Melinda Williamson has always been fascinated by plants — she grew up watching her mother make baby food with produce from the garden, later studied medicinal plants in college and dedicated her career as an ecologist to researching microbial communities in soil.
So, when Williamson became extremely sick with an autoimmune disease eleven years ago, it was not surprising that she turned to plants. She began making green smoothies daily and, after a student shared a bottle of it with her, drinking kombucha.
“I became really conscious about what I was putting in my body, really focusing on where my food was coming from,” says Williamson, founder of Morning Light Kombucha in Hoyt, Kansas. “I started researching my illness, and found that a lot of stuff stems from the gut. It brought me into this world of ferments.”
The health-scare-turned-health-revival changed the course of her life. Mother of a then-young child, Williamson moved back to Kansas to raise her daughter closer to family. She took a language program job on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation reservation in her hometown, then spent her hours off work fulfilling a dream of running her own business. She perfected a home-brewed kombucha and began selling it at local farmers markets, gas stations and yoga studios.
The pandemic easily could have shuttered a small brewery like Morning Light which, prior to 2020, Williamson ran on her own. But she designed a website, opened an online store, started curbside delivery and launched a canned line — and sales grew by 25%. By the end of 2021, Morning Light Kombucha will start shipping nationally and, by the end of next year, they plan to break ground on a 4,000-square-foot facility on the reservation.
“What I really want to do is get my product into more native communities, so they can find healing just like I found healing,” says Williamson, head of the only Native American kombucha brand. “That’s more important to me than seeing my product on the shelf of Wal-Mart or Target. I’m not in it to be rich. I still plan on living in my little house here on the reservation close to my family. I just want to do something that has meaning and an impact.”
Below is an edited Q&A between Williamson and The Fermentation Association.
TFA: Where do you get your ingredients? You forage some of the ingredients yourself on the reservation.
MW: We go out and harvest wild blackberries, wild raspberries, chokecherries and pawpaws mostly on the reservation. There’s edible plants everywhere, it’s surprising the places you can find them. We just went to Overland Park, which is the city near us, to forage for pawpaws.
Some of the ingredients like gooseberries, those we find in small quantities. If we go out and we only get four cups of berries, we may not make any kombucha with it. But sometimes I’ll make a little five gallon batch.
Most of our ingredients, we partner with local farms in Northeast Kansas. It comes down to the importance of knowing where our food comes from. My goal was to always work with local farmers and source ingredients locally, I knew I wanted that as part of my business foundational value.
As much as possible, we keep sustainability at the forefront of everything that we do, being really conscious about our footprint. It’s really nice because, being in Northeast Kansas, people aren’t thinking about stuff like that. They’re more and more thinking about where their food comes from, but it’s been really nice to have those conversations with the community and get people really thinking about supporting the local farming economy, supporting local business.
A big part of it really comes down to what we’re showing our kids. Before my daughter was born, I had her when I was 23, I was eating a lot of fast food. I was like “I’m free! I’ve got a job! I can buy and eat whatever I want!” I was eating so much junk food. And then I got pregnant and wanted to feed her properly. I grew my own garden and started making my own baby food, just like my mom modeled for me. Food is so important, it’s a constant conversation in my life and in my business.
TFA: Do you make seasonal flavors then?
MW: We launched our canned kombucha line in February. Prior to that, we were doing about 100 flavors a year, so now that we’ve launched our canned kombucha line, we’ve had to whittle that down because we have to have four flavors constantly. Our rotations have diminished a little, but we’re still putting out about 60 flavors a year.
Our berry flavors are our most popular — blackberry lemongrass and strawberry. Seasonally, our smaller batches that people love are mulberry, that is a top seller. People also love the ginger and chokecherry flavors.
TFA: How do you sell your small batches? Are you selling them retail or filling kegs on site?
MW: We sell direct-to-consumer, like at the farmers markets and events. We don’t have a brewery that’s open to the public. We do curbside pickup, that was something that was developed in response to the pandemic. We could no longer sell directly to the consumer, so we just started doing doorstep delivery, then the curbside pickup. Basically, people just have their empty bottles in their trunk and call us and we come out and grab their bottles, and swap them for new, filled bottles. It’s contactless, but we still got to see our customer and wave. We’ll probably continue to do that, we’re still in this pandemic, and the most important thing is to keep our community safe and our elders up here safe. We will continue taking all precautions to protect people around us until we hit a safe spot.
TFA: A portion of your sales goes back to the native communities. Tell me about that.
MW: We donate where we feel like the money would be used best, things that we’re passionate about and things where we see we can make a difference. For example, we just recently donated to one of the residential school survivor nonprofits. We’ve taken clothes to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe where they were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, we’ve donated to our Boys and Girls Club here on the reservation, we’ve donated to our youth soccer teams, we’ve donated to First Nations programs in Canada.
TFA: Morning Light Kombucha is a trademark American Indian Food product. What does that mean?
MW: So that trademark American Indian Food falls under the Inter-Tribal Agricultural Council, which is a subset under the USDA. The program really highlights American Indian food producers. You apply and then the program supports you in different ways. We’re able to network with other American Indian food producers, brainstorm together and talk about what we’re experiencing and try to make movements when it comes to distribution. The program is really big with international exporting, so all the American Indian food producers have the opportunity to attend large trade shows internationally, they’ll fly us there, ship our products and give us the opportunity to have a booth and get our product in front of people who are interested in American Indian food products. I’m not ready for something that big, I am so small, but I’ve gone to a domestic show through the program. I went to a food show in Chicago and got in front of a lot of people who are interested in my kombucha. We have really big plans in 2022 to expand our facilities, and hopefully expand domestically.
TFA: What are Morning Light Kombucha’s plans for 2022?
MW: I just bought 10 acres here on our reservation. My plan is to break ground and build a production facility. It will be three times the size of what we’re in now, which will be really, really nice. There’s a pond on the side, we’ve got a creek, timber, a lot of foraging areas. The plan is to build an off-the-grid brewery, too, so it will help us provide more jobs in our community and it will allow us to do some of the things that we haven’t been able to do.
I mentioned sustainability is a big part of what we do. We compost 100% of our brewery waste, but I have to truck it to my house to my compost pile because, where we’re at now, we just can’t compost large quantities at our site. The waste water from our water filtration system, it’s totally usable water, but we don’t have any place to store it currently. Our waste water is not like gray water, it’s clean water that’s just wasted during the filtration process, it’s usable. For every one gallon that’s filtered, there’s three gallons that’s wasted. It’s so insane, it killed me when I found that out. Once we are in our new facility we can begin to recycle it on property. We have this dry pond. Our plan is to see if we can get it lined, divert the waste water in there and start filling the pond.
TFA: Scaling will be big for you in 2022.
MW: I know, I just hired three employees recently because it’s just been me for the past few years. I work part-time for our language department, and my kombucha business has been my side hustle. In the past year, I’ve realized the potential. People really like my brand and they’re noticing it and requesting it. So I thought “Maybe I could grow this brand into something bigger.”
TFA: I am beyond impressed — you have been building a kombucha brand by yourself?!
MW: Family is always there for me. My boyfriend is at the market, my nephews help with anything I need, it’s a family affair even though I never really had anybody on my payroll until recently. Now I’m getting to a point where I need help all the time. I hired my sister as my brewery manager, she keeps a tight ship. It’s allowed for me to really work on expansion while she’s running operations at the brewery.
TFA: Yours is still the only Native American-owned kombucha brand.
MW: With my business, I like to think that I’m also giving a voice to native issues. I would never want to be an authority on native issues, but there’s a lot of things going on in Indian country that people don’t see in the mainstream media and mainstream social media. If I can build a brand that can also bring awareness to these things, that’s really important to me.
TFA: You have a background in academia. What got you interested in ecology before switching to kombucha?
MW: I’ve always loved science, I’ve always loved the outdoors, I’ve always been super eco-friendly, I’ve always been conscious about our impact on the earth. I love animals, I love nature. I was taking some of my general ed classes at Haskell (Indian Nations University) and took an ethnobiology class. I just fell in love. I ended up transferring to Kansas State and got my degree in environmental biology (then a masters degree in rangeland ecology and management from Oklahoma State University.) I went with my boss from K State to Oklahoma State and ran the grassland ecology lab for years.
TFA: Where do you see the future of fermentation?
MW: There’s an explosion. I see it continuing to grow and expand and people are coming out with really innovative ways to bring fermentation to the table. Like Wild Alive Ferments out of Lawrence, Kansas. We’re a part of a local CSA with them. The owners just came out with an apple kraut flavor, an autumn harvest with spices that is so amazing.
In the U.S. especially, we have a lot of people who are sick with illnesses or cancers and autoimmune issues and I think we’re starting to see more people look at what they’re putting in their bodies. They’re realizing the importance of gut health, the importance of ferments, and that it affects so much more than just your gut. It’s a movement — and I’m really excited about it.