Herbes de Vermont

Taylor Katz and Misha Johnson “steep it local” at Free Verse Farm.

Free Verse is a community herb farm and apothecary tucked in the hills above the shire town of Chelsea, Vermont. We joined farm founders Taylor and Misha for tea on a sunny June morning and discussed the journey they’ve taken together as artists and farmers.

When did you first become interested in farming?
Misha: It wasn’t until college. I went through a bit of culture shock after moving from a small town in Vermont to an urban campus environment at Connecticut College. The way that people interacted with the environment there was different from what I was used to—they weren’t recycling or composting, and they weren’t buying local food. I felt very passionate that people needed to be doing those things more, so I ended up majoring in environmental studies.
Taylor: And you set up a recycling program, a composting program, and a garden, which is now one of the major stops on the campus tour! We also interned on a farm in Costa Rica during the summer after our junior year.

How did you decide to specialize in herbs?
Misha: My family always grew herbs, and I really loved lemon verbena, specifically. One of the first projects I did at college to raise awareness about the garden was to grow spearmint, lemon verbena and lemon balm. We dried and packed them using a hair straightening iron to seal the tea bags. Then we sold them at the campus café in the library where Taylor worked.

Is that how you two met?
Taylor: We actually met in an English class on our first day of college. And we drank tea on our first date!
Misha: After college, we briefly lived in Thetford, VT, and then we traveled to Europe to visit family and WWOOF on a farm in southern France.

How was that experience?
Taylor:
It was awesome. We lived in a tiny trailer just like the one we recently bought for our farm.
Misha: We were there for a few weeks and worked half-day shifts. It was a mixed vegetable farm, and they also had donkeys, sheep, pigs and chickens.
Taylor: They offered donkey rides to tourists as a way to make money.
Misha: When you’re WWOOFing you don’t really have any responsibility—you’re mostly just being told what to do. You’re also not being paid, so they can’t crack the whip on you, either. You’re going to be sloppy in your work—it’s very experiential. We met so many people our age who were coming through these farms from all sorts of countries. People were trying it out as a way to sample the farming lifestyle.

Did you know at that point that you wanted to start your own farm together?
Taylor:
I don’t think we really did.
Misha: I think I did.
Taylor: Okay. Well, we were 23 then! What we definitely knew during our trip was that we were about to move to San Diego for at least three years so I could get a master’s degree in poetry.
Misha: I wanted to try working on a farm when we went to San Diego, and I also helped to start an educational farm there.
Taylor: We both worked at the farmers market and in the field at a traditional row crop veggie farm. That was exhausting, but it taught us that we wanted to grow our own food and have access to that sort of lifestyle.

Were you growing herbs out there?
Misha:
People in San Diego were focusing on local veggies and fruit, but they weren’t talking about herbs at all. Herbs have been globalized, just as the rest of our food system has, and I felt like we really needed to grow local herbs—they’re fresher and they taste so much better. I started taking classes in western herbalism in San Diego.

Where did you go to learn about that?
Misha:
It’s a little school in somebody’s house.
Taylor: The Self-Heal School of Herbal Studies.
Misha: They teach the origins of western herbalism and other traditions from around the world—Native American herbalism, Chinese medicinal herbalism. Then you learn how to do all the different preparations, teas and alcohol-based tinctures.
“Herbs are your allies and they’re there for the taking. You’re missing out if you’re not enjoying all these amazing herbs.”

Did it involve a lot of hands-on training?
Misha:
You learn about body systems and specific herbs and what they do, but you’re also really learning how to make the preparations properly.
Taylor: He started going on a kick, making everything he was learning about at home.
Misha: And I was growing all the herbs, too.
Taylor: We had all the ingredients, so we just started making tinctures like nobody’s business. You have to use high-proof alcohol, so Misha was buying Everclear at the corner liquor store once a week, just buying them out of it. The guy there must have been thinking, This guy looks pretty healthy, but he has a terrible drinking habit! All of a sudden our cupboard was full of tinctures. I had never even had a tincture before. It’s a very different way of taking medicine. It’s steeped in alcohol, it has a very strong flavor, and sometimes the herbs are strong as well.

What was your first experience with tinctures like?
Taylor:
The first thing Misha made was a cramp tincture for me. It was the first time I was using an herbal remedy consistently, and it was really helping. That was exciting. We were like, “Wait, this really works?!”
Misha: Well, you were like that.
Taylor: I was amazed. I didn’t even know this was an option. That’s still a part of what we’re doing as a business, showing customers that there are other options, not just in terms of tea and what you’re drinking, but in terms of how you’re healing and taking care of yourself.
Misha: Herbs complement a good, healthy lifestyle. It doesn’t mean that you have to stop seeing your physician or stop taking those medicines. Herbs are your allies and they’re there for the taking—you’re missing out if you’re not enjoying all these amazing herbs.

What did you do after moving back to Vermont?
Misha:
We rented a property in Norwich for about a year and started selling at the Norwich Farmers Market before moving to Chelsea.
Taylor: It was a great place to sell, and Misha knew everybody there, since he grew up in Norwich. We’ve really built a strong community in the Norwich area. That affected our desire to stay in either Orange or Windsor County when we started looking for our own land.

What else were you looking for when you decided to purchase land for your farm?
Misha:
Different environments—wet environments, dry environments. Sunlight was huge. Our whole hillside is south-facing, so we have abundant sunlight. Many herbs, like oregano and lavender and thyme, love those really sunny, dry environments. We think of it as almost slightly Mediterranean up here.
Taylor: We also like living on a dead-end road, but being two minutes from town. We really wanted to be a part of our community.
“Family farms are not only the way of the past, but the way of the future.”

How much land are you currently cultivating?
Misha:
We have about two-and-a-half acres that are tilled, about 20 acres of fields and 20 acres of forest. Our long-term plans are to plant a lot of perennial herbs—trees and bushes like elderberries and hawthorns—and mushrooms and other things that might take five or ten years before we’re harvesting them. Although we don’t really talk about it much, we’re very much permaculture-inspired, as many young farmers are these days

Why don’t you completely identify with the permaculture movement?
Misha:
Farmers have been doing permaculture for years, especially in Vermont. There is a real system behind permaculture, but we don’t need to define ourselves by any particular system. I do feel like herbs are the ultimate permaculture crop, though. As opposed to traditional vegetables grown in rows in river bottom land, herbs can grow in really wet soils, really dry soils, really shady environments, really sunny environments…
Taylor: …and in spirals.
Misha: In spirals! And you don’t have to re-plant them multiple times a season. It’s a very different rhythm to how you farm—more of a slower, perhaps permaculture-style way of farming.

You’re mostly farming with hand tools—what was behind that decision?
Misha:
We do have a local guy who does some tilling and mowing a couple times a year, but everything else is done by hand. It goes back to permaculture a little bit, but it’s also about reading what the land needs and what our bodies need—what’s sustainable for our bodies, our lifestyle, as well as for the land and the environment.

You must be beat at the end of the day.
Misha:
There’s an instinct in our culture to always go to the newer and better technology, but if I need to mow the lawn, I get much more pleasure scything in the morning for a few hours, and I’m not ridiculously tired afterward. I was more tired after weed-whacking when I was a kid—I hated doing that. It’s loud and smelly. It’s much more peaceful being out there with the scythe.
Taylor: It’s like a tai chi move.
Misha: It’s meditative. We have a neighbor down the road who’s retired, and he scythes all the time. I just know that we can keep doing these things productively for many years if we treat our bodies right.

What’s a typical day look like for you?
Misha:
We get up and tend the livestock—sheep and chickens. We check the herb dryer every day to see if the herbs need stirring or processing. Late morning is usually when we do our first harvests.
Taylor: Today we’re going to wild harvest red clover and some nettle in the woods.
Misha: And then we like to take long lunches—that’s definitely a passion of ours.
Taylor: Drink a beer. Sit on the porch.
Misha: European-style, longform lunch—with a siesta.
Taylor: It’s so hot. You have to stop working.
Misha: If you start early enough, you’re not being a slacker by taking a couple hours off in the middle of the day.
Taylor: I’m working from home right now, which is a new thing for me. It’s easier to get in a real farm shift in the mornings, then I’ll go upstairs to get some other work done.
Misha: On rainy days we try to work in the apothecary. We have a different rhythm than most veggie farmers, who might take weeks off in the winter when things slow down. We grow, harvest, and process most of our stuff between now and September. Come fall and winter, we’re packaging, making plans, mixing, trying new things. Winter is a time for being creative inside, and we do a lot of winter farmers markets.

[Birds start twittering excitedly in the tree above our heads.]

Misha: There are a few nests up in this tree.
Taylor: I think they’re having a marital dispute.

Speaking of which…what’s it like to work together as a couple?
Taylor:
It’s pretty natural for us and always has been. I don’t want to look too much into the alchemy—it just works! Plus, very often during the day we’re doing separate tasks and then checking in with each other, so it’s not like we spend every single minute together.
Misha: We make a lot of decisions together—what to grow, what tools to buy.
Taylor: You get to share in a lot of successes together, and you have someone who’s also sharing in your struggles.

What have been some of the biggest struggles to getting the farm up and running?
Taylor:
The weather—trying to understand what it is doing so we can plan to get all these plants in the ground.
Misha: We still don’t have all the infrastructure we need, and we’re growing out of what we currently have, so there are growing pains. We’re getting to the point where we need to scale up to that next level and plan out ten years or more. We’re a family farm, and I think family farms and community farms are not only the way of the past, but the way of the future. Many farms are getting too big and we’re losing that community around them.
Taylor: I think it’s a misperception that farming is 100 percent hard-ass work all the time. What we’re doing isn’t drudgery at all—it’s really exciting, and there are opportunities for creative expression. In fact, you have to be even more creative as a farmer than maybe your brain can handle in one day.

You have backgrounds in the creative arts—poetry and photography, in particular. Do you feel that your deep aesthetic sensibilities and training inform your approach to farming?
Misha:
It very much informs how the farm is designed. When we moved here it was a blank slate. For example, with this fencing that we just put up, I was thinking hard about how it would affect the flow of the farm, how it would affect things visually, how it would affect the way we move around and how the livestock move around. The design is so important in terms of how well something is going to function and how appealing it is to us. I try to find ways to integrate the farm with the landscape and the community.

How did you come up with the name of the farm?
Taylor:
On our drive back East from San Diego we stopped at Nepenthe in Big Sur—it’s where the Beat writers used to work and eat and drink a lot of cocktails. We were sitting there, overlooking the ocean, coming up with names for the farm. “Free verse” is a style of poetry, and it also fits in with our general sense of how we like to live and work.
Misha: Free Verse is not just about the poetry, it’s also about the way we farm, in that it is less straight-row vegetable structure and more open and flowing—unrhymed and unmetered.

Tell me about your off-farm gig as a Poet for Hire.
Taylor:
I was working at a couple restaurants our first year back in Vermont and trying to figure out what I was going to do here in the winter, so I put up a little “Poet for Hire” page on my website. I got one inquiry, wrote and edited a poem, and charged twenty-five bucks. The next year I got a few more, and then this past year it’s really been building. I couldn’t be more thrilled! People have commissioned poems for eons—it’s one of the oldest uses of poetry. I’m just being found in a modern way.

How do people find you?
Taylor:
Google. Ninety percent of the people are complete strangers: “Hi, my daughter’s getting married in two weeks, I want you to write her a poem for my father-of-the-bride speech,” or “Hi, my girlfriend broke up with me and I’m trying to get her back,” or “Hi, my dad is turning 90,” or “Hi, I really love Jesus—can you help me craft a poem about that?” They’re mostly beautiful love stories. I did get a few inquiries that I decided to say no to: parents trying to get help with their kids’ writing assignments. Also, a woman whose best friend just got divorced, and the ex-husband was slandering her on Facebook. She wanted me to write a revenge poem. That didn’t feel like nice vibes.

Can you give an overview of Free Verse Farm’s products?
Misha: Our focus is on tea—that’s probably the biggest thing that we do. We have a dozen different types of tea, mostly blends and some single teas like peppermint and lemon verbena. We also have culinary herbs and one blend called “Herbes de Vermont”. We have a number of herbal remedies, alcohol tinctures, and some body care products like a cream and balms.
Taylor: We also have two CSAs—an apothecary share and a tea share. These are quarterly shares that have either teas or remedies targeted to the upcoming season. We always include a little art treasure in the shares, too. For example, we included an herbal bug spray and an iced tea blend in the apothecary share last summer. We’re always adding new products, and it’s fun to try them out with our farm share members. We try to make sure that our remedies and products are based on what we can grow here.

What percentage of the ingredients in your products comes from the farm?
Misha:
In terms of the herbs that we use, about 75 percent are from our farm. We buy in some herbs, either because we didn’t grow enough or we don’t have that product yet. Some herbs will take a few years before we can harvest them.
Taylor: We always try to buy locally from suppliers like Zack Woods Herb Farm.
Misha: Our goal is to regionalize our herbs and our products, to make them unique to this place.

Can you notice a difference in the flavor of the herbs you grow here? Do herbs have terroir?
Taylor:
I think it’s about something more ethereal than flavor.
Misha: Although, it can manifest in flavor. I think there is a certain terroir, but we’re still learning about that on our land. You can have something grown on an east-facing slope that’s different than a west-facing slope. The plants themselves have such personalities, especially the perennial ones that are there for multiple years—they can get gnarly surviving the winter.
Taylor: Part of our project is creating something that’s of our soil for people who are of this soil. But it’s not like we don’t want people outside of Vermont to have these products, too—we definitely do! It’s just that we want our products to fully represent the place where we live, this special place.

What are the biggest pests that you have to deal with on the farm?
Misha:
There are deer, but it’s not a huge pressure compared to some areas. Many herbs are not palatable to deer and other pests. Often gardener’s handbooks list companion herbs that go with your vegetables to fend off pests. We do need fencing, but we don’t have a lot of insect or disease problems. Herbs really are the best!

Free Verse Farm is on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, and Tumblr. Find their teas and other herbal products online and at local retailers. Taylor and Misha also run the Chelsea Farmers Market, where they can be found on Fridays from 3-6pm through the end of September.

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