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Home-grown business sells natural products


If you want to visit Prairieland Herbs at 1385 S Ave. in Woodward, don’t trust the directions of an online map and direction service, its owners warn: it will just get you lost. About 30 miles northwest of Des Moines, you’ll take the Woodward exit off Iowa Highway 141. Turn right, and S Avenue will be the first gravel road on the left. Soon you will be greeted by a passel of friendly barking dogs that will lead you to Donna Julseth’s house (it’s the first one on the right). Then follow the driveway back to the shop she and her daughter, Maggie Juleseth Howe, built.

Prairieland Herbs sells locally produced, environmentally friendly food, flowers, toiletries and gift items. Julseth and Howe raise or make most of the shop’s offerings, but they also sell candles, soaps and a few other products by local artisans. Julseth and Howe grow, harvest and dry most of the herbs used in their products and buy their shea butter, virgin coconut oil and coffee from “fair trade” suppliers (suppliers that comply with International Fair Trade Association requirements, including fair wages, gender equity and healthy working conditions).

“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” Julseth said. “When we began we wondered ‘How can Woodward support us?’”

Julseth and Howe say they have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of support they’ve received from their rural community (Woodward has just 1,200 residents), but they have also looked beyond. Most weekends, Howe sells Prairieland products at the Downtown Farmers Market in Des Moines. Prairieland Herbs wholesales its products to Living History Farms, the State Historical Society, Heart of Iowa in Valley Junction and Firehouse Yoga. The company also has a catalog and a Web site (www.prairielandherbs.com).

Online sales account for 70 percent of the company’s business. Some overseas customers, especially those in Asia, pay more for shipping than for the products themselves. Prairieland Herbs has been online since 2000, but in the beginning the site was very simple. Customers had to e-mail in their orders. As a result, Juleseth and Howe have gotten to know many of their online shoppers. Many orders would include an update on the purchasers’ lives, or an inquiry about the shopkeepers.

“That’s part of the fun for us,” Julseth said. “They kind of know us and we kind of know them. We have long-term relationships with people who are hundreds or thousands of miles away.”

In February 2003, an “online shopping cart” was added to the Prairieland Herb Web Site, allowing customers to make purchases with just a few mouse clicks. Though some people in Central Iowa order the company’s products online, the owners say the bulk of purchases come from out of state and overseas. Julseth and Howe say they’ve shipped products to every state in the Union.

“We get a lot of international orders,” Julseth said. “Not tons, but we’ve had them from the very beginning. Probably from Great Britain the most.”

The owners say most of their domestic orders come from the East Coast. People from different regions tend to prefer different products; for example, Arizonans order more moisturizers.

Though the shop in Woodward is packed for every open house, only five to 10 people might drift through it in an average week. That’s how Howe and Julseth like it.

“If we had customers in here constantly, it would probably screw us up,” Howe said, laughing. “We wouldn’t have time to make the products.”

During the spring and summer, their weeks are full. On Tuesday, Julseth and Howe fill and ship out orders that have come in over the weekend. Wednesday through Friday are spent in the garden and the kitchen, tending and harvesting the plants and using them to make natural bath salts, lotions, body scrubs, potpourri and hair rinses. Saturdays are usually spent at farmers markets, though someone stays behind to mind the shop. The store is closed Sunday and Monday. In July and August, Prairieland Herbs is included as a stop for various garden tours, and here and there the mother-daughter team slip classes into the schedule, teaching others their tricks of the trade.

“Some people say, ‘If you give away your secrets, no one will buy your product,’” Julseth said. “Some people will stop buying a particular product from us because they prefer to make it themselves, but they’ll still come here for the ingredients.”

“A lot of people enjoy learning how to make something, but continue to buy it to save time and leave the mess to us,” Howe said. “But they go away with a respect for the process, and they become better label readers. We love that. It’s important to know what you’re putting on your body.”

Julseth and Howe loved offering the courses, but eventually grew tired of lugging around giant sacks of salt and jugs of oils. They are in the midst of converting their old red barn into a classroom to solve the problem.

According to Julseth, she and her daughter first got into the herb business when Howe was in middle school.

“She loves to tell this story,” Howe said, rolling her eyes.

Howe wanted to grow herbs, so they planted some. When the herbs emerged from the soil, they had to figure out what to do with them. Howe studied up on the properties of the herbs and began brewing various concoctions. Through trial and error, she began to develop some pleasing products.

“I thought it would be a passing fancy, but…no,” Julseth said.

The two began selling their wares at craft shows and farmers markets. Then in 1998, Howe graduated from Iowa State University with majors in public service and agriculture, and environmental studies. At that point, Julseth told her daughter, “We need to get serious or get out.”

“I knew I wanted to get serious,” Howe said. “We started right after. I didn’t want to have to find a job. My advisor kept asking me, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to write up a resume?’ I said, ‘No, Steve, I’m sure.’”

They built the shop in 1999 and saved money by doing most of the labor themselves. Julseth says one of the factors in their business’ success is that all expansions have come from their profits (she says lately business has been doubling or tripling each year), and since their store is on land they own, they don’t have to pay rent. It’s one of the reasons Prairieland Herbs picked its pastoral locale, but there are others.

“Customers can see that we are actually doing what we say: Our products truly are natural and handmade,” Julseth said. “It gives us a credibility we might not have otherwise.”  

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