it's not for everyone. If you're like us, we encourage you to do it, too."

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