Buying the Farm: Inside the Newest Natural Beauty Craze

Farm-to-face is the beauty movement’s Next Big Thing, but is it as local and organic as we’re made to believe? Maureen Halushak sees what she can dig up

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Farm to Face Beauty

An arnica field on Tata Harper’s organic farm

It’s nearing 2:00 p.m. on a thigh-cementingly hot July day in Vermont, and I’m sitting at a gingham-covered table surrounded by other editors, wearing a twee straw hat while sipping green juice from a Mason jar with a floral-print paper straw. A citronella fog clouds the air, courtesy of Tata Harper Aromatic Irritability Treatment, an $86 roll-on with which I recently thoroughly anointed myself to counteract the effects of rising at 3:45 a.m. and taking two flights to arrive here, in the Lake Champlain Valley, to be immersed, very literally, in all things Tata.

If you’re familiar with Tata Harper products—a cult line hoarded by beauty editors webwide—you will know that Vermont is where the 100 percent natural, non-toxic magic happens. More specifically, the town of Shoreham is where Tata’s aromatherapy and skincare range (50 products and counting) is produced, packaged and shipped in green recycled glass bottles. The 1,200-acre farm is inhabited by the gloriously complected Harper, a former industrial engineer, her gorgeous husband slash business partner, their three kids and a menagerie of well-pedigreed cows, chickens, horses, sheep and goats. If the farm-to-face movement has a ground zero, this is it.

Farm to face beauty

Tata Harper Resurfacing Mask (part of The Multi-Masking Collection, $237), thedetoxmarket.ca

Those unanointed by $86 irritability treatments might wonder: what exactly is farm-to-face? Just the latest offshoot of the booming natural beauty category. Many such lines—Tata, Jurlique out of South Australia, the cleverly named (and new to Canada) Farmacy Beauty from upstate New York, and Ontario’s very own Ste. Anne’s Skin Nourishment—are produced, at least in part, on farms, using some locally sourced ingredients and a local workforce. And despite Kylie Jenner’s all-synthetic-everything obsession, youngs aged 15 to 29 seem poised to, well, eat it up: according to a 2015 global beauty survey conducted by market research firm Euromonitor, that’s the age group most influenced by a product’s natural or organic claims, and they also report the highest interest in purchasing skincare products that purport to be environmentally friendly and/or ethical. Interestingly, though, as Nicholas Micallef, Euromonitor’s senior beauty and personal care analyst, notes, whether or not a product actually is any of these things is beside the point. “It’s all about perception,” he says.

And for my inner skeptic, that’s the hitch in the farm-to-face giddy-up: any city slicker (or beauty conglomerate) can slap the word “farm” on a product. Many drugstore skincare potions feature random slices of fruit, flowers and bumblebees on their labels, yet contain few, if any, natural ingredients. Instead, good branding can trump not-so-good ingredients, and top-drawer botanical extracts can cross oceans before being incorporated into “farm-made” skincare. Which raises the question: what exactly are we buying into?

ADVENTURES IN FARMVILLE

I never truly understood the meaning of the word “bucolic” until I spent an early morning on the grounds of Ste. Anne’s Spa in Grafton, Ont., in late June, harvesting rose petals for its Skin Nourishment skincare line, the first stop on my farm tour. Working alongside in-house gardeners Debbie Turk and Darlene O’Connor, we plucked four kilograms’ worth of petals, and then walked approximately 100 steps to a shed where they were immediately placed in a copper still to be processed.

Farm to Face Beauty

Harvesting roses at Ste. Anne’s—plucking the blooms felt wrong, but they left my hands very nicely scented (Photo: Kyle Hilton)

“It’s like picking a tomato and eating it right away, instead of buying one off the grocery shelf that’s been sitting there forever,” says Bonita Barth, the Guelph, Ont.-based herbalist and aromatherapist who helped develop the Skin Nourishment range, about the importance of processing plant ingredients as soon as possible in order to maximize the antioxidant benefits. That said, even Barth concedes that using entirely locally sourced ingredients is pretty much impossible. “Canada produces an abundance of beautiful botanicals, many of which should be used more in skincare. But it is limiting to work with 100 percent Canadian-grown plants,” she says. “We produce amazing hip and seed oils, but our temperature drops a bit too low to produce many florals.”

Farm to Face Beauty

Ste. Anne’s Skin Nourishment Firming Eye Cream, $65, steannes.com

In reality, Ste. Anne’s produces only about one percent of the ingredients used in its 28-product Skin Nourishment range—including the aforementioned antioxidant-rich rose, plus marshmallow root, wild carrot, chicory and lady’s mantle, which all appear in its new Firming Eye Cream. The chief crop on Tata Harper’s farm is actually organic hay for local cheese farmers. Calendula, arnica and lavender, among other botanicals, are grown in Shoreham, while raw honey used in the Honey Blossom Resurfacing Mask is sourced nearby. Otherwise the range’s ingredients hail from 48 countries— including white willow bark extract from Canada. “We source the highest-quality, most powerful ingredients from around the world,” says Harper, who works with the certifying body Ecocert to ensure that all are produced sustainably. And the only thing Farmacy grows on its farm is its key ingredient, a patented form of bright green echinacea that contains the highest-known concentration of an antioxidant-rich phytochemical called cichoric acid; the brand also harvests honey from bees that pollinate the echinacea plants. (“I’m getting stung all the time,” says company founder Mark Veeder, who nevertheless hopes that the bees are benefiting from his antioxidant-rich echinacea.)

WHERE (AND HOW) THE MAGIC HAPPENS

Farm to face beauty

Farmacy Beauty’s hero ingredient: a patented form of bright green echinacea

While Farmacy’s echinacea is grown in upstate New York, the actual line is produced in a state-of- the-art lab in Jersey—albeit one that’s less than two hours from the farm. Ste. Anne’s insanely fresh rose extract is sent down the highway to a manufacturing plant in Guelph, Ont., where the Skin Nourishment range is blended, bottled and then shipped back to the spa. And many of Tata Harper’s ingredients travel thousands of miles to her home base in Vermont, where all products are concocted right on-site at the very unfactory-like farm—highly unusual for a skincare range of its size. “We want our logo to mean something, to be our guarantee that the product you’re getting is the best and highest quality available,” says Harper. “The only way we can ensure this is by making it ourselves, and our customers value that.” (Indeed, Tata Harper has grown 100 percent year over year since its 2010 inception.)

By the time I’m done sleuthing, it’s clear that most farm-to-face brands lack the natural resources (by mere virtue of being made in North America) or, in some cases, the logistical ones, necessary to take a true 360-degree approach: growing all the ingredients, processing them and then manufacturing, packing and shipping the products. Instead, they’re striving to make luxe, effective skincare using as many high-grade botanicals as possible—and maybe that’s enough.

But while the ingredients in a farm-to-face line may not be entirely local, the workforce often is—and this community element is a major selling point. “We want to feature lines that are giving back in some way,” says Laura Townsend, buyer and marketing director for The Detox Market, a white- walled, wood-floored Toronto boutique stocked with plant-based skincare brands—including Tata Harper. The latter offers full-time employment to approximately 80 Vermonters, while Ste. Anne’s Skin Nourishment is made start to finish by Ontarians. And Farmacy’s chic, paper-from-well-managed-forests packaging touts the fact that Veeder and Bob Beyfuss, the farmer who tends to his echinacea, are “creating jobs and changing lives in their communities.” (Their farm employs up to 12 seasonal workers, many of whom—judging from a short promo video shot there—are insanely good-looking twentysomethings.)

Farm to Face Beauty

Farmacy Honey Potion Renewing Antioxidant Hydration Mask, $75

For all the earnestness around Farmacy, Veeder is upfront about the fact that his “farmer-cultivated, scientist-activated” line isn’t 100 percent natural. Yet, his hybrid approach clearly appealed to beauty behemoth Sephora: Veeder pitched his fledgling brand to the retailer in December 2014; the line launched with 20 products at U.S. locations a mere seven months later, then came to Canada in November 2015. “Now more than ever, natural brands are utilizing potent, high-quality ingredients mixed with science to create high-performing formulas,” says Priya Venkatesh, Sephora’s VP of merchandising, skincare and hair.

Aside from launching two new honey-based products, a mask and a skin-repair salve, Veeder is also in the process of creating a manifesto of sorts on what Farmacy is and is not—paraben- and sulphite-free, never tested on animals—that he plans to post on its website; it’s his attempt to cut through the weeds of the crowded naturals category.

AUTHENTICITY VERSUS EFFICACY

Now that I’ve gotten my hands dirty, I realize that what truly separates opportunistic farm-to-face product lines from for-real ones is that buzziest of buzzwords: authenticity. It’s evident in the video Veeder shot at his echinacea plot, showcasing his handsome workforce planting seedlings by hand. I experienced it myself as I filled white industrial buckets with dusty pink petals in the rose garden at Ste. Anne’s Spa at 7:00 a.m. alongside Turk and O’Connor, who have been working the spa’s soil for a combined 30 years. But nowhere is this authenticity more palpable than at Tata Harper’s verdant Vermont compound, where, at one point during my trip, a fellow editor turns to me—whilst idly petting the head of a heritage sheep—and says, “Forget the products. I just want this.”

Sure, I also revelled in the pastoral perfection, but as someone who is rapidly becoming a dreaded old—and who would happily slather on every synthetic on the shelf if the result was younger-looking skin—what really matters to me is whether the freaking products actually work. (Sorry, sheep!) And they do. In full disclosure, I drank the green juice, so to speak, on Tata Harper long before I landed in Vermont—but it had nothing to do with the farm-fresh, feel-good vibes and everything to do with legitimately seeing and feeling results. I’ve talked up the Oil Cleanser so much since I started using it two years ago, one might think I’m on retainer (I’m not). And I’ve never found an eye cream that actually felt like it was erasing time until I began dabbing on the Elixir Vitae Eye Serum. So imagine my delight at finding out they’re really made on a goddamn farm, using some local ingredients and supporting the surrounding community. And that’s why, more than ever, I’m sold on the farm.

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