A Growing Business

Jim and Betty O’Toole’s farm supplies organic herbs – and the knowledge to use them well.

An Oasis for the Senses The O’Toole’s Herb Farm Welcomes Visitors 

By Lazaro Aleman

When Betty and Jim O’Toole moved to her family’s 150-year-old farm near Madison in 1990, the two had an idea of starting an organic herb farm – and little more. True, Betty had grown up on the farm and loved to garden, and she and Jim had done extensive research on herbs prior to their retirements.

But their respective careers – hers as an interior decorator, his as a salesman – in Tallahassee ill prepared them for an agricultural pursuit.

“Neither one of us had an ounce of training,” Betty said.

“We learned through on-the-job training and networking,” Jim added.

Their first years in business were a challenge, the O’Tooles will tell you. Ultimately, their idea to supply fresh-cut culinary herbs to restaurants proved not worth the doing.

“We actually ended up with about 12 restaurants in Tallahassee and Thomasville, but it about killed us,” Betty said.

The O’Tooles learned from their mistakes, however, and they adjusted accordingly, replacing the garden with two greenhouses and transforming the operation from one that catered strictly to restaurants to one that grew potted organic herb, perennial and vegetable plants for sale to nurseries and the public.

Along the way, they diversified. They added two gift shops, which sell a wide variety of organic and herbal products, as well as books, gardening supplies, terracotta pots, local pottery and original artwork; began sponsoring workshops on various herb-related topics, such as aromatherapy and the uses of herbs in cooking and landscaping; opened the grounds to the public for luncheons, wedding receptions and other social functions; started an annual spring festival that includes live music, organic products and old-timey demonstrations; and got their enterprise listed with the state of Florida as a tourist destination.

“Everything we did was sort of a stumble, but we also had a vision,” Betty said.

Today, O’Toole’s Herb Farm is a thriving agricultural business recognized as a vital component of the North Florida/South Georgia organic community. Besides enjoying a growing and loyal customer base, the farm attracts a multitude of new visitors each year through its festival, workshops and listing on the state’s tourism promotional literature.

Many visitors who come to the farm out of curiosity or to buy a specific herb, perennial or vegetable plant end up returning time and again, captivated by the bucolic setting, the scale and diversity of plants, and the down-home atmosphere. It’s not unusual for customers to take in a tour of the display garden, browse through the stores and greenhouses, and end up sitting on rocking chairs on the porch of one of the several quaint buildings on the property, sipping lemonade and conversing with the O’Tooles, who are ever ready to share their knowledge of herbs and the farm.

“They’re pretty unique,” said Bob Hochmuth, an extension agent with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences program in Live Oak. Hochmuth, who oversees a nine-county area, has helped the O’Tooles with their organic fertilizing and pest management systems.

“Their creativeness in integrating the community into their enterprise through open houses, festivals and workshops is not matched anywhere in this area and possibly in the rest of the state or the country, to my knowledge,” he said.

Hochmuth added that the O’Tooles’ timing too was propitious, insofar as organic foods and products today are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. agriculture industry, with annual sales nearing $15 billion nationally.

“They were at the right place at the right time,” Hochmuth said.

The O’Tooles agree, to the degree that when they started out, growing organic herbs was an esoteric pursuit at best. It still is a niche market, they say. But they also recognize that with environmental and health concerns spurring ever-greater interest in organic foods and products, naturally grown herbs are coming into their own more and more, both for their culinary and medicinal properties.

Equally important to their success, the O’Tooles say, is their commitment to quality and education.

“We strive to have a good-quality product that is earth-friendly,” Betty said. “And I think the other thing we’ve tried to do is share our knowledge. Education has been a real push for us all along. If we don’t know how to do something, we get somebody here to do a workshop or several workshops.”

That’s not to mention their willingness to try new ventures. Case in point: branching out into the production of shiitake mushrooms, which they supply to select restaurants and stores in Tallahassee, as well as selling them on site. An edible fungus cultivated in Asia for centuries both for its culinary and medicinal properties, shiitake mushrooms are making their way into Western cuisine.

“They’re extremely tasty, tastier than portabella mushrooms,” Betty said. “They’re  jam-packed with minerals and supposedly help lower your cholesterol and your blood pressure. They’re also high in antioxidants.”

Betty learned about shiitake mushrooms while attending a Florida A&M University-sponsored workshop in Tallahassee on alternative farm methods in 1991.

“The conference was to help farmers diversify so they wouldn’t have to sell the farm,” she said. “There were five of us in the workshop at the time.”

Today, the O’Tooles produce between 350 and 450 pounds of shiitake mushrooms annually, a source of revenue during the slow winter months.

Their mainstay, however, remains the herbs.

“The wonderment of an herb is that it’s a multi-use plant,” Jim said. “It’s either good for you, tastes good, smells good or works in a medicinal manner.”

If the O’Tooles had their way, they would plant every kind of herb in the world. As it is, their greenhouses contain 400 varieties, including 15 kinds of mints, 10 of rosemary, 10 of thyme and 10 of lavender. They also grow basil, variegated myrtle, tarragon, marjoram, oregano, lime balm, catnip, garlic chives, sage, germander, bay and more. Ninety percent of the herbs are culinary, with the majority coming from Asia and the Mediterranean. Their method for selecting the plants they grow is simple and all-inclusive.

“If I see something somewhere, I’m going to see if I can get it or if I can grow it,” Betty said.

The O’Tooles will tell you that their small-scale operation will never make them rich. Only five of the property’s 114 acres are dedicated to the herb farm; the remainder is planted in pines. But then, making money never was their goal.

“You don’t make big bucks doing this,” Betty said. “But that’s OK. It’s been a real quality-of-life improvement for us. That’s how we’ve gotten our benefits.”


North Florida’s Top 10 Herbs

Betty O’Toole of O’Toole’s Herb Farm has created a list of 10 herbs she considers perfect for cultivating in the climate of North Florida and South Georgia.
“These are my personal favorites,” she said. “They are happy and determined in our hot, humid summers and delight in our mild winters.”

Rosemary – This hardy perennial will live up to 30 years and is an evergreen. Rosemary is the most versatile of herbs. It goes great with meats, vegetables and sweets. It also is a marvelous medicinal herb. Like most herbs, rosemary requires a lot of sun, good drainage and plenty of room. It does not do well with automatic watering systems.

Oregano – The type the O’Tooles recommend is not a true Greek but a cross between Greek (strong flavor) and the milder sweet marjoram. The plant needs a major trimming after it blooms in the spring. “It is a lovely plant, not invasive and delicious as a culinary flavoring,” O’Toole said.

Mint – This is a true Southern favorite. “An herb garden is not complete without one type or another,” O’Toole said. Her herb farm grows about a dozen varieties, and almost all will do well in this region’s climate. Mints can tolerate shade and wet feet (roots), but like other herbs, they prefer up to six hours of sunshine and good drainage.

Parsley – The O’Tooles recommended two types: the curly, and the Italian or flat leaf. The flat leaf has a better flavor and is preferred by most chefs. The curly, however, makes a beautiful, dramatic statement in the garden if planted en masse. Black swallowtail butterflies love both the curly and flat leaf as larval host plants.

Garlic Chives – This is a flat-leaf chive with a marvelous garlicky flavor. Chives are very hardy and striking as a border or planted en masse. The white blossoms in summer are great for attracting butterflies and are also delicious as an edible flower.

Basil – A hot-weather favorite, this annual will thrive in our region’s hot, humid summers and will last until the first frost. O’Toole’s Herb Farm grows about 10 varieties. Genovese or the sweet varieties generally are the favorites for pesto and all culinary uses. African blue is a lovely perennial basil that is great for attracting all pollinators, including bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. The purple or red varieties are gorgeous for landscaping. Thai, lemon, lime and cinnamon all are wonderful for culinary uses. “They help your imagination go wild,” O’Toole said.

Mexican Tarragon or Texas Tarragon – Tarragon really is a marigold that has incredible flavor and vigor. “One of my loves in the landscape,” O’Toole said. The plants produce lovely yellow blossoms in late summer and fall. Both the leaves and flowers can be added to vinegar to make a flavorful condiment. The plants always come back in the spring.

Echinacea – This lovely perennial is a strong bloomer all summer. It will naturalize or flourish after about three years. It is not a culinary but a marvelous medicinal herb, considered an immune-system stimulant.

Lemon Grass – This fabulous culinary herb has the consistency of ginger and is used in Asian cuisines. The lower portion of the stem has the best flavor, but the leaves also
are used. A great tea herb, it
has wonderful medicinal
qualities and makes a dramatic statement in the landscape.

Lavender and Garden Sage – These two silver foliage plants are not so easy to grow but are well worth the trouble because they add so much to the texture and flavor of any herb garden. They both require very good drainage and air circulation, as well as soil that has a high pH. 


Three Herb-Based Recipes

Courtesy of Betty and Jim O’Toole

Basic Basil Pesto
4 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1⁄2 cup nuts (we use pecans, the traditional recipe calls for pine nuts)
1 large clove garlic (at least)
3⁄4 cup quality olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese
Mix ingredients in a blender, adding the oil slowly until smooth. Stir in cheese after blending. Freezes beautifully in freezer bags. Flatten the bags for easy stacking. This recipe makes about two cups.

Rosemary Pound Cake (a favorite)
3 sticks butter (at room temperature)
8 ounces cream cheese (at room temperature)
3 cups sugar
3 cups flour (sifted)
6 eggs (at room temperature)
1 teaspoon vanilla (real)
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary (no stems)
Cream butter, cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Mix well the following ingredients after each addition (the order is important) in a Mixmaster. Do not overbeat or it will make your cake tough and grainy. Add 2 eggs, then 1 cup of flour, 2 eggs, another cup of flour, 1 egg, the last cup of flour, and the last egg and vanilla. Gently fold in the chopped rosemary. Spoon into a greased tube pan. Put in a cold oven and set at 300 degrees for 1½ hours plus 10 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes and turn out of pan onto a cooling rack to have the best crust. ’Tis the best!

Herbed Orzo Salad
Cook orzo (1 cup) per instructions. Drain and chill immediately in ice water bath to stop cooking. Add to a bowl that contains 1⁄4 cup olive oil and 2 tablespoons of roasted garlic paste. Add salt and pepper to taste and mix well. Add some or all of the following ingredients: artichoke hearts, pimentos, thawed frozen sweet peas, capers, cherry tomatoes and feta cheese. Top with balsamic vinaigrette, chopped fresh basil, Italian parsley and garlic chives and mix well. Let rest for a bit and taste for seasoning. This is a great dish for creative folks. You can substitute the orzo with tabouli, couscous or any other pasta. Fresh herbs can be changed seasonally. Keeps well in the refrigerator. 


Fifth Annual Just Because’ Festival

O’Toole’s Herb Farm holds its fifth annual “Just Because” festival from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 3, in Madison. Festival organizer Betty O’Toole explains that the first Saturday in February is an ancient Celtic date celebrating the crossover between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

“Days start to lengthen and renewal and rebirth are in the air,” she said.

An ever more popular event, the festival features health-food vendors, live music, and educational and fun mini-workshops on a variety of subjects, including beginning yoga, basket making, gardening, and harvesting and using culinary herbs. Visitors can attend the workshops, stroll the grounds, browse in the two quaint shops, visit the greenhouses with their 400 varieties of herb plants, enjoy the display garden, or simply sit on rocking chairs and enjoy the country air.

Admission is $5. No registration is required for the workshops. From Tallahassee, take Interstate 10 east to Exit 251. Go north on Highway 14 to Madison, turn right on Livingston Road (one block north of U.S. Highway 90), proceed east about one-quarter mile, turn left on Rocky Ford Road (Highway 591), and go north another one-quarter mile. Or, for a more scenic drive, take U.S. Highway 90 all the way from Tallahassee to Range Street in Madison (Highway 14), turn left, then continue with the instructions above. For more information, call (850) 973-3629, or visit otoolesherbfarm.com

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