Of Herbalism, Integrity, and Fire Cider

fire cider in the makingI shop local. One of the factors that gives my community its unique vibe is that we have lots of independently owned shops throughout our neighborhoods and squares, and I have no problem spending a little extra for an item if I’m supporting these businesses and my local economy. As a medicinal herbalist, I use only organic or wildcrafted herbs, and there are a few good sources for them online; but, my local health food store stocks jars and jars full of many of the herbs that I use – from the same company that I would normally order (Mountain Rose). So, of course, I stop in to pick up what I need when I can’t go out and harvest my own… as well as probiotics and vitamins and soap and incense and homeopathics and teas and fish oil and greens and– hell, even biodegradable dog poop bags. No wonder I was in there every week.

But today, I had to break up with them.

See, there is a formulation that herbalists have been making for decades, called fire cider. It’s an apple cider vinegar base to which is added garlic and horseradish and cayenne and other hot & spicy herbs, and some citrus fruit and maybe some honey. Some herbalists stick with the traditional formula which became well known to us from Rosemary Gladstar, while others play around with the ingredients a little bit and develop their own twist on the recipe. Come Fall, when the air gets colder and germs start jumping around from person to person, we are sure to have our bottle in the cabinet, macerating with roots and bulbs and peels, and there is no better defense against colds and flus. Some herbalists bottle it and label it and sell it off the shelf or online. It’s been this way for many, many years. There is no competition; that’s not how herbalists think. It’s a great remedy and many make it and the aim is to help people stay healthy, collectively.

Then, a little tiny company out in western MA trademarked the name “Fire Cider.” Apparently, this is their only product and they didn’t want anyone else getting in on their game (which was, um, everyone else’s game, first!). Not only did they trademark the name, other herbalists who were selling fire cider at Etsy began receiving letters informing them that they could no longer use the name “Fire Cider” on their own product.  Apparently, Shire City Herbals had filed a trademark infringement complaint. Wait. Seriously? Who does that?  ‘Screw all the rest of you; we’re in it for us?‘  The pure audacity of a few people out in western MA who are not even connected with the larger herbal community to co-opt a product that isn’t theirs and had been shared publicly just fine, and telling other herbalists that they no longer have the right to call it ‘fire cider’ because that’s now legally their property is simply deplorable. There is more to the story, but it further shows their lack of integrity (changing their stories and even reporting fire cider pages on facebook so as to have them permanently removed due to infringement?), and many of the businesses that sold Shire City’s Fire Cider have stopped – at least until the matter is straightened out. (There is currently a petition to revoke the trademark here. There is also an instructional video of Rosemary making fire cider there, if you are interested in making some, yourself… which I strongly encourage!)

But, there it was on the shelf at my local health food store.  I picked up a bottle and approached the manager. I asked if they were aware of the issue with it and she nodded yes. I didn’t press the issue, but instead turned around, put it back, and returned the items I was going to purchase to their rightful places on their shelves.  I wish that I had, though; I wish that I had asked “If you are aware of their actions, why do you choose to support a company with such an obvious lack of business ethics?”

Later, I did have the opportunity to sit down and have a lengthy conversation with the owner of the store.  We disagreed on this issue but found others where we were aligned.  I respect the work that he does in other areas, and I respect the passion that he puts into causes that he believes in.  Ultimately, he’s a businessman and said that this issue is small in the scope of the larger market.  That’s true.  I suppose we just have a different perspective on it, and that’s what makes the world go around.

Honestly, I have considered and reconsidered the wording of this post (I’m the chronically self-questioning and self-doubting sort, as it is).  I always try to remain positive —  especially on a public forum.  I also believe, though, that this sort of behavior should be called out; not only for its underhandedness, but for the precedent that it could set for the business practice of trademarking herbal (and other) products that are not rightfully their intellectual property.

This fire cider matter does not affect me, professionally.  I don’t sell fire cider. I do, however, think that it’s important for people to speak up for the values that they believe in.  Change is not stirred by sitting back and saying nothing.  Sitting back and thinking ‘well, it’s such a tiny issue in the scope of a larger market‘ is merely sweeping it under the rug.  Some day, all that dirt and grime under there becomes larger than the rug that shelters it.  And then we look at it, disheartened, and say “How did it become that?”

Speak up.  Do so kindly and respectfully, but please do speak up for the values that you believe in and would like to see reflected in your local community.



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