Today we have a really, really special guest because she's actually local. She's not like next-door local but she's in Texas. Her name is Connie Gibson and like I always do with all of my guests, I read their bio. She is from C & J Farms. It's a family-run farm in Corsicana, Texas. All of their products are one-of-a-kind seasoned blends, which are all made by hand without any artificial ingredients or preservatives. She also infuses honey with some wonderful flavors and fresh ingredients. Welcome, Connie.
Connie: Thank you, Jennifer.
Jennifer: I'm so thrilled that you are with us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your passions? What led you to this place in life?
Connie: I get that question a lot, actually. It just stemmed from I'm a city girl, born, raised, lived in Dallas most of my life and we were actually in McKinney. My husband was still traveling a lot. We decided we wanted to get out of the rat race a bit. We moved to Corsicana, which is about 60 miles south of Dallas. I have always enjoyed growing things, even when I lived in McKinney. I had a yard full of flowers and fresh herbs and things like that.
My new daughter-in-law and my son came to live close to us and she began growing herbs as well. Long story short, one day we were all hanging out and she definitely has a green thumb and I do all right with that as well, but she had huge, some of the largest basil plants we'd ever seen.
Jennifer: That's a wonderful story. It's like you were just looking at herbs one day and were like wow. Is that what made you want to start your own business? Surely, it's one thing to say, because I'm guilty of this a lot, how hard can it be? Then you get in there and you're like whoa, this is a little bit different than what I thought. What made you decide to really make it a business and to share it with other people and really bring it to the market as a product?
Connie: In my life, in my family, we have a lot of chronic illness so the last 15 years I have begun to research healthier diets, healthier foods, and how to easily put that in our day. That was a side journey that I was taking, which other parts of our family were taking as well. I learned that herbs were a great nutritional value. They're much more than just flavor. Of course, that helps- The flavor is awesome but having nutrition in every bite is awesome as well.
We started off slow. We started drying because I had an abundance of herbs. To preserve the herbs we were just drying them. We took the herbs up to a local farmers market and tried to sell them there. People were receptive and positive but they just didn't really know what to do with them. They didn't know how to cook with the herbs. That began to develop our thinking. I'm not a great cook either. At that point, I thought people need instruction. They need guidance on how to do these things. The food change was already beginning in the areas. People were automatically more interested in healthy products and I had learned about certainly the things that were not healthy for us. That's kind of what drove the business. We started off by just trying to determine if there was a market and we did that by going to local farmers markets.
Jennifer: Obviously there was. There is.
Connie: Yeah, there is a market for sure. People are very happy to know that we grow the herbs and that everything is fresh and pure.
Jennifer: That's wonderful. Do you mind me asking, you were saying that you dry the herbs. How do you dry them? Do you do it the old fashioned way by hanging them up or do you dehydrate them? How do you do that?
Connie: I do use a dehydrator. In the very beginning I hung some. I don't like that process for commercial use. I want my product better protected. We use commercial dehydrators.
Jennifer: Yes, love dehydrators. That is wonderful that you started studying the medicinal purposes of herbs and then just were really wanting to put those into your diet because I know that there's a lot of people who want to do that. That's one of the easiest ways to get some of those benefits with herbs, is to use them as seasonings and things. Tell us what your mission is then. Is that it in terms of helping people with their health and making it something that's not only tasty but is good for you and nutritional? Did that become your mission?
Connie: I think it's a side mission, actually. Because again there's a big educational curb with the general public. What we have found the general public is most interested in is a delicious pure seasoning that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. We wanted to bring healthy good products at a reasonable price to market. That's what we think we've done.
Jennifer: Wow. Taste first. I love that. That's great. That is wonderful. You actually live on a farm, right? Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you incorporate that into your life? You said you moved out there because you were tired on the rat race but can you just tell us about your farm life basically and what it's like to live on a farm and then actually run a business, too?
Connie: Yeah, it's quite different for a city girl, actually. But I made the adjustment and now I really do enjoy it. It was an adjustment. That's no joke. It truly was. But we just make the things apart of our day. I had many, many gardens which we constantly work. I have greenhouses that we plant every winter to get our herbs started. We have a few cattle on our ranch and we have a couple of goats. Those have been great food assets as well. The cattle we raise is only grass-fed beef so that we always food, we always have food being raised and ready for processing on time. We do that for our personal use in our family. But the cattle are really easy. They're easy, docile, most of them are Angus breeds so they're easy to deal with.
But the majority of what we do now is planting and growing. I use several different types of gardening. I use in bed gardening but I also use we call keyhole gardens for developing our growing space as well.
Jennifer: I was going to ask you about that. Could you tell us what that is for people who don't know what keyhole gardening is?
Connie: Yeah, I can. It's a raised garden bed. It's raised about four feet off the ground. There's a notch you can build. You can build a circle but you put a notch in the circle. In the center of the cone it's six feet in diameter and in the center of that, you put a cone about eight inches in diameter and that's where you constantly feed produce and old kitchen scraps. Anything green. No butter, no protein. Things like that. It's constantly a sustainable way always making earth. You fill up the keyhole garden with tons and tons and tons of cardboard that you have to gather and save over time. Then you layer it in a six to three ratio as you build it up of gray matter and brown matter. It really is an efficient way. It gives you a lot of surface area in a very small space and I'm not having to worry about weeding. It's fertilizing itself all the time. I'm using scraps to maintain it. It's just a wonderful sustainful way of gardening.
Jennifer: Do you teach this way of gardening or is this just something that you guys do on your own property?
Connie: Currently, I don't teach it. It's just a method of growing herbs that I like a lot. It works very well. I think in the future we may opt to do that but currently we do not.
Jennifer: Okay, when you started your own business, how did you guys do that? Did you start of jump off and say okay, now going forward we're going to work on this business? How did you make the transition from being, I'm assuming you had some other source of income. How did you make the transition to starting your own business from working for somebody else?
Connie: I had always worked in a corporate environment but had retired before we moved down here. I don't like to not be busy. I don't like being still. We started small, number one just to test the market. We did determine that the market was available. I wanted to say we played with it for about a year and half. Then there was a moment when me and my husband looked at each other and said are we going to make this a serious business or not? We sat down with our family and asked them to come aboard and participate and that was when we all consciously made the decision to go yes, this is what we're going to do. It is a retirement source of income.
Jennifer: Okay, so you had worked your whole life and didn't really want to retire in the way that most people retire and then you were like let's do this different thing. How exciting. How do you pick out the products for your business and how do you develop them? Is it just sort of customer driven or do you have great ideas and you're like I think I'm going to test this?
Connie: I won't say necessarily that I have great ideas. I have an idea of what goes together and I just started playing with those. I really started just based on the herbs that I had available. After we decided we had to start doing seasonings rather than just offering fresh herbs, then I began to get much more particular about things, writing recipes, trying to determine if we like them, changing them up, practicing that a bit. Then we just kind of moved on from there.
I did listen to our customers. After we decided we really wanted to make this a serious business, we started with a few things. Then I listened to the customer. They would tell me that looks like it would be great if it didn't have any salt in it or what about this, do you do anything with garlic, do you have something with this, things like that. The customers really have helped developed the product along the way.
One of the things that was a personal interest to me was the infused honey.
Jennifer: Tell us about that too, because you have sort of two flagship products. You have the spices and then you also have infused honey. Tell us about the difference in terms of what you do for the spices and then also what you do for the honey.
Connie: We do all the growing, and dehydrating of the herbs. I do all the blending. We have a commercial kitchen that we use. At one point a few years ago, I had in my learning about health issues, I began to understand how important raw honey is. What a fantastic food source it is and how many benefits there are to raw honey. Just to make it different, because I don't raise the bees, I do source that honey locally and I do know the bee keepers. I know where the honey comes from. It's local to metroplex. I only want to use fresh ingredients. I never wanted to use oils or intimation flavorings or things like that.
Just to have an easy quick change in my kitchen, I started with lavender honey. I took lavender flower buds and I put them in the honey. It infuses flavor over a long period of time. You strain the honey, strain it all out so that you end up with a flavored honey but it's all natural and all delicious. You're not harming any of the good benefits of the raw honey.
Currently I believe we have eight flavors of the raw honey and that has been one of my favorite things to play with, is trying to come up with new flavors.
Jennifer: Without giving any secrets away or anything like that, but you could you just tell us briefly how do you do that? How do you infuse honey? Do you cook the lavender first? What's the process?
Connie: Anybody can do it. You just take some raw honey and you put whatever in it that you think you want to put in it. If you want it to taste like lemon- So, I always use fresh ingredients. Just take your lemon and put it in the honey. Keep it covered. Keep it sealed so you don't have to use any heat at all. You just seal it. You can put it in a windowsill. You can just let it be. Turn your jar over occasionally. Let it sit for a few weeks. Strain it out when you've got the flavor you want and it's ready. You can use anything from fresh fruit to fresh herbs and a million other things in between. The process is simple. It's just a little time consuming.
Jennifer: How long does it usually take to get the flavors? Does it just depend on the ingredients-
Connie: It does. Lavender takes the longest for us to develop the flavor.
Jennifer: Now I want to go into my kitchen and do that. That sounds so wonderful.
Connie: It is wonderful.
Jennifer: That's one of my kids' favorite things in the world, to have a snack when they go to any kind of craft show where they find infused honey. That's the first thing they ask, mom can I have that and it is wonderful. But I've never made it before so that's something that I'll have to experiment with. How did you get your name? You're C & J Farms. Is that your initials or how did you come up with that?
Connie: Yes, it's just our initials. We were completely unimaginative about it. Completely. We didn't start off our farm as an herb farm. We started off our farm in a very different thought process. It developed and we just decided we'd just out our initials on it and move on down the road.
Jennifer: Well, do you mind sharing with us what that thought process was like? How did it start off in terms of it was different than an herb farm?
Connie: Oh, my goodness. Well, my husband had talked me into, when we were still sitting in McKinney as city people, which we definitely were. He had decided that he thought we should raise goats. Well, we did attempt that. He was still traveling 95% of the time so he was gone most of the time. He traveled internationally, not just locally. When I was having 50 does go into labor all within seven days and I was by myself, we had a change of heart when my husband got home.
Jennifer: Wow. That must have been traumatic.
Connie: It was traumatic, actually. Goats are not an easy creature.
Jennifer: Yeah, I've heard that. I haven't ever kept them before but I have heard tell of their behavior. That they're wonderful but it takes a special person to raise them and care for them. Let's see here. You were telling us a little bit about the infused honey and you were telling us about the spices. You have an online store. Can you tell us a little bit about if somebody were to visit your online store, what they would find and how they would navigate it?
Connie: Yes, it's truly simple. CJFarmsTexas.com is our online location. It just is all about the product. We think it's easy to manage. You can pick herb blends, sea salt blends. They're kind of categorized for you. We give detailed description, whether they have salt, all the ingredients, everything that you want to know about that product. It's very easy to go online. We try to run a special every month. We do encourage people to sign up for our newsletter online and that way they know what our specials are about for the month.
Jennifer: That way they get that information or the coupon or however you deliver that when they sign up for the email.
Connie: That's correct, yeah. When they sign up for the newsletter.
Jennifer: Okay, where else would people be able to find you? You said you went to different kinds of markets. Have you been to the State Fair? Is that right?
Connie: We were at the State Fair this last October. We were at the State Fair in the Food and Fiber Pavilion. That was a blast. That was so much fun. I'd never been to the fair as an adult. It was just overall a really great experience. We go to meet so many people and people interested in food. We do a lot of trade shows and we do a lot in the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex. We do a lot of farmers markets as well.
Jennifer: You have a little bitty store where you are too. Is that correct?
Connie: I do. I have a small store front on our property. Part of our property is on a very busy highway. That's where our grown son, he works for us, that's where his office is but we also have our lovely store there. You can sample our products there so you can taste everything before you decide which ones you're going to buy.
Jennifer: That's wonderful. What kinds of things do you have there? Do you have your whole product line there? If people were driving by they could come in and sample everything? How does that work? Do you have additional things there?
Connie: I do have additional things there that I don't take to the farmers markets or the shows. For example, I do a little bit of medicinal herbs so I dry those and keep those in bulk. They're available in bulk along with all the culinary herbs as well. If you just want some dill, you can just buy some dill. We have some seeds that we offer that I don't carry in bulk because I just don't grow them in that kind of quantities. We have bulk items that you can purchase. We have everything that we have jarred available. We have all of the honeys available. Then we offer some nice gift items, a line of greeting cards that are herb focused, some other great vendors' products and jams that we off, and some bread mixes, scones, and rustic pull bread mixes. Those do really great too. We have quite a variety of things. It's always a fun interesting place for people to stop.
Jennifer: Yeah. It sounds like it. You're all about these herbs. Let me ask you this. Do you have any tea blends? Have you ventured out into that area and do you plan to?
Connie: I haven't but it's so easy to do. The reason I haven't is honestly I just don't have the time. We'd have to build staff for that. But I am working on, we're expanding gardens this spring so that we can offer more fresh products to local Texas tea blenders so that they can get fresh product here local for their tea. But you can make teas out of simple, just lemongrass, lavender, peppermint, spearmint, things like that. We all have those available all the time.
Jennifer: That's wonderful. That's one of my favorite things in the world, is tea and herbal tea. That's great. I know there's a market for that because I would be half the market.
Connie: Yeah, there is a market for that for sure.
Jennifer: Can you give us some tips? You said you have gone through this sort of learning journey and so can you give us some tips about purchasing organic food and cooking it and preserving it? What is your take on that and how do you do it on your farm?
Connie: Organic is important. We are not organic. We are not certified organic. I use all organic practices when I'm growing, when I'm drying so there is no preservatives and I only purchase seeds that are GMO free. They've been tested GMO free. Part of what I strive to do is make our product not only delicious and fresh but affordable. I don't like that healthy food generally is so much more expensive. I don't think it's necessary. We strive to keep things reasonable in that area. I do think grass-fed beef is fantastic. It's so helpful for you. Anything that you can get that is pure and fresh is just better for you. We raise our own beef. Our son and daughter-in-law raise chickens and ducks. They have their own eggs. They will be adding pork, I believe, to the farm. We kind of share those food things.
Everything I plant on my farm, generally speaking, is an edible, whether it's a flower, whether it's a tree, or dry-able in some form. If it's not edible, I want it to be medicinal in some way. We strive to make sure that everything we plant, if my grandkids go out and put something in their mouth, it's going to be okay for the most part.
Jennifer: Okay, so you brought up something really important and could you elaborate on it a little bit. That is that you said you're not certified organic but you use all organic practices. There are a lot of people like that because it's pretty costly to be certified organic. If I'm the customer and I go out and I'm seeking products are raised organically like you do, what questions should I ask? How can I find that information out and could you elaborate a little bit about being certified versus growing everything organic, and just because you're not certified does not mean you are not growing things organically.
Connie: Right. My products are as organic as anybody else says they are but it's the USDA certification that we don't have and we don't have it because it's costly. There are so many rules around it. The property we have is a small property. It's about 20 acres. There's a lot of land around us that is not organic and those factors have to be taken into account, not just your property but the properties that lay around you. We will not be certified at any time. It's not part of our goal.
Using organic practices is our goal and we make sure that we do that. All of my stuff I can say is pure, fresh. We tell people we use organic practices. Ask your local farmer. Ask the people where you do your grocery shopping. But just because they say it's organic doesn't necessarily always mean it's healthful. GMOs play a big role in that. It can be organic but have a GMO product.
Jennifer: I'm having a little trouble hearing you. Can you repeat that because I think you cut out there.
Connie: Did I? I said I think that just because something's organic does not mean it's all the way healthy for you. You can be organic and still have GMO product. You just have to educate yourself a little bit about where those lines are but always err on the side of organic rather than not, if you don't know.
Jennifer: Yeah. Those are important questions to ask whoever you're buying from. That's great. That's something that I think a lot of people don't know. Just because you're not certified doesn't mean that you're growing with a bunch of chemicals or whatever. That is really something that's important.
You were talking about keyhole gardening and what a wonderful thing that is. Can you give us a few gardening tips for those people who are just now thinking about I really need to get out there and start doing something with my garden. What are your three best gardening tips?
Connie: Let's see. Let me think about that. It doesn't have to be expensive. Just use what you have. Gather some cardboard, even if you're going to make a small 10 x 10 garden in your yard. Gather some cardboard and that means you can use boxes, you can use cereal boxes, you can use stuff that you'd typically throw away. If you drink soda, have the packages. Collect enough cardboard to put down where you want your garden to be. I would say you don't even have to get rid of the grass. Just put it down, weight it down. That cardboard will begin to kill the grass in that area. You can also use pure cotton clothing or you can use burlap bags if you want. Same thing.
Then let it sit now for a while. If you could just get your garden area determined. Once that's determined, weight it down and just wait for about four or five weeks. Then all of that is going to begin to decompose and now we can add a little bit manure or potting soil on top and you're ready to dig your garden. You shouldn't have any weeds because all of that is a barrier but it's also putting good fertilizer, preparing the earth well.
Then plant your garden. Plant what you want to plant and mulch. Mulch is really important. We always recommend using hardwoods or cedar mulches. No plastics, no rubbers, nothing like that. We don't know how those have been treated and in my mind that's a risk. We just use hardwood mulches or cedar mulches on top of that. That's it. Make sure you water and watch the plants grow and enjoy eating off of them all the time. Matter of fact, my favorite thing to do this time of year is to plant lettuces. It is the easiest thing to grow. You can do them in a pot and they are delicious.
Jennifer: Yeah, that is one of my favorite things to do too, because it's like the first harvest. It's just one of the things that I get to go out there and sort of pick my lettuce for my salad that night or whenever I'm having it. There's nothing like the first harvest. I love that too.
Where can people find out more about you? You mentioned your website. You do have a special that you want to let everybody know about.
Connie: Yes, between now and the end of February, any of our online orders, if they go online they can get free shipping through the end of the month. Place an order of $45 or more and everything comes to you shipping free. It's a great opportunity. We ship in Regional A packages so it can hold a significant amount of product. It's not a problem to fill it. You can order 10 things pretty easily and we fit them in that box. It's a good, efficient way to do it. If you haven't tried it, you don't have to pay shipping this month.
Jennifer: That's great! Okay. Thank you so much Connie for being here. It's just been a real pleasure to talk to you and I love talking to people that have this heart for organic food and for farming and doing things themselves. That's wonderful. It's been a joy to talk to you.
Connie: Thank you so much, Jennifer. It's been a joy for me, too.