Anne-Marie Bilella went from working as a nail tech to making a living baking breads and selling medicinal herbs.
Twenty-nine years ago, New York-native Anne-Marie Bilella had no idea she would wind up running a successful homestead, herb farm, tincture company and teaching business in rural Monroe, GA.
In 1990, she and her husband moved to Georgia and bought some acreage with the intention of keeping a few horses and growing a small garden.
Anne-Marie had been working as a nail technician when she became pregnant with her son. After he was born in 1997, she quickly realized her career did not align with her parenting ideals.
“I kept working to supplement our income...but the babysitter was raising my child for the first 1 ½ -2 years, and this wasn’t what I wanted,” says Anne-Marie.
So, she decided to quit and pick up odd jobs to help make ends meet.
That’s when she met the woman who introduced her to homesteading (and changed her life path)
“I was working as an instructor teaching horseback riding lessons, and that’s where I met Cyndi Ball of Lazy B Farm,” Anne-Marie recalls.
“I started teaching her kids to ride, and I would go to her house. She was a homesteader, and we’d barter services and cash for eggs and honey. I loved this lifestyle she had, and I wanted to learn all about it.”
Little by little Anne-Marie learned from Cyndi and began homesteading as a hobby on her own property.
Still unaware that her newfound hobby would lead to her dream career, she started a horse tack consignment shop in 2006...right before the economy tanked.
“I had to close the shop in 2010, but if you don’t take chances, you never know if you can do it. I’m an entrepreneur by nature and decided to move on and do something else.”
That’s when her friend and mentor, Cyndi, decided to start up a women’s homesteading group.
This close-knit women’s community is what inspired Anne-Marie to transform her homesteading hobbies into a multi-faceted career
“Once that group got started, a new path became very clear. Everyone shared things about homesteading, cooking, raising chickens, raising cows, making soaps and all our minds were blown!”
With newfound inspiration under her belt, Anne-Marie became a proficient bread baker and was asked to teach a bread making class at a homesteading retreat.
“When Cyndi asked me to teach the class, I didn’t think I could do it.” she recalls, “But I actually loved it! And during that weekend I met an herbalist who taught us how to make our own herbal remedies—my mind was blown again!
“I bought Rosemary Gladstar’s book, Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide, made every herbal concoction in there, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I knew then this was what I wanted to do.”
Anne-Marie also experienced a personal health transformation from taking herbs...
In her own words, “I was not interested in herbalism before taking that class, but I had been plagued by migraines for years. I had gone to the doctor and they gave me some horrible medicine, and I thought there has to be something better.
“So, I started exploring options and came upon feverfew, which cured my migraines so long as I took it daily. I thought: wow, this is something. Then I was able to wean myself off it and didn’t need it anymore.”
From there, Anne-Marie soaked up as much herbal as she could by taking additional courses in herbology and wild-crafting. She also began using her ever-expanding acreage to grow her own herbs and began selling homemade breads and herbal salves at the local farmer’s market under the Bella Vista Farm name.
Within this same timeframe, Anne-Marie attended a 10-month intensive herbal training and started up her own official herbal product company, selling direct to stores and wholesalers.
To further diversify, she launched an herbal CSA program, which is unique to the area
What gave her this idea?
“I saw people doing the vegetable CSA model, and I thought: huh, this is a good way to help businesses cover operating expenses by collecting funds at the beginning of the year,” she says. “So I thought: why not try this out with herbs?”
She started with just 5 people on a quarterly basis, got their feedback, then increased to 10. She used Facebook ads to promote the CSA and had members write testimonials.
Despite her rural location, the CSA has been a hit and her new goal is to expand to 25 members.
“We have a lot of young families moving here from Athens (home to the University of Georgia) who are very health-conscious—which is fortunate because there’s not the same interest in this sort of thing just one county over. It’s amazing how people in this community support their local businesses.”
Here’s how her herbal CSA program works
CSA members pay $265 in advance for a quarterly bag of Bella Vista Farm herbal remedies. Each bag contains 5-7 products exclusive to the CSA members.
“They’re seasonal products,” says Anne-Marie, “so for winter I included homemade elderberry syrup and products to support the body’s immune system during cold and flu season. In the spring, I shift the focus to allergies and liver-support products, etc.”
While she’d prefer to source all her herbs from her own homestead, that would be impossible for a small product company. So she fills in from other local sources and Mountain Rose Herbs.
Despite the success of her new companies and CSA, Anne-Marie knew she wanted to do more with her herbal knowledge—she wanted to empower others in her community to heal themselves.
Her desire to help others achieve greater self-reliance through herbalism led her to the next step: teaching “backyard medicine”
“After I started up the product company, everything snowballed. I realized I needed to teach people how to do this for themselves.”
Anne-Marie’s classes focus on the area’s local weeds and herbs, teaching students the entire process of herbal medicine-making—from herbal identification, to their medicinal properties, to growing techniques and finally, making your own tinctures, salves, etc.
“I can sell a product all day long, but to teach somebody to make that product, to see their face light up when they can actually identify a weed and make a remedy, really gets me excited,” Anne-Marie says.
This may seem like a counterproductive practice given her herbal product business, but she sees teaching as the most fulfilling part of her business.
“I love empowering others to do this themselves. … The truth is I’ve never felt a negative impact on my product business due to teaching and feel everyone has the right to learn this skill. Plus, teaching is my favorite thing to do.”
Anne-Marie recently expanded her expertise to encompass medicinal mushrooms, by obtaining her wild safety certification from Tradd Cotter at Mushroom Mountain.
How Bella-Vista Farm has impacted the health of its community
Anne-Marie’s products and classes have had a great influence on the health of her community.
Recently, a friend and student wrote this letter of appreciation for what the classes have done for her own health:
“After meeting Anne-Marie at the farmers’ market, she became a true friend and mentor. I went to her first backyard medicine class and was hooked! Her knowledge and enthusiasm are contagious, and she teaches everyone to improve their health with what we find in the wild. All my thanks to Anne-Marie for helping me become healthier and more self-sufficient.”
She’ll be the first to tell you how critical her ladies’ homesteading group has been to the health and expansion of her own business.
“I never would have done this if it wasn’t for the whole homesteading group. We are a community of like-minded women and that’s part of our mission statement.
“Cyndi Ball has been a dear friend of mine and without her encouragement to start doing all this, I probably would not have done any of it, so the whole group is definitely supportive in classes and when we want to learn something new we do it together.”
This story serves as a powerful example of how country living, community, herbs, mentorship and self-reliance can create empowered health.
To learn more about Anne-Marie and Bella Vista Farm, visit them online at: www.bellavistanaturals.com
And for more information on local women’s homesteading groups, check out: https://ladieshomesteadgathering.org/.
All photos courtesy of Bella Vista Farm.