The herbal movement lost a pioneer on Thanksgiving day, 2002 ï¿½ Marlin Huffman. I lost a colleague, trusted advisor and true friend on that day. We met at the Second International Herb Symposium held in Indianapolis in 1987, beginning an association that lasted until his untimely passing. We spoke on the phone at least monthly, if not weekly, for all the time that I knew him. He was a close friend and a confidant. I learned more about the herb business, agriculture, and right-living from him than anyone else. His untimely passing gives us pause to reflect on this unusual and remarkable man.
Marlin died at home, without warning, November 28, 2002. Marlin was 64 years old. He was born in Dayton, Ohio on January 18, 1938, and was raised in a religiously conservative German community. Marlin always had a love for the land. His career involved the pursuit of unusual agricultural crops. The world was his garden.
Those of us in the herb trade knew Marlin as the President and CEO of Plantation Botanicals, located in Felda, Florida, where he made his home with his wife and business colleague, Eva, since 1971. Upon meeting Marlin, some might have been left with the impression that he was a simple farmer, easy to fool. But anyone who engaged in business dealings with him, soon learned that behind his down-to-earth demeanor, was a savvy, creative, and determined entrepreneur whose will was to be reckoned with. There was nothing simple about him, except his lifestyle. Marlin was an exceptionally complex man whose mind never stopped. He could have lived in a mansion if he chose, but instead preferred the comfort of his double-wide "trailer,"in the heat and humidity of south Florida. Here, he was surrounded by all he needed ï¿½ his over-sized Lazyboy recliner, encircled by stacks of reading material. No matter what else was going on in the house, such as grandkids running through the living room, with reading glasses perched near the end of his nose, a publication, whether popular or technical, lay open in his lap. He was a voracious reader and amassed a sizable library of information on botanical subjects and other areas of natural history.
Planning for eventual retirement, about five years ago he built a personal retreat in his backyard to house his office, library, laboratory, and hobbies. He went there to think, plan, and write, or just to be alone. To the casual visitor invited into this private realm, the collection of large spiders, scorpions, and reptiles kept one's senses sharp. Things that might raise the eyebrows of most people, like a six-foot long alligator in the pond in his front yard, didn't phase him. One time on a visit to his home with my then 10-year-old son, Marlin got his 15-foot-plus python out of its pen, to stretch it out so my son could be photographed with it. The python was not happy. Marlin deftly held its head (and mouth clamped shut) to accommodate my son's curiosity and the snake's cantankerous mood. Once on a trip with him to Guatemala, he hit a pothole which resulted in not one, but two flat tires. No problem, he said. He flagged down a passing truck. I was a bit intimidated by the young men with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. Marlin didn't miss a beat. He enrolled them into helping us.
At one time or another, Marlin had been just about everywhere in the world, and had done just about everything he wanted to do. Although an expert in field production of botanicals, Marlin was intensely curious about the world in which he lived, and he followed his multifaceted interests to their deepest potential.
Marlin held a Master's degree in horticulture from Purdue University. His early years with his family were tough. With five kids to feed, he even did a stint as a migrant farm worker, picking fruit to put bread on the table. Before children arrived, Marlin and Eva traversed the Amazon by canoe, collecting plant material for a pharmaceutical company. He started Plantation Botanicals, Inc., in 1956 working obscure horticultural and agronomic contracts until he began producing catnip at his original Ohio location in the early '70s. His initial success with the catnip crop intensified his desire to develop and operate plantations of botanicals for phytomedicinal, herbal, horticultural, and floral markets worldwide.
"Our name embodies our philosophy,"he once told me. "The only commodities that we produce are those that we believe we can do better than anyone else. We are farmers first,"he would often say.
Marlin thrived on challenges and used adversity as a springboard to future success. He told a story of his first saw palmetto berry-drying operation in Florida in the early '70s, a venture that nearly bankrupted him. As I recall the story, the bank refused to finance his speculative venture. Marlin talked his wife and partner, Eva, into investing their savings into his plan. He rigged a greenhouse to dry saw palmetto berries and had several tons of berries in the drier. The gas truck arrived to deliver propane to fuel the forced-heat squirrel-cage fan driers. As the truck was filling the tank, the driver became distracted. From a short distance, Marlin saw a surreal event unfolding. The driver let the gas overflow out of the tank he was filling. The fuel flowed over the tank's edges, like a wave washing over a beach. Marlin knew what was next. He ran in the opposite direction as fast as he could, and dove into a ditch, as his entire operation exploded into a fireball of flames. He had lost everything. But Marlin picked himself up by his bootstraps and started over again, eventually becoming the world's largest supplier of saw palmetto berries.
The greater the challenge, the more determined Marlin was to create a solution. He established the first large-scale passionflower cultivation operation, after collecting plant material from throughout the plant's natural range, growing it out, then selecting the right specimens to propagate that held the chemical and agronomic characteristics he sought. Under the direction of his only son, Michael, Plantation Botanicals established the largest dried miniature rose operation in the world at their facilities in Guatemala. Marlin, through tenacity, perseverance and innovation, was one of the first growers to successfully produce Echinacea angustifolia on a commercial scale. His commercial goal and passion was to bring wild plants into cultivated plantations, hence the name of his company. No one in the botanical trade has been more successful at this than Marlin Huffman.
No person was of too humble or too lofty a background for Marlin to engage with them on a deeply sincere level. He always had an opinion, yet never judged another for an opposing view. He knew his product. He knew its quality. He knew what it took to produce it. And he knew its value. He knew when to draw and when to fold. Marlin always held to his ethics and values, even if it meant lost business.
Marlin had many loyal friends, yet made a remarkable effort to win over those who considered themselves competitors or perhaps even his enemy. When a potential new customer would rather not pay his price or negotiate on favorable terms, Marlin would not only hold his ground, but would give the customer the names, phone numbers, and addresses of his competitors! When the American Herbal Products Association held its Saw Palmetto Symposium in Naples, Florida in August of 1998, Plantation Botanicals held a barbeque at the Huffman's home in Felda. Many might view such an event as an opportunity to outshine your competitors in what can accurately be described as a cut-throat business environment. Instead, Marlin made sure that all of his competitors were invited to the event.
He is survived by his wife and business partner of many years, Eva, along with son, Michael (who continues to run the business); four daughters, Valerie Douglas, Cynthia Thurman, Diana Williams and Caroline Callaway; seventeen grandchildren, and four brothers. Marlin was buried on December 1, 2002, in a garden he developed on his property as his final resting place for himself and his wife.
Marlin, you will be missed.
—Steven Foster Steven Foster Group, Inc. Fayetteville, Arkansas