By Eva Crawford
What do you get when you combine young love, artistic inclination, and good old-fashioned hard work? Free Verse Farm in Chelsea, Vermont. Herb growers Taylor Katz and Misha Johnson are part of a growing trend of quasi-millennials who are opting out of weekly status meetings and water cooler gossip for life on the farm. Instead they grow and sell culinary herbs, herbal teas, and herbal remedies. Their sales often include a piece of their artwork, including a photograph or poem. You can find their products online, at farmer’s markets in Vermont, and through their quarterly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares.
Clean Plates had the pleasure of spending a morning with Taylor and Misha, who gave their interview sitting side by side in their wood-paneled farmhouse, big mugs of tea in their hands and a back-and-forth cadence to their speech that revealed the easy nature of their partnership. From their decision to focus on medicinal herbs, teas and tinctures, to the unique inspiration for their farm’s name, these two young farmers share the good, the bad and the tasty about life in the rolling green hills of Vermont.
Clean Plates: So how did you two meet?
Misha: I’m from Norwich, VT, about 45 minutes southeast of here.
Taylor: And I’m what Vermonters call a Flatlander, from the suburbs of Manhattan. We met in college freshman year, in an English class, then basically just skipped off happily into the sunset. It was more than 11 years ago now.
C.P.: What motivated you to start a farm?
T.K.: Misha was doing a lot of farming in college, and then we ended up moving to San Diego so that I could pursue my Masters in Creative Writing.
M.J.: That was where I first started studying herbalism formally. While we were there, I also started volunteering with a local nonprofit called San Diego Roots, who were doing a lot of activism work related to local and organic food and wanting to support farms in the Tijuana River Valley.
T.K.: San Diego Roots had been looking to start their own farm as part of the nonprofit, so Misha started it and became the Farm Manager. Then from San Diego, we made the plan to move back to Vermont and start our own farm. Right when I finished my program, we drove back across the country. This is now our second season growing on our own land.
C.P.: How did you decide what to grow?
M.J.: I’ve been interested in herbs specifically for a long time. They were something we were both passionate about, and also something that’s growing in popularity both nationally and globally.
T.K.: We have kind of a secret tea history. Our first date we had tea together, and then I sold the tea that he grew on his farm at the cafe in college. Lots of strange tea clues along the way.
CP: What’s the story behind the name “Free Verse Farm?”
T.K.: We wanted to combine farming with our artistic endeavors. Free verse is unrhymed and unmetered poetry, and you can bring that metaphor into farming. We want to show that it’s part of our whole ethos – the art making as well as the herb growing.
M.J.: So our farm is a little more free form than just your straight rows, vegetables everywhere. We have patches of things here and there and there’s a different kind of flow and movement that is unique to our place.
C.P.: What surprised you – or continues to surprise you – most about farming?
M.J.: What I’m constantly surprised by is the incredible ingenuity of farmers throughout generations. To farm, you have to be a businessperson, a chemist, a biologist, an engineer, a mechanic… and now you also have to be a social media manager and a brand manager.
T.K.: For me, I was not raised to do this work, so I’m surprised all the time that I’m even doing this. I grew up never setting foot on a farm except for a school trip where I milked a cow.
C.P.: What are your biggest challenges?
M.J.: We have abundant dreams, and it’s hard to decide how to integrate those dreams into the reality of the future and our farm. Some fall by the wayside, or we think they do and then they come back around.
T.K.: Thinking long-term in general is really hard for me – this idea that we’re creating something that we have no exact model for. I’m a poet, not a novelist.
C.P.: So what does that long game look like right now?
T.K.: Scaling up and honing in, trying to understand where the market is, what our land is good for growing, and what people enjoy. Lavender is a good example. Whenever we talk to a small food business in Vermont, they want lavender. If they’re making soap, chocolate, ice cream, everyone wants lavender. So everyone contacts us because they want it, and we’re like, okay! Let’s grow more lavender.
C.P.: Are you noticing a shift in how people think about small, organic farm products?
T.K.: Small farmers and local and sustainable agriculture really are gaining in people’s awareness.
M.J.: Specifically regarding herbs, too, there’s a growing interest. Vegetables and fruits have been popular local foods for a while, but now we’re really looking at every aspect of our food system. There’s also a trickle down from the cocktail craze. Bitters? That’s herbalism. People are starting to think about how herbs can affect the flavors of beverages and foods, and they’re starting to open their minds.
T.K.: Which is wonderful, because it means people are taking more of an active role in their health and their healing. It’s definitely a stylish thing to do now. People are realizing that this is a scale that’s good for the earth and good for your taste buds.
C.P.: Why is it important to keep the farm as organic as possible?
M.J.: Our society seems to be constantly fighting against nature. We want to work with the powers of the earth to grow delicious, resilient herbs. Instead of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, we use compost and ecological techniques to grow our crops. We’re always seeking to cultivate a healthy, diverse ecosystem where our crops and the earth thrive together.
C.P.: Is farming giving you the life you wanted, or do you find it more challenging than you anticipated?
M.J.: We’re still very much in our early years, so there’s more heavy lifting to get the farm off the ground than if we were inheriting a family farm, but it provides opportunity for creativity and expression.
T.K.: We get to collaborate with each other and the land, and we’re outside all the time. It’s not a simple life, but satisfying, and full of beauty.