Small Business Profile: Aviva Skye Tilson, Owner of Apis Apotheca - Hudson Valley
Hey Aviva! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Aviva Skye Tilson and I'm an herbalist and farmer with an lifelong skincare obsession.
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
I grew up between NYC and Long Island, and was very sick until I was diagnosed with celiac when I was 19. I thought it was 'normal' for my stomach to always hurt, and to be constantly exhausted-- and I had no idea farming was a possible career path until I met a friend's mother who was an organic farmer. Something audibly clicked in my Virgo brain and I knew it was the only path for me, and that it would lead to healing my relationship to my body and the earth. I then helped found the Bard College farm, where I was a student at the time, took a semester off to WWOOF across Israel, came back and worked at farms in Vermont during summers before graduating, and upon graduation went directly into a year long apprenticeship at Hawthorne Valley farm that changed my life. I loved working with the dairy cows and growing veggies, but I realized I was actually most interested in the 'weeds' (herbs) growing in the hedgerows. I went back to school at Arbor Vitae school of traditional herbalism in NYC and became a community herbalist around the same time as fundraising to start my own farm and business, and now I have a fully functioning, value-added herbal farm-to-face skincare business. I also co-founded the Kaaterskill Herb Exchange in Woodstock NY last summer, which is an herb shop that focuses on working with local growers and herbalists to source medicinal herbs and remedies for our community.
What does your experience in farming look like?
I have done pretty much everything in the organic/biodynamic farm world-- high volume veggie production, market gardening, garlic farming (yes, it is actually a special niche), sheep dairying, cow dairying, and now herb farming. I have gradually shifted away from a 'high volume' farm production model for my own business in favor of a gentler 'gardening' mindset, which helps me slow down and place my plants not only for harvest ease but for pure sumptuous beauty and enjoyment. I want to create a space where you can relax and be swathed in color, scent, sounds, and appreciate the simple medicine of sitting with the plants when they are blooming in all their glory. This is perhaps the most important goal I have for my business- to create a harmonious, inspiring space for people and pollinators alike.
What led you to start Apis Apotheca?
I struggled with my health a great deal growing up, and skin is a reflection of digestion, so understandably with undiagnosed digestive ailments my skin was always an issue. It caused me an enormous amount of emotional pain, as anyone who's ever had persistent acne (or eczema, psoriasis--any inflammatory skin condition) will understand. It became my quest to 'solve' the problem holistically because most dermatologists, sadly, are very behind the times on how to approach skin as a gateway and reflection of whole-body health. I became a detective, and through farming, becoming an herbalist, and experimenting with different topical formulas over many years, I found what worked and this is what I share with others through my products and my new online course.
You grow 98% of your ingredients at your farm in Germantown, NY - what goes into your farming practices and how do you decide what to grow that's great for both skin and soil?
I am continually learning about how to be a better gardener. I watch a lot of British gardening shows over the winters-- it is amazing how highly developed their gardening culture is there, and how 'normal' it is for nearly every person to either have their own highly productive garden or access to one. One major connection that you can make between skin and soil health is that both have a very precise, ever-shifting biological composition kept in balance by unique microbiomes. Bacteria, fungi, worms, beetles-- so many organisms are responsible for keeping soil healthy and creating 'organic matter' (that's the good stuff) and the same is relatively true for your skin. You need to tend and respect your skin's unique microbiome for it to be strong, vibrant, and resilient to hormonal changes that we all go through and that can wreak havoc if a solid foundation isn't laid. Whole plant infusions and fresh plant hydrosols are particularly wonderful for encouraging balanced skin biome, and these are the foundations of my products.
Your line is focused on healing skin. What plants have great healing properties for skin?
My current plant dream team that I use in all of my products consists of our own farm grown calendula, chamomile, yarrow, gotu kola, and locally wild harvested Reishi (which is a mushroom). I also love comfrey, elderflower, rose, and marshmallow for sensitive skin health-- and I have a new product launching soon that includes all of these lovelies. All of these plants in one way or another soothe inflammation, encourage cellular proliferation, enhance wound healing, stimulate fresh collagen growth-- all ultimate skin strengtheners, for resilient, non-reactive skin that you don't have to fuss over anymore.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
I can't quite believe people love the products as much as they do (self-critical virgo etc), but I have a lot of customers relying on my work for their skin's wellness and I regularly get feedback that it's the only thing that's ever worked for them-- and I feel incredibly lucky that I'm able to magically transmute my time creating a fairy flower garden into helping people heal and love their skin. I'm sharing what the earth gives to those who believe in and love her.
What are your short/long term goals?
I have dreams (crossing my fingers it proves a 'short term' goal) of having a new Apis 'HQ' where I have a house, a workshop, and my garden all on the same property-- right now I do a lot of driving between points A,B and C. This would enable me to host more workshops and up my education game-- because so many people have questions about how to start growing, how to start making, and I want to provide a space that is both inspirational and inviting. My long term goals are to grow the business to a point where I can have more people helping me, and continue to produce more and more of the raw materials I use so that I can have a completely self-sufficient, closed loop farm system that is carbon neutral and providing community herbal education. I also want to help someone figure out how to make completely compostable packaging suitable for oils and liquids-- any packaging engineers out there please get in touch! :)
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
I think it is so much harder for most women to feel like they have the right to pursue their dreams than it is for men. Especially if those dreams are non-traditional and don't fit inside the patriarchal framework of ride-or-die capitalism and earth-exploitative industry. As an herbalist who specializes in hormonal health, I also think that there is a very real need to recognize the vast difference in how women's bodies and needs fluctuate on a daily basis compared to those of men---- and for there to be other women you can go to when you feel like complete shit and have them understand, precisely, how you are feeling is priceless. I think that having a community of women in business for themselves creates a whole new paradigm of adaptive business practices that disrupts the industrial male 'work ethic' that denies our natural rhythms and the inspiration and innovation that can come when you inevitably sometimes feel like crap. Also, of course, we need to stand together in the face of the insidious and misogynist forces that are currently threatening to undermine our right to exist as equal individuals in the world.
We have a series called Purchase from Women - what women owned businesses are you encouraging with your dollars?
I am lucky to live in an area bursting with amazing woman owned businesses. Stella at Hudson River Exchange and Kate from Drop Forge and Tool in Hudson, NY organized a cooperative holiday retail space last year that brought together so many amazing local makers under one roof-- some favorites were Salsita Hudson (run by Kathleen who is also a Hawthorne Valley Farm apprentice grad), Perianth Farm run by Nadine and Kate who are badass flower farmers, and Alexis Telefsen who makes amazing ceramics and just opened her own studio/workshop space. As the co-manager of Kaaterskill herb exchange (also owned by a woman) I stock nearly 100% woman-made products--because women are really leading the charge in the local medicine making movement. The farms who we work with to grow our herbs are also primarily brand new female-run herb operations which is really exciting.
What have you learned from creating your own business that you think can apply to any creative endeavor?
I think as boring as it sounds, 'never give up' is the one that sticks the most and really is true. I am also a musician, and I've been working at making more time for it in my life since my business picked up speed and forced everything else into the backseat--and I think that this mindset of doing things you love regardless of the outcome is necessary for your internal fire to stay lit. All forms of creativity feed into each other, I've found-- if I'm singing and writing music, I'm also dreaming up new products, and also sewing some nice pillows, and also making surprisingly fancy things for dinner. But of course ruts happen and then I'm just sitting on the couch moping. Luckily my cat Reishi and my boyfriend Ryan are both very talented at cheering me up. Understanding this kind of bi-directional inertia has been important in motivating me to literally just get the ball rooooolllling so that all the fires stay lit!
Do you have any resources that have been helpful to you that we should know of?
Anyone who wants to learn more about farming should WWOOF (honestly is the best way to travel imho), or look into AATRA to find U.S. based farming internships. Anyone who wants to start a business should make use of the SBA's free SCORE mentorship program. Anyone who wants to learn about herbs should enroll in any one of the many online or in person programs available now!
What are you trying to learn right now or what is something that you are wanting to learn?
I am trying to learn more about the 'less fun' parts of running a business- like taxes, and loans, and book keeping. It is awful at first but gradually I am starting to feel much more empowered, knowing that I am in control of how and when to grow, and what sustainable growth looks like to someone like me who is a bit of a purist/idealist and refuses to profit from something that isn't produced to the highest environmental and ethical standards.
What are some of your favorite places in Hudson Valley?
I live in the lovely little town of Catskill, right across the river from Hudson NY and my regular haunts are HiLo for coffee/cocktails/music, the Willows nature preserve between the towns of Athens and Catskill for a peaceful walk through the woods that goes right along the Hudson river, then Athens for its adorable brick buildings and waterfront charm. My farm is in Germantown on the other side of the river and exists on the property of Gatherwild Ranch, a luxury glamp-retreat run by the nicest coolest people ever, Laura and Paul, and it is honestly one of my favorite places to be, especially in summer when they have bonfires and fire up the pizza oven. There's so many more, too many to list. I'm very fortunate to live here and have such a great community-- something I never had growing up, living in a city as big as New York and feeling all the same very isolated.