Organic Journey: Wisconsin Herb Farm Connects People & Nature
NORTH FREEDOM, Wis. — As a young girl growing up in the 1960s, Jane Hawley Stevens looked forward to picking wild blueberries each fall with her grandmother in northern Wisconsin. Little did she imagine these outings planted seeds that would influence the rest of her life.
At age 18, considering what to study in college, Stevens — with a wisdom beyond her years — turned inward when seeking a direction for her future.
“I thought about what made me happy,” she explained. “My favorite memories were of picking blueberries up north in the wild. Instinctively, I knew I had to do something that involved nature.
“I love being outside; it’s so inspiring,” she continued. “As a child, I visited my uncle’s farm near Shawano and experienced such joy and expansion in my heart every visit.”
Settling on horticulture, Stevens earned her degree in 1981 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Today, she is a nationally recognized expert on herbs and operates a 130-acre certified organic farm in the Baraboo Bluffs of Wisconsin. This pristine and ecologically significant area is ideal for Four Elements Organic Herbals, as it is surrounded by over 9,000 acres of land preserved for rare species of birds, plants and animals.
Even while she had dreams of working on the family farm as a kid, Stevens never expected to own and run an herb farm, let alone one that earned the title of Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) 2020 Organic Farmer of the Year. This prestigious award has been in existence for more than 15 years and has recognized some of the biggest and best known organic farmers in the country. 2020 was the first year an herb farm was awarded the honor.
Stevens’ induction into the herb industry immediately followed college, when she was recruited to work at a research facility to plan and develop a formal herb garden for visiting scientists. She’s been hooked ever since.
“I believe that in order to change the world, you need educate the world,” said Stevens. “My real job is to get people to pay attention to our earth and to the fact that it sustains us.
“A big part of what I work on is connecting people to nature,” she added. “Our culture is disassociated from nature and nature is so powerful, a source of wellness. Even weeds like dandelion can help clean and heal your body.”
After a short stint in Texas, where she met her husband, David, while working at the Dallas Arboretum, Stevens returned to Wisconsin. They’ve been together and living on the property that became Four Elements Organic Herbals ever since.
David, curator of the Longnecker Horticultural Gardens at the UW-Madison Arboretum, has been an ally, supporter, champion and helper on Four Elements farm since it began in 1987 when Stevens built a greenhouse during her pregnancy. Her goal at that time was to find a way to stay at home with her children while running a business to help support the family.
As their son, Forrest, grew and he experienced typical childhood ailments, Stevens’ curiosity about plants for healing piqued. She began concocting herbal remedies from her homegrown plants, starting with a treatment for a stubborn earache Forrest couldn’t shake.
“It’s really remarkable when you think about these simple remedies from nature,” said Stevens.” After several doctors’ appointments and prescriptions, two drops of a basic weed soaked in oil and no more earache. I couldn’t believe it!”
Since that day, she hasn’t looked back. She became organic certified in the late 1980s and now manages a business that employs a team of local women who do everything from fieldwork to marketing, office management, sales and making tinctures.
North Freedom is a tiny town with a waning economic infrastructure, so having an agriculture-based business there that provides employment and economic stimulus is important to Stevens.
“Other than the school, we’re the largest employer in North Freedom,” explained Stevens. “It’s an honor to bring together a community of rural women who appreciate their jobs and to provide meaningful work people can be proud of.”
SEEDS OF CHANGE
Today, Four Elements Organic Herbals sells not only herbs, but also dozens of other products ranging from lip balm and facial toner to teas, outdoor body spray and medicinals. Sales are managed online as well as through many shops across the country and their own apothecary in North Freedom.
From rotating cover crops to managing the bottom line, over the years, Stevens learned every aspect of her business from the ground up, including the financial part of the operation. Operating loans, key ratios and risk management have all become a part of the daily routine. One thing Stevens has learned is to surround herself with specialty advisers. When it comes to the numbers, Paul Dietmann, senior lending specialst at Compeer Financial, is her go-to.
“Paul and I have known each other for years,” said Stevens. “We’ve both attended the organic farming conference every year since 1994. And we served together on the board of the Organic Processing Institute.”
It just seemed natural to contact Dietmann when Stevens needed some operating funds for a value-added herbal teas project that turned out to be very expensive to manage. Compeer is also financing a walk-behind herb harvesting machine Stevens recently ordered from New Zealand. She calls it a “very crucial piece of equipment” for the operation.
Dietmann has been nothing but impressed with Stevens and her operation. “It’s a great business,” he said.
“It’s fantastic to have someone of her caliber doing business with us. Her knowledge is nothing short of amazing. She’s a nationally recognized expert in the use of herbs. And she’s very generous about sharing her expertise with her community and the industry.
“A big part of what she does is education — workshops, field days all over the country on the use of herbs.”
Closer to home, Stevens also sees Four Elements Organic Herbals as a natural platform for teaching and engaging people, particularly young people, with nature.
As the local Community Partners agricultural liaison for elementary school children, she was the driving force behind establishing prairie at the local school. She also regularly visits the classes to teach the students about nature, growing plants and the study of herbs.
CULTIVATING FOR THE FUTURE
Since her start in the field some 40 years ago, Stevens has seen a lot of change. There is a renewed interest in herbs, natural products and connecting with nature, and Stevens couldn’t be more hopeful.
“People are looking for natural products,” Stevens pointed out. “They’re seeking growers and companies who have made a commitment to nature and who strive to give back to nature. It’s a great time to be in this business. I can visualize the ultimate outcome: healing ourselves and the earth.”
For more information about Four Elements Organic Herbals’ operation, products and workshops, check out their website fourelementsherbals.