In summer 2020, Jane Hawley Stevens, founder of Four Elements Organic Herbals, received a $250,000 Value-Added Producer Grant from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The working capital grant, which Stevens applied for in late winter 2019, provides funding for agricultural producers to generate new products, create and expand marketing opportunities, and increase income.1 Taking raw materials and turning them into a product, such as processing herbs into tea blends, or cultivating certified organic raw material are considered “value-added” according to the USDA.2 To qualify for the Value-Added Producer Grant, the applicant must grow and process the material themselves.
Stevens founded Four Elements in 1987, and the 130-acre farm in North Freedom, Wisconsin, has been certified organic since 1990. Aided by her husband David Stevens, she processes the herbs from Four Elements into various products, including herbal tea blends, salves, tinctures, oils, and soaps.
Stevens has a degree in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin – Madison (UWM). David has a master’s degree in woody ornamental horticulture from UWM and is the curator of the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens at the UWM Arboretum. Despite growing and selling herbs, Stevens did not consider using them medicinally until her young son began having chronic earaches. When she tried applying an oil infused with mullein (Verbascum thapsus, Scrophulariaceae) flowers to his ears, the positive result surprised her so much that she started to use herbs herself and promote their medicinal value. Currently, the most abundant crop at Four Elements is lemon balm (Melissa officinalis, Lamiaceae), which the company has adopted through the American Botanical Council’s Adopt-an-Herb program.3
Though Stevens applied for the grant before the COVID-19 pandemic, the grant came at a crucial time for her business. “I have never had a month like March 2020, and many herb growers probably had that same experience,” she said, referring to an initial sales boom for herbs indicated for immune support (oral communication, August 26, 2020). After the sales spike, however, she reported that her August sales were about half of what they were at the same time in 2019. “This grant is going to make all the difference.”
Stevens will use the grant mostly to increase market visibility for Four Elements. Before the pandemic, she hoped to make her products available on shelves at spas. However, with the temporary closures of many spas and similar businesses in the United States, she will focus on online marketing instead. Ultimately, she hopes that by expanding her online presence, she can reach more people who value organic and natural products.
“My ultimate goal is to get people to start looking at nature and engage more with nature,” Stevens said. “I think nature has the answer for so many things. I always want to keep the integrity of the plants in my products so that when people reach for Four Elements products, they can find something very close to the earth.”
Stevens takes her stewardship of the earth seriously and is passionate about organic, sustainable agriculture. She credits careful cultivation with improved products. “Earth is a closed system, and whatever you put on the earth is going to come back to you,” she said. “That’s a big concern of mine. We should care about leaving this planet in better shape than when we came here.”
However, Stevens knows that her cultivation methods and smaller scale put her at a disadvantage against commercial-scale cultivators and manufacturers, which is why she applied for another grant. Four Elements received a USDA Value-Added Producer Grant in 2014 that allowed her to formulate and expand her line of herbal teas. “These federal funds are so important,” she said. “They assist small producers by helping them compete. This industry was started by people like me: farmers bringing products to co-ops. And then, when people started choosing organic and herbal wellness lifestyles, [large] corporations [got involved]. They have bigger marketing budgets, and people like me, the veterans of the industry, had a harder time making it in our own industry.”
Four Elements received another boost in 2020. In February, Jane and David Stevens received the Organic Farmers of the Year Award from the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). According to Stevens, they are the first herb farmers to receive this award. “Because we’re in the Midwest, [previous winners] are community-supported agriculture businesses and corn [Zea mays, Poaceae] and soybean [Glycine max, Fabaceae] farmers. I thought it was important that a value-added herbal company was represented in that group, so I was really honored to be nominated for and then receive that award.” In her acceptance speech at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference, Stevens once again emphasized the importance of herbal medicine for not only the care of people, but for the planet.
“As a decades-long herbalist, organic farmer, and gardening-by-the-moon practitioner, I would say living in and with nature’s rhythm is a step toward a healthier, happier life,” said Stevens. “It supports us with knowing our right place, beginnings, endings, what to give or take, and the most essential aspects of life.
“The message I keep repeating is this: it’s so important to care about and know your growers,” she added. “The people who are out there planting the seeds and cultivating the medicinal plants — support them in the marketplace so that we continue to have herb growers out there. When I go to the organic farming conference, people are always asking if I could buy from them, too. Wouldn’t it be great if my business grew enough that I could help to support other regional organic farms? We would be creating and developing more organic farms … [and] getting herbs into the hands of people who want them. However I can best serve that world, that’s important to me.”
- Value Added Producer Grants. USDA Rural Development website. Available at: www.rd.usda.gov/programs-services/value-added-producer-grants. Accessed September 2, 2020.
- Value-Added Marketing. USDA National Agricultural Library website. Available at: www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/value-added-marketing. Accessed September 11, 2020.
- Four Elements Adopts Lemon Balm through ABC’s Adopt-an-Herb Program. [press release] Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; April 14, 2018. Available at: http://cms.herbalgram.org/press/2018/FourElementsAdoptsLemonBalm.html. Accessed September 3, 2020.