By Chrissy Moore
To continue my periodic series on The Herb Society of America’s business members, I’d like to introduce our readers to Jane Hawley Stevens, owner of Four Elements Organic Herbals in North Freedom, Wisconsin. I first heard Jane speak at an Herb Society annual meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, a few years ago. She has a thriving business and has herbal insight to share!
When did you first encounter herbs? Have you always known you wanted to work with plants/herbs?
JHS: Yes, I chose horticulture as a career path when I turned 18. This was inspired by picking berries with my grandmother out in the north woods. This is where I felt in heaven, so I knew I needed a career outdoors. My first job after receiving my degree, I was requested to install an herb garden.
Do you have formal training in horticulture and/or herb use? Did you have any mentors that particularly inspired or encouraged you?
JHS: I received a Horticulture degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1981. After establishing my first herb garden for a research facility in 1982, I gained experience in growing herbs, then using them for crafts and cooking. When my son was born in 1987, I started using herbs for medicine. I found herbs way more effective than conventional medicine. Before too long, I was making products for herb events and health food stores. The market was way different back then! I began when there were very few herb books, but always loved herbalists and authors Rosemary Gladstar and David Hoffmann.
How did you go about establishing an organic herb farm?
JHS: I say my land was a gift from Gaia. I was able to secure 130 acres in a protected land area as a single mom with an herb business. This seemed like a miracle. Eventually, my husband and I teamed up. He is a horticulturist that has the same vision, and although he is the curator at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum-Longenecker Gardens, he puts in full time here, too, during our long summer days.
(To see Jane describe her farm in action and business philosophy, please watch this great video she has provided.)
How many different herbs do you grow, and do you grow everything you use in your products?
JHS: We grow about 80 species of herbs. We aim to grow everything we use in our products, but sometimes fall short and must source out herbs from other organic growers. Our recipes are designed to be made with herbs that we can grow in my region.
Which herbs do you find the most challenging to work with and why?
JHS: Our beloved lavender is a challenge due to our cold winters and wet springs. It is hard to get the best-scented varieties to survive our winters. It is [also] difficult to grow some native perennials from seeds, like black cohosh and ginseng, due to the double dormancy of the seeds.
How did you learn about the methods for drying and processing the herbs you use to make teas, tinctures, salves, etc.?
JHS: Not only have I gone through state certifications for commercial kitchens, but I also have occasional visits from the FDA. This fine-tunes us to all the regulations. I have been on the working group for the state of Wisconsin to create standards for herb drying and processing.
For many business owners, they must sacrifice a lot in terms of personal time and preferences. But, there are also rewards in being the curator of your own products/services. What has been your driving philosophy as you’ve grown Four Elements Organic Herbals?
JHS: Not only do herbs provide a plethora of uses and delights, but my experience using plants for food and medicine makes me believe [that] everyone should try herbs as remedies, because they are so effective with so few side effects. This is where my inspiration comes from. I want to connect people to plants for their wellbeing and the health of the planet. Even pharmaceutical companies look to nature for the wonders of their healing potential to get various molecules to patent. I get inspired by “Cultivating Nature’s Wisdom.” I also feel the sense of family created among the Four Elements employees. We are really a team and make working there, even after 35 years, easy.
Four Elements received the 2020 MOSES (Midwest Organic Sustainable and Education Service) Farmers of the Year Award. That must have been a joyous recognition of everyone’s hard work at 4E.
JHS: Yes, it was wonderful to see this award go to a value-added herb company instead of a typical dairy, field crop, or noble Community Supported Agriculture farm. This was a first!
What advice would you give someone interested in starting their own herbal product line?
JHS: Start out by trying your products at farmers markets. Then, you can fine-tune your recipes and packaging. Make sure and put enough for you in your pricing to honor all your hard work. [Ask yourself], what aspect of herbalism excites you?
Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Jane Hawley Stevens except 5) Lavandula angustifolia, English lavender (blumenbiene, Creative Commons license).
Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. As steward of the NHG, Chrissy lectures, provides tours, and writes on various herbal topics, as well as shepherds the garden’s “Under the Arbor” educational outreach program. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.