The Asheville Herb Festival gears up for the second show at the WNC Agricultural Center


RaeAnne Genth

Elaina Busch examines purple nettle from her garden.

RaeAnne Genth, [email protected], Contributor

The Herb Festival planted seeds in Asheville with six vendors on a sunny Saturday afternoon in 1990 to promote Earth Day at the Western North Carolina farmer’s market. Tents encompassing the parking lot of the farmers market provided roots for the now 60 plus vendors who sell their plants each year at the festival, said Andrew Reed, the executive director of the Herb Festival.

“We have grown to be the largest herb-related festival in the country, and growing into that level was just fun, an ego trip but you have fun doing it,” Reed said.

April 29 kicks off the 32nd Herb Festival in Asheville, lasting until May. This long held festival orchestrates a space for farmers, enthusiasts and admirers to learn about plants and herbs and purchase sought after heirlooms.

“The two founders were really Bluff Mountain Nursery and the other founder was Rick Morgan, who had a small basil farm. What they did was get several other area farmers and they set up this festival,” Reed said.

Reed said he found his place within the festival after being a long-time friend of one of the festival founders, who wanted to retire and pass off their duties to Reed. Now he works as executive director of the Herb Festival while pursuing his other interests.

“I wear a lot of hats in my life. I work as an editor. I have a publishing company called Pisgah Press,” Reed said. “Doing the festival puts me in touch with a whole different group of people, it gives me a different perspective on people.”

Due to COVID-19 and regulations at the WNC farmers market, the WNC Agricultural Center hosts the Herb Festival for the second time this year. In 2021 the Herb Festival hosted a two-day festival compared to the normal three-day event. Despite the event being only two days, the committee said they were satisfied with the new location.

“In a way it was a very positive move even though we only had it for two days last year. The one drawback is that by having it for two days, people are crowded in, more crowded on Saturday. So, we decided we would go back to three days this year so the crowds would be spread out,” said the executive director of the Herb Festival. 

The Herb Festival recently embarked as a new nonprofit with the WNC herb marketing association after Reed stepped in as the new executive director. Reed said the festival continues to affiliate with the state, but the organization now transpires as their own nonprofit organization. 

“The WNC Herb Marketing Association is designed to promote herb farmers, herb farming, herbal products, and public awareness and development of the herbal market with a focus on WNC farmers and manufacturers,” Reed said.

According to Reed, the Herb Festival associates with the Appalachian Sustainable Agricultural Project, which supports local farmers to provide resources and funding when possible. 

“They support all the farmers in the area, especially people who are doing heirloom vegetables or people who have taken over tobacco allotments, and goat farmers. We like to work with them to whatever extent we can,” Reed said.

Reed said the culture of Asheville supports natural living like non-factory farms, non-GMO products, herbal medicine, supporting locally sourced food for restaurants, and local hops and grains for beer manufacturing.

“Things like herbs, whole foods and outdoorsmanship just build on each other one by one. I don’t know where that dynamic starts, but once it does, it perpetuates itself,” Reed said. 

Reed said he’s looking forward to new workshops, products and vendors at this year’s festival to provide a wide variety of products and experiences for all customers. 

“We cater to every type of person who comes to the festival. Everyone from retired folks who are looking for healthy additives for their food or healthy medicinal products, to those who are living in apartments and don’t have a lot of space, to families and people who are avid gardeners,” Reed said. 

Danni Speight, whose parents assisted in starting the Herb Festival and one of the owners of Bluff Mountain Nursery, participates as one of the current vendors.  Speight said she has tried to carry on the tradition of her family’s role at the Herb Festival as well as at the Bluff Mountain Nursery.

“I grew up 100% in the nursery and I was probably 5-years-old in my first herb show,” Speight said.

Speight said her experience as a kid during the Herb Festival meant she got to miss school on Friday to attend the festival.

The same excitement Speight said she felt during her time at the festival as a child remains as she continues to serve her family’s legacy as a vendor. 

“It is exhilarating to be a vendor at the Herb Festival. It’s so much fun and extremely intense, and there’s a lot going on and you have to be able to multitask,” Speight said.

As a Bluff Mountain Nursery vendor, Speight said she looks forward to her second year at the agricultural center and has worked out kinks from the previous year to create a seamless experience. 

“We will be getting our Friday back this year, so we’re back to a three-day weekend. We’re all excited to see all the crowds of people and get outside and enjoy the beautiful weather,” Speight said.

Aspiring herbalist and recent Asheville transplant, Elaina Busch, anticipates her first experience at the herb festival. 

“The closest thing I’ve been to is a psychic spiritual expo, but I feel like this is going to be more focused around plants and herbs and the ways you can use them, which I am excited for,” Busch said.

Busch said she attributes her family’s upbringing and focus on holistic medicine as a catalyst for her interest in herbs and plant medicine.

“I grew up in a family of holistic practitioners, so since I was a kid, I’ve been interested in enzymes, herbal medicines and how holistic treatments can help not only your body, but your mind and soul as well,” Busch said.

Busch’s two-year anniversary moving to Asheville from Indiana approaches this September. Busch said the community and the opportunities that lie within the herbal community in Asheville blows anything Indiana has to offer.

“I feel like Asheville is a goldmine for this ideology and supportive of it,” Busch said.