In-person on-farm learning opportunities have been few and far between this summer due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
But even in the midst of a pandemic, farmers are interested in seeing what other farmers are doing, and maybe picking up some tips along the way.
So instead of an Aug. 1 field day that had been planned since they were named 2020 Organic Farmers of the Year by the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service, Jane Hawley Stevens and her husband, David Stevens, moved things online for a virtual MOSES Organic Field Day in place of the in-person event.
Jane and David have been growing organic herbs and selling wellness products from their certified organic farm, Four Elements Organic Herbals, for more than 30 years.
They grow more than 200 varieties of herbs to make wellness products like teas, creams, tinctures, lip balms and sprays. They also harvest wild plants, including dandelion, chickweed, white pine and burdock for medicinal purposes.
“I am just passionate about herbs,” Jane said. “As they say in the herb business, ‘to grow them is to know them.’ If I identify a health concern of mine, I’ll look up a plant. If I don’t have it, I’ll order the seeds and take it through the growing season and make something out of it at the end of the season. That’s how I get to know my plants.
“I love to have that intimate relationship with my plants.”
Jane started her career by growing and selling potted herbs. She first started experimenting with herbal remedies when she treated her son’s recurring ear infections using a tincture of mullein flowers and olive oil as an alternative to prescription drugs.
“It’s been amazing my whole career and horticulture life to see how plants are here to support us, from simple recipes to things that are more complex,” Jane said. “It’s amazing when I step into the garden to create something to help us maintain our wellness how effective it is.”
Jane said she makes it clear to customers she doesn’t claim to diagnose, treat or cure disease with the herbs, but “I just love to teach about them,” she said.
“The herbs are steeped in folklore and tradition,” she said. “With so much available science, it’s amazing that we can rely on all these sources of information to find out how these plants can be used.”
Both Jane and David have degrees in horticulture. The couple met in Texas and moved to Wisconsin when David decided to pursue a master’s degree at UW-Madison.
“It was really growing plants that brought us together,” said David, who works full-time off the farm at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.
When Jane found the 130-acre farm farm that would become Four Elements Organic Herbals, the property hadn’t been farmed in about 20 years, giving them a bit of a blank slate as young farmers just getting started, David said. There were farm buildings that needed repair and they built a commercial kitchen and, over time, they added a pole shed and greenhouse that David found, moved and reassembled piece by piece on the farm, he said.
“At the beginning, we had a lot more energy than money, as a lot of folks do,” he said.
The 130-acre farm, which was certified organic in 1990, is just outside of North Freedom, about an hour northwest of Madison in the Baraboo Bluffs. About half of the farm is in fields and about half is woods, David said.
The Baraboo Bluffs contain the largest surface deposit of quartzite granite in the Midwest, making for some “unique farming obstacles,” David said.
To work around boulders, many of the fields on the farm are divided into smaller growing areas.
“It gave us a more ornate design, but it’s really out of function and not form,” David said.
The couple started small with Four Elements Organic Herbals. The first teas they sold had hand-written labels and calligraphy on the labels done by David.
“What we discovered many years ago is we loved growing plants, but it was tough to make a living just selling the raw herb,” David said. “We discovered that value-added, making products with the herbs we grew, was a lot more sustainable. We had products we could sell 12 months out of the year instead of just during the growing season.”
The couple works hard to keep the farm sustainable. They use solar panels to help power the shed used to dry herbs, and Jane said they grow almost all of their food and preserve about 600 cans of food items each year.
They also raise pastured poultry and beef cattle and make maple syrup.
“We like to live with the land, not on the land,” Jane said. “To be a sustainable farm, you have to wear lots of hats.”
They are on a three-year rotation with their annual crops and they usually get about three years out of perennials before weed pressure forces a move. They use cover crops to improve soil health between rotations.
“What I do not like to do is leave any open areas for long,” David said.
For more than 20 years, the couple has worked with the community to bring in leaves that have been raked from area yards that they then use as mulch on many fields of annuals and perennial crops.
“It’s a great way to work with our community and feed our soil at no extra cost to us,” David said.
This year, David is evaluating several vegetables for the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative, a program run by Julie Dawson of the UW-Madison Department of Horticulture that connects organic plant breeders to Wisconsin farmers and chefs.
“It’s a pretty cool concept,” David said. “It’s an opportunity to focus on vegetable variety characteristics important to local food systems such as flavor, fresh-market quality and agronomic performance on smaller-scale farms.”
The couple is planning an on-farm MOSES field day for next year.
Four Elements Organic Herbals products are in their apothecary in North Freedom, about eight miles north of the farm, and through the farm’s website, www.fourelementsherbals.com.
To watch a recording of the MOSES field day, visit mosesorganic.org/events/organic-field-days/medicinal-herb-production-august-1.