Focus on Going Green
From the ground up
Award-winning business began as a simple cure for eczema
By ERIKA HOEFERFlathead Business Journal
Lynn Wallingford would like to thank George Lucas for introducing her to natural gardening.
Wondering what the man behind "Star Wars" has to do with going green? Well, that George doesn't have anything to with it.
It was a professor of the same moniker that taught Wallingford the old ways of gardening, like how to substitute moldy leaves for commercial fertilizer. The leaves take in nutrients and minerals from groundwater.
It wasn't necessarily organic gardening, but that didn't much matter because at the time no one was actively seeking out the green life.
But the ways of sowing the non-famous Lucas instilled upon Wallingford helped her create Kettle Care, the 2009 EcoStar award-winning cosmetic business she grew literally from the ground up.
Funded in part by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and organized by the Montana State University Extension, the EcoStar program was launched 10 years ago to recognize Montana businesses and organizations that exceed government requirements to reduce waste and to encourage more environmentally sustainable practices.
Kettle Care has reaped the benefits of organic gardening since its 1983 inception, sowing and harvesting medicinal herbs to create soothing all-natural lotions and therapeutic skin remedies.
In recent years, Wallingford and her staff, which has grown to include three full-time employees and three part-time assistants, have focused on "scrounging," the term Wallingford uses for reusing materials.
"That's what organic is all about -- reusing something that is locally available and making something value-added from it," she said.
Kettle Care prints its mail-order catalogs on recycled paper. It repurposes more than 2,000 pounds of used packing material donated by Third Street Market in Whitefish to ship its 300 handmade formulas nationwide.
The company had energy-efficient lighting wired into the laboratory located in Wallingford's rural Whitefish home and installed a five-gallon water distiller that eliminates the need for staff to lug dozens of plastic jugs from town, cutting down both on the use of disposable containers and gasoline. For transportation, Wallingford purchased a low-emission 40 mpg Honda Fit.
When it comes to bottling the products, Kettle Care deals with glass as much as possible.
"The packaging is very important," Wallingford said.
Hesitant to use glass for in-shower products such as shampoo and conditioner, she's researching biodegradable corn-based plastics.
The dedication to environmentally safe practices and sustainability is shared by her more than 4,000 customers nationwide.
"My market is very specific," Wallingford said.
Sales were up 8 percent last year, despite the down economy.
"That's just because we're pure," she maintained. "We've stuck to our guns."
It's not easy to garden in Whitefish, and doing it all organic doesn't help. There's the short growing season to contend with, the cold nights and gray days, the lack of sufficient rainfall and alkaline soil with pH levels high enough to block a plant's ability to take in nutrients.
But Wallingford isn't one to back down from a challenge. She once lived in Alaska, learning early on how to manipulate Mother Nature with a greenhouse. She tills Yellowstone sulfur into the soil to balance the high pH levels. She finds ways to stretch the usage of what herbs she can produce.
"Herbs aren't worth much," she said of the hassle to harvest. Due to their availability, herbs don't bring much per pound in their original form. But once you learn to release the essential oils by drying and steeping, you can extract something useful -- and, consequently, profitable.
Before she became a successful businesswoman, Wallingford studied horticulture in Seattle. After school, she married, gave birth to two boys and got by selling sprouts, eggs and garden produce at local markets in Washington's Kettle Valley.
She got into the cosmetic business when she began developing remedies to treat her eczema.
Wallingford had suffered from the chronic dry-skin condition since the age of 11. The prescription creams and medications prescribed by dermatologists burned her hands and only seemed to exacerbate the problem.
She changed her diet, took steam baths and rubbed on moisturizer several times a day but nothing cured the symptoms until she mixed together a beeswax oil salve.
"In the beginning, it was 'what do you do with this stuff?'" she said.
She spoke with a candle maker about how to work with bees wax. She researched medicinal plants. And she went on faith that the skin would absorb herbs, as there was little research to prove it at the time.
In the end, she created a product that cured the eczema she had battled for 23 years.
That discovery led to the creation of dozens of other products from lip balms to progesterone cream.
"My formulas are one of the big assets of this business."
Research now shows that essential oils are absorbed into the bloodstream within 20 minutes and the body reaps bigger rewards from herbal extracts applied to the skin since they don't have to be processed through the digestive tract as they do when swallowed.
Wallingford has been interviewed by Self magazine and Organic Gardening, which was one of the most satisfying moments in her career because she learned many of her practices from that very same publication years ago.
Now that she's been honored with the EcoStar award, she wants to focus on growing her customer base. The company already does quite a bit of wholesale work, selling to spas and hotels who put their own labels on the products. Even though she and her staff produced some 700,000 products last year, Wallingford said they are only operating at about half capacity.
Because the company is so small and because each staff member is so integral to the processes already in place, Wallingford said she has struggled with expanding.
She eventually hopes to double her customer base so that she can afford to hire a production manager and eventually phase herself out.
"I want it to keep going even when I can't," she said of her plans to someday retire.
Until then, Wallingford continues to experiment with new formulas and to improve her existing products.
Kettle Care will be part of the Glacier National Park Centennial Celebration festivities with nine products she's created, named for park landscapes such as Going-to-the-Sun care lotion, Roughriders oil jelly lotion and Flathead Cherry lip balm. A percentage of the proceeds from the collection will be donated to the Glacier National Park Fund.
"I started it as a lifestyle and it has ended up being more than I dreamed," Wallingford said.
Kettle Care products are available locally at Third Street Market in Whitefish, Sun Drop in Columbia Falls, Sun Life in Evergreen and Withey's in Kalispell as well as online at www.kettlecare.com
Business reporter Erika Hoefer can be reached at 758-4439 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org