By Steven Arbuckle, Whatcom Talk, May 7, 2021
Emily Mitchell is a fourth generation Whatcom County resident who values her deep local roots and wants to preserve the local beauty we enjoy. As the owner of Em's Herbals, her herbs, teas and body care products focus on the health of one person at a time, while her business practices aim to keep the community healthy and strong.
Her interest in simple and natural well-being was sparked by a sore throat she suffered while working as a waitress in New Mexico. A co-worker gave her a remedy that had her feeling better quickly: a tincture of osha root, which had been picked nearby. “I was floored,” she says. “I just couldn’t believe that you could just go outside in your backyard and dig up a root. At the same time, I grew up on the shores of Lake Whatcom, in Bellingham, picking huckleberries and salal berries in the abundance of nature. And so something kind of clicked for me.”
That experience led her to pursue a degree in botanical medicine in New Mexico, and Mitchell opened a retail herb shop in Eugene, Oregon, where she lived for several years. She returned to Bellingham and moved the business with her, but after a couple of years decided to focus on a different project. “My husband and I have seven children between the two of us, so you can imagine I was pretty busy,” she says. “Then, once everybody got settled into school in 2015, I realized this was the business I was meant to be in."
Em’s Herbals started online as an Etsy shop and soon outgrew the space she’d made for it in her kitchen. By January of 2020, it had moved into a newly renovated warehouse on Bakerview Road. During all this growth, Mitchell continues to keep an eye on her roots. “I believe it’s very important that we support each other, that we take care of each other, especially in hard times,” she says. “By keeping the community and the local economy strong, we’re less likely to be adversely affected by changes in the world economy, which we have little or no control over.”
One thing that Mitchell can control is the way she participates in that world economy. “When you have to bring herbs in from across the ocean, you’re burning fossil fuels. Then they come to port and sit in a warehouse, maybe for six months, before they get distributed,” she says. “The amount of carbon that has been used to transport and process and get them to your local grocery store has an impact on the environment.”
This led Mitchell to cultivate partnerships with suppliers as close to her own backyard as possible, who share her values. “If we can support Pacific Northwest businesses, particularly in Washington and Oregon, that’s where we go first. Especially smaller farmers who really care about their products,” she says. “Growing Veterans is an amazing organization that we’re thrilled to be in partnership with, that supports that reintegration of veterans into the community by farming, and being able to connect with other veterans.”
She has received help from some in her community, like when Icing on the Cake invited her to set up a table of her goods in their retail space. And she has given to the community, sometimes in the form of the products donated to a foot clinic for the homeless of Skagit County, and more recently, an industrial sized soup kettle donated to Bellingham’s Lighthouse Mission.
With her fresh, local, high-quality herbs in hand, Em’s Herbals produces a line of flagship products that Mitchell is excited to share. “We have pure calendula and arnica salves, and pure arnica and calendula oils. We infuse and hand-press the oils in-house,” she says. “We also make them into salves using only four ingredients, so they’re perfect for people with skin or fragrance sensitivities.”
While the recipe is kept as simple as possible, the effects are far-reaching. “Calendula makes a great choice for the sensitive population, especially newborns. It’s great for things like diaper rash and cradle cap,” Mitchell says. “We actually call it the ‘good for everything’ salve: it has antibacterial properties and antioxidant properties, it’s for skin healing, scar healing, scratches, abrasions, bee stings, sunburns, it’s pretty all-purpose. I heard one herbalist say that if you have a jar of calendula salve in your house, you’ll never buy Neosporin again.”
The other part of that line of products is meant to work on troubles that lie beneath the skin. “The arnica is used for muscle soreness, tennis elbow or rotator cuff issues, deep bruising, broken ribs, those kinds of things. We put as much arnica into the oil as we can to get a high helenium content, the anti-inflammatory constituent,” says Mitchell. “A lot of arnica cream on the market is actually homeopathic, and that means there’s not actually any detectable plant material in the product, so we’re pretty proud of our plant-based arnica.”
Although work and family keep her busy, Mitchell still finds time for adventure, and points out one of her favorite aspects of our region: its ferry system and islands. “Jumping on a ferry and getting out is such a unique and special function of our area, and I feel like we’re extremely blessed,” she says. “We’ve got bald eagles that fly over our house, and blue herons that land on our dock—the diversity and the vibrancy of the area is really unparalleled.”