MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year

This award recognizes organic farmers who practice outstanding land stewardship, innovation, and outreach. The MOSES Board of Directors selects the farmer/farm family to honor from your submitted nominations. They present the award at the annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference.

Nominate a Farmer

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Congratulations to the 2020 Organic Farmers of the Year:
Jane Hawley Stevens and David Stevens
Four Elements Organic Herbals, North Freedom, Wis.
See their story below.

 

Past Winners

 

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2020 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year

Four Elements Organic Herbals
Jane Hawley Stevens & David Stevens

By Bailey Webster

“The reason I’m alive (my mission statement) is to really connect people to nature for their health and the health of the planet,” said Jane Hawley Stevens. “The more people use plants for healing, the more they will trust nature and develop a relationship [with it]. It will make people become better stewards of the Earth.”

Jane and her husband, David Stevens, are the MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year. It’s immediately apparent that they are deeply passionate about the work they do. Jane and David own Four Elements Organic Herbals, a 130-acre farm in North Freedom, Wisconsin, about an hour northwest of Madison. They have been growing organic herbs and marketing herbal products for the past 32 years. They’re committed to good stewardship of their land, quality of life for their employees, and improved health for their customers.

Jane is originally from Oconto on the shore of Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. She has a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. David was born on Long Island and raised in northern Virginia, where he enjoyed working on vegetable farms in his youth. He has a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Virginia Tech.

When Jane graduated from college in 1981, she was asked to install an herb garden as her first job out of school. She found that she really enjoyed growing herbs, and that became her specialty.

The couple met in Texas when they were both working for the Dallas Arboretum. They each loved cultivating plants and quickly discovered that they shared a vision of having a family farm.

Living in Dallas, Jane missed the four seasons, so she decided to move back to Wisconsin. About six months later David followed her when he was accepted into graduate school at UW-Madison. Before they married, Jane purchased the farm that would become Four Elements Organic Farm. They had their first child in 1987, and Jane left her off-farm job to be home with her son, Forrest. She continued to grow and sell herbs from their farm.

As a baby, Forrest would often have earaches, particularly when he was teething. Jane was looking for an alternative to the medication she was getting from the doctor, so she turned to herbs for a solution. In spite of specializing in herb cultivation, Jane had never tried an herbal remedy before. With a healthy dose of skepticism, she looked up a remedy for earaches. The herb book she used said to add some mullein flowers to olive oil, heat the oil to body temperature, and put a couple of drops in the ear canal. To her amazement, his earache healed with no further treatment. Jane was hooked!

“I was so impressed that it’s become my passion and my path to learn more and more about plants and healing,” she explained. “For common ailments, you can’t beat herbs for self-care. Using herbs causes you to engage with your own health, to pay attention to your body and how you are feeling and realize you are part of the healing process.” She’s careful not to disparage traditional healthcare—for serious illnesses, she still turns to Western medicine.

Jane continued to experiment with herbal remedies for her family. She found that they were “cheap, easy, beautiful, and effective, with no side effects.” Her interest in how herbs promote healing grew.

At around the same time, the organic movement was picking up steam. She had been indoctrinated into the chemical fertilizer approach through her horticulture studies and didn’t know another way. Still, she was intrigued by the organic approach to soil health. She saw a connection between the health of her soil and the efficacy of her remedies. After about a year of contemplation, she decided to go for organic certification in 1989 and has been certified organic since then.

Jane and David had been growing and selling potted herbs, but without the chemical fertilizer they were accustomed to using, the herbs languished. Organic certification was very new at that time, and there really weren’t any organic fertility options for potted plants. Jane had signed up to sell plants at several different markets, and all of her plants were dying. She quickly realized she needed to pivot if she was going to have anything to sell.

Four Elements Organic Herbals produces a variety of wellness products, including salves, tea, soaps, and lip balm. Photo submitted

Pivot she did! Using the herbs in her fields (which did not have the same fertility problems), Jane began making herbal remedies to sell at the markets—the same remedies she found so effective in caring for her own family. The rest, as they say, is history.

Jane has been on the farm full-time since then, managing the entire business, Four Elements Organic Herbals. The company’s products are now in hundreds of stores in over 40 states. Products include teas, salves, tinctures, creams, lip balms, sprays, and, of course, Mullein Flower Ear Oil.

Jane is quick to point out that the farm wouldn’t be what it is without David and her dedicated staff. David works full-time at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum as the curator of their living collection of 4,000 woody plants. During the summer, he also puts in full-time hours at the farm.

“David is the soil builder,” Jane said. “He’s created excellent fields and has reduced the weed seed bank through good organic practices. I feel like an artist walking out into a clean palate to do my beautiful artistry.”

David is the unsung hero of the farm. Along with handling the production field’s fertility and cultivation programs and acting as head mechanic, he also oversees the 130-acre farm as a whole. Over the years, he has reforested an abandoned 20-acre field and established a prairie restoration organically. In his spare time, he grows and preserves a large portion of the family’s food, makes maple syrup and raises pastured poultry.

The six employees who work for Four Elements are indispensable, Jane said. Most work four days a week and several are mothers of young children. Having started a business when she had young children, Jane has always offered flexible scheduling for her employees so they can prioritize their families’ needs. Having spent some time in Europe, she appreciates the culture that puts family first and work second. It’s a principle she believes in and has built her business around.

The staff at Four Elements Herbals is key to the business’s success, say owners Jane Hawley Stevens and David Stevens (center). Photo by Marlys Closser Greenhalgh

Jane praised her staff as being “on the ball and dynamic,” really owning their piece of the operation. This has freed up Jane in recent years to do more teaching and writing. “It is my job to connect people to nature as their source of wellness,” she added.

In terms of her own work-life balance, Jane acknowledged that “the boundaries are fuzzy if you have your business where you live.” She and David often work through the weekends, and Jane frequently travels to teach and sell their products. They try to make time to get off the farm about once a month, to connect without all of the work around them. Last fall they took a trip down to Decorah, Iowa to visit Seed Savers Exchange.

The farm has about three acres of herbs in production. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many unique varieties of herbs they grow, but Jane estimates the number is over 200. Jane’s first love is cultivating plants, particularly in the greenhouse.

They also use a lot of herbs that are wild-harvested on the farm, and that provides a special connection to the land. The wild plants include jewel weed, chickweed, dandelion, prickly ash, and many others. “It makes you feel so ‘in the right place’ when you can be harvesting wild plants for medicine.”

Four Elements Organic Herbals’ business model is unique in that it’s vertically integrated. The supplies they can’t produce on the farm, they purchase directly from the source. Most herbal companies buy on the world market, which is very unstable because of tariffs and customs, Jane explained. There are also a lot of testing requirements. Four Elements’ herbs are “super effective and potent because we can manage everything from field to function,” she said.

Herbs flourish under heavy mulch at Four Elements Organic Herbals Farm near Madison, Wisconsin. Photo submitted

Jane and David are feeling the effects of climate change. A lot of the plants they grow are perennials, which makes mulching an essential part of managing weeds and soil organic matter. Because of the erratic weather this spring, they were never able to get into the fields to mulch properly. Similarly, they were unable to establish summer and fall cover crops, so they ended up utilizing the weeds as cover, frequently mowing to minimize seed development.

Jane knows people who source herbs from all over the world, and “farmers are telling them there is no normal in the world anymore.”

She said she sees the Farmer of the Year award as an opportunity to encourage other organic farmers. “I want to help empower organic farmers to know that we are part of the solution,” Jane said. “As organic farmers we can help sequester carbon and mitigate climate change.”

Jane and David believe in the concept of regenerative agriculture and attempt to nurture their entire farm’s acreage. They hope that receiving this award will help empower other organic farmers to know that, while times can get tough, their ethic of growing organically and keeping crops in the soil is really helping the health of the planet.

“I just really want to congratulate every organic farmer that they are part of the solution,” Jane said. “Through organic farming, you’re helping to improve the planet.”

In keeping with the name of her business, Jane thinks of regenerative practices on the farm in terms of the four elements: Earth—improving soil health by increasing organic matter and soil microbial diversity; Water—organic practices reduce the number of chemicals getting into the water supply, and increased soil health improves water absorption; Air—soil-building practices sequester carbon dioxide in the soil; Fire—reduced chemical use helps to preserve the ozone layer, which protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

After 32 years of farming, Jane and David show no signs of slowing down. They don’t have plans to retire anytime soon. None of their three children has expressed interest in farming. Their daughter, Savanna, has some interest in the business side of things, and their youngest, Sylvie, who is 15 years old, loves being on the farm.

One of the things that Jane and David are proudest of doesn’t have anything to do with the business or profitability. The first summer on the farm, they noticed that they had bobolinks nesting in their hay fields. The bobolink is a small blackbird native to North and South America. A ground-nesting bird, the bobolink population has been rapidly declining since the early 1960s due to habitat loss and is at risk. Jane and David observed that if they cut their hay after the 4th of July, it allowed the young bobolinks to fledge and leave the nest. By altering this one practice, the farm’s bobolink population has remained robust.

The MOSES Board of Directors will present Jane and David with the 2020 Organic Farmers of the Year award Thursday, Feb. 27, at the kick-off to the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Bailey Webster writes about farming issues from her farm in Prescott, Wisconsin.

 

 

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