Even on a muddy February day, arriving at Yesteryear Farm was a bit breath-taking. The Mt. Horeb-area farm is the home of Old Ways Herbal, as well as the playground for drafthorses, chickens, dogs, American Guinea hogs, geese, and herbalist Juliette Abigail Carr.
As the sun started to set, Abigail led me on a quick hike around part of the land, feeding hogs and gathering eggs while we talked. We passed her kitchen garden on the way out to the beautiful hill where she teaches outdoor herbalism classes when the weather permits. “I really like teaching out here. In the spring and summer, the classes are on a quilt under the big oak trees overlooking a pond. You can hear the birds, and it’s just a big difference from teaching in a classroom. Then, in the winter, the class is in the living room, next to the woodstove.”
As we made our way towards her warm home, Abigail told me her story about coming to live on this unique farm. She arrived in September 2010 by way of Asheville, North Carolina, a town that is known for its many wonderful herbal education programs. While living in North Carolina, Abigail studied at the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, as well as with many individual herbalists and teachers. In 2009, she helped to create the Sassafrass Community Health Collective, which became an herbal free clinic, among other things. Upon her move to Wisconsin, Abigail began to live at Yesteryear Farm, which is owned by her partner Henry’s parents. Last year, she and Henry helped with the organic vegetable-growing operation. “I am a clinical herbalist by training and by practice,” she explained, “but I found myself on an organic farm, and it just made sense to try a medicine company and see how that goes. I’m having fun with it.” This year, Abigail will be taking more time to devote to herbs, while starting an internship program as well.
Growing the herbs
As many herbalists and farmers know, growing medicinal herbs is often a very different process than growing vegetables. Abigail noted confidently that she is good at getting difficult medicinal perennials to germinate. She explained some of her methodology: “I think there is something energetic in plants. If you just think about what this plant is, who it is, what it does and where it grows, you can kind of know. Ifyou think about this area, the native plants that grow wild here, most of [the seeds] want to be stratified. Most of them want to go in the fridge and have a simulated winter experience. And they don’t want to be dry-stratified, they want to be wet-stratified. You’re mimicking the seasons. If you think about plants that have to run through something’s digestive track before they’ll grow, you’re thinking compost and often sandpaper, scarification, to get them to germinate.”
Growing herbs can also be a way of learning patience. “Quite a few of the medicinal herbs that I have in my perennial garden here are plants that I’ve been growing since 2005 or 2006, and every time I moved, I dug them out of the garden and put them in a bucket.” Abigail spoke of continuing to grow the same valerian and arnica plants for multiple years, and how huge their roots have become in the process. Many of the herbs are interplanted in the vegetable and perennial flower beds, and she also does some engineered, intentional wildcrafting. “Last spring I spread chickweed, so this fall I have all these new patches of chickweed coming up. Because you can’t have enough, especially when it doesn’t stay fresh and green for that long. It’s nice to have multiple generations of it.”
All of the plant material used in Old Ways Herbal products are certified organic or ethically wildcrafted, and all the honey used is from Gentle Breeze Honey (which is conveniently located right across the street). “As for the prices on the medicine, I keep them as low as I possibly can. I think a lot of herbal medicine products are prohibitively expensive. It’s important to be accessible. I have the benefit of growing or wildcrafting everythinghere myself. I don’t have the same costs that a lot of companies have if they get something like Siberian Ginseng from Eastern Europe. I don’t use that plant since it doesn’t grow here. Also, 20 percent of the proceeds of everything goes to United Plant Savers or free herbal education.”
Moving to the Midwest and starting Old Ways Herbal has given Abigail some new perspectives. “I’m really glad to have this opportunity to learn the business owner aspect, which is totally new for me. Just a couple weeks ago, I did samples at Willy Street Co-op, and that was... a new experience, where I was actively trying to sell something. If you going to be a good herbalist, you have to be able to say, ‘My product is not the right thing for you. I don’t have the right herb for you. You should get it from such and such a person.’ The right herb for the person is more important than what I have in stock.”
Clearly, Abigail’s passion for medicinal plants stems from a love of clinical herbalism. She describes her approach as coming from a community outreach perspective. “I like teaching classes and I like seeing clients. I like it when people email me with questions about their kids. I get that a lot lately. Mostly Willy Street Co-op customers actually, which is awesome. The Co-op apparently has wonderful customers. They’re like, ‘Is this the right decision to make for my child?’ And I can say, ‘Yes, yes it is,’ or ‘No, no it isn’t, try this instead.’”
The theme of accessibility is consistently highlighted when Abigail speaks of herbal medicine. She charges a sliding scale rate for consultations and hopes to make her classes approachable. “I want everyone to be able to come who wants to. Work trade is always an option. If people don’t have a car, I’m willing to try to set up carpooling for people.” She will be offering two classes this month at the farm: Making Herbal Infused Honeys, Syrups, & Elixirs on April 14th, and Spring Tonics on April 28th. She will also be speaking at the Midwest Women’s Herbal Conference in June.
Beyond all of this, Abigail is also in the nursing program at UW and working towards an eventual goal of becoming a nurse practitioner in integrative medicine. “The nursing school track is really moving me towards being a full-time serious clinician, and I think my clinical skills are getting stronger. I love growing the plants... but putting labels on bottles is not as much fun as you think it is.”
Pressing & bottling
The magic of pressing and bottling tinctures takes place in small batches in Abigail’s kitchen. Her strengths are reflected in the formulas she creates, from Luminous (for healthy glowing skin) to Calm (for reducing stress and anxiety). She was very intentional in deciding what herbs to cultivate. “When I designed them, I made the products so that the line could be a full apothecary.” Willy Street Co-op was the first store she approached to carry her products, and the second store to introduce them.
When asked about which is her current favorite formula, she responded, “ I am the most proud of Joy. It just works. Everyone who has tried it (who has told me that they tried it) has said it works for them. Also, Creaky Bones salve is anti-inflammatory and awesome. I’m really proud of the kids’ line. I don’t know of any other herbal companies that are doing a lot of kids’ stuff right now. The majority of kids’ products are homeopathic. But herbs work great with kids. [The syrups] taste like candy and are based on honey. I really like teaching [parents] how to use herbs with their kids. I think teaching people how to take care of themselves and their family is probably one of the most empowering things you can give them.”