Connecting community: Herbal U-picks offered at First Rain Farm |

Connecting community: Herbal U-picks offered at First Rain Farm

For a different spin on the classic U-pick model, Ashley Votaw invites folks out to First Rain Farm outside Nevada City to learn about and harvest culinary and medicinal herbs throughout the growing season.
Submitted photo/Laura Petersen |

Ashley Votaw opened the gate and led the way past rows of young blueberry plants and kale to an area along the fence growing tall with Echinacea purpurea.

“This does great here. Bees love it,” she said. A Native American plant, Echinacea is one of the most well-used medicinal herbs, its root used medicinally as a cure-all to treat everything from infection to the common cold.

Since 2012, Votaw has grown herbs for HAALo, the herbal apothecary in Nevada City. Today she grows 22 different herbs at First Rain Farm, a farm she works with her partner Tim Van Wagner.

After their son Teague Rye was born 11 months ago, processing herbs became more of a challenge for Votaw. So, she began inviting people to come out to the farm for herbal U-picks, establishing a niche market for her growing business.

“I just love working with the plants. It’s a love and a passion. I want to grow my food. Why wouldn’t I want to grow my medicine, too?”Ashley Votaw

“I’ve found that having the herbal U-picks is a great way to connect with the community while giving folks a hands-on experience with their medicine and the opportunity to learn a bit about the plant in its live form, how it grows, the space it enjoys, and how to harvest.”

So far, the herbal U-picks have been popular, especially among women, attracting a diverse range of customers — from practicing herbalists to new hobbyists.

Votaw designs her U-picks based on the herbs in season, usually about four or five different plants. Last Thursday’s U-pick included: Blue Vervain, Boneset, Calendula, Chamomile, Chocolate Mint, Grindelia, Nettles, Spilanthes and Western Skullcap.

“This is something that I do fairly regularly. I can’t commit to doing it every two weeks exactly, although that would be ideal, but I do them as often as I have four to five herbs ready for harvest at the same time,” Votaw said.

Votaw farms with Van Wagner on 37 acres known as the Steber Ranch off of Rector Road. It’s a mixture of open pastures, creel-side riparian ecosystem, oaks, pines, madrone, sugar pines and two century-old barns. The couple integrates animal-based sources of fertility with annual and perennial vegetable and fruit crops. They shared their story at a recent community farm potluck, part of an ongoing series with Sierra Harvest.

Votaw knows her plants and enjoys teaching about them. The herbal U-picks allow her to develop more direct to consumer relationships.

“The fennel is doing super great. It grows really well in disturbed areas,” Votaw said as she gave a tour of the different zones she has created along the fence line, areas she hopes will naturalize, like the hops she stops to pick a bud from.

“Fresh hops is really beautiful. It’s so floral. In a couple years, the whole fence line will be all hops,” she said.

Some plants like arnica are best fresh. Herbalists bring Votaw their tinctures and oils and she fills the bottles with the plant.

She points out Grindelia — a flowering plant with a gluey, gummy resin used for making tinctures to treat bronchial conditions.

She pinches off a small piece of Spilanthes, known as the toothache plant, and notes how the mouth will begin to tingle and go numb from this powerful flowering herb.

The nectar of boneset smells like happy bees.

“I use it a lot in cold and flu blends,” she said.

Along with her self-led study of herbs, Votaw has attended a handful of schools: Dandelion Herbal Center in Arcata, eight months at California School of Herbal Studies in Sonoma, and select courses with Placerville herbalist Candice Cantin, known for her melding of Chinese, Ayurvedic and western herbalism.

Over time, Votaw has learned to take notes, learn from her mistakes, and along the way has developed an understanding of each plant’s tricky propagation needs.

“They’re all a little bit different,” she said.

For Votaw, growing herbs is not just a hobby. Votaw is the only person selling dry herbs at the Nevada City Farmers Market. She hopes to one day sell her herbs fresh at market.

“I just love working with the plants. It’s a love and a passion. I want to grow my food. Why wouldn’t I want to grow my medicine, too?”

To get updates of upcoming U-picks, contact Ashley Votaw at

Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at or 530-913-3067.

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