MISHA & TAYLOR
PHOTOGRAPHER, POET & HERB FARMERS
San Diego, California to Chelsea, Vermont
To get to Free Verse Farm, you drive along country roads in the Upper Valley region of eastern Vermont, through sleepy little towns, winding your way up a steep grassy hillside that overlooks the village of Chelsea. The view from this farm was one of the many things that immediately sold Taylor Katz and Misha Johnson on their new home. Misha and Taylor met while attending undergrad at a small liberal arts college in Connecticut. While attending college, the sustainable farming seed was planted in Misha. Before graduating, he had established both an on-campus organic garden and a large-scale composting system. Taylor came to farming more gradually, as she was fully committed to the written word, but she soon found that working the land and being immersed in nature became an inspirational element in her poetry. The summer after their junior year, Misha and Taylor lived and worked on a small farm in Costa Rica and, after graduating, they interned together on an organic farm in France. After their post-undergrad travels, the couple settled in the coastal city of San Diego, California. Taylor attended graduate school for poetry and they both were hired as part-time farmhands at an organic farm. Misha also founded and managed a non-profit educational farm called Wild Willow Farm and Education Center and began his study of herbalism at the Self-Heal School of Herbal Studies & Healing. In the Fall of 2012, they decided to leave the West Coast and move to Vermont to start a small herb farm and apothecary. Their vision for Free Verse Farm was to combine their natural impulse to create art (Misha’s photography with Taylor’s words) and their passion for farming and herbalism. They started small, leasing land from others at first, and in 2014 the couple planted permanent roots on their own land. All of their herbs are grown, harvested and dried onsite. They specialize in small-batch herbal teas, culinary herbs, medicinal plants, and herbal remedies. They sell their Free Verse Farm products locally, in selected stores, online and through their mail-order farm shares; which deliver seasonal herb and apothecary “CSA” boxes to their customers all over the United States. Taylor supplements their income by taking on freelance marketing work and writing poetry commissions. They are continuing to diversify their offerings and have dreams of hosting a variety of creative and herbal focused workshops in the future. This summer they are welcoming a local summer camp to their fields, where they will perform a Shakespeare play for their parents and friends at a culminating event. They hope that one-day Free Verse Farm not only has an established and loyal customer base, but also becomes a hub that educates and re-connects people to nature and to their own creativity. (Click here to jump to their interview)
What inspired you to move to the country?
Taylor: The country is where Misha and I can create the fullest, most inspiring, delicious life together. Although I've always considered myself someone who can be happy living anywhere, the abundance of the country--that big sky feeling, the open pastures, the unending quantity of summer's fruits and veggies--has been stunning to me. The country has more to offer than I ever knew.
Misha: It’s where I’ve always felt the most at ease and grounded, and a place from which I have drawn the most inspiration in my life. Our nook of the green mountains of Vermont presents us with an abundant life filled with the beauty and challenges of hard work and good earth––leaving us not just not just knowing, but feeling, that we belong to a place.
The earth needs our love and attention always, but especially in this time. As artistic farmers, we see ourselves as living dynamically, always open to changes, always embracing the days as they come. Using the inspiration flowing from our land and our community, we strive to steward the land to the best of our abilities and to cultivate an environment to produce abundance nourishment for ourselves and our community.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
Taylor: Initially the hardest parts were finding a job and making friends. Now that I have friends and an off-farm job, the challenges have to do with developing our business in a way that establishes its sustainability and ultimately provides enough income for the both of us.
Other challenges have to do with the fact that our farm is still run by just the two of us; by me, part time, and by Misha, overtime. We are limited by what the two of us can do in the span of a single day.
Misha: Moving to any new community requires making connections and establishing relationships. In rural Vermont that means making new friends, finding someone to plow your driveway, figuring our who to get wood from, etc.
It may be that one can live a more self-sufficient, sustainable life in the country, but it takes time to develop the skills and the space in which to do so well. Perhaps more importantly, one has to cultivate the relationships that make this life abundant and rewarding.
What surprised you most about country living?
Taylor: I was surprised by what it feels like to live with so much space all around. I thought I'd feel more afraid, more vulnerable and incapable. Instead, I feel very safe here. The realities of running a farm have been surprising to me as well. Our focus has shifted beyond simply providing for ourselves and our immediate needs.
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?
Taylor: It's been hard to get used to being so far away from any sort of hub. Everything is about 45 minutes away. It was also a little difficult to acclimate to a more home-based life, as opposed to life in the city, which is often more outward.
I miss bookstores and cafes and thrift stores and getting to see art. I miss being able to meet up with a friend for a drink around the corner. I miss seeing people wearing excellent outfits.
Misha: Our life here for me is the most fulfilling.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
Taylor: The country has spoiled me too much for me to move back to the city. You have to work so many hours to survive in a city! And the food is grown so far from where you live! Here I eat food that I've grown myself or is grown by friends, I get a lot of sleep, I get to be outside moving my body, and we're growing our own medicine. Living in the city would feel like a step backwards in terms of my overall health.
Misha: I am very satisfied with life here, and I know it will grow richer the more we dig our roots in here and offer our love to this space, this land, and this community.
What do you appreciate the most about life in the country?
Taylor: I appreciate the lifestyle I'm able to have in the country: a little whimsical, a little wild, full of flavor and moving air.
I'm filled with an overwhelming feeling of freedom here--nobody's watching me, nobody's judging me, nobody's telling me what to do when I'm on my own land. I also feel a sense of freedom by growing and making my own food. The first time I made chèvre, I could hardly contain my joy. I no longer have to rely on other people to have access to the things I need - and I need to eat a LOT of cheese.
Misha: The country is a feast for the senses. Whether it’s the fresh scent of blossoms and earth in spring and summer, the warm scent of cider and woodsmoke in autumn and winter, the arctic chill of a February breeze, or the vigorous heat of an August afternoon, one is made to feel and move with the Earth, through the seasons and harvests, the slow times and the quick. At the same time, I find my senses are most at ease here. In contrast, the city can be a rough overdose for the senses, leaving one numb to the kind touch of the wild.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
Taylor: You're going to need a source of income as soon as you get to the country, and jobs are few and far between here. Having your own business established before moving would be a huge leg up. Or can you keep your city job and work remotely? Having an employment plan in place is key.
Also, beware: you're going to have to do a lot more things for yourself than you do in the country. Your garbage won't get picked up by a truck. Your house won't be magically heated - you'll need to check and fill the propane tank, or stack and haul the wood. The food doesn't magically grow itself - having a garden is hard work, and you may spend more time weeding than you do eating. You're going to need a Carhartt coat, even though they're bulky and unflattering. You're going to value being warm more than you ever knew!
When you go back to visit the city, what are the first three things on your to-do list?
Taylor: The cities I usually visit are Brooklyn, NY, where my sister and many of my college friends live, and Austin, TX, where my parents live. In Brooklyn, I'll embark on a marathon of lady chatting, ideally in an excessively curated locale offering artisan beverages. I'll also need to spend half a day in a museum and eat a lot of non-American cuisine. For a really perfect visit, I'd catch a poetry reading, or at least spend time in a bookstore with a good poetry section.
In Austin, I'll need some Mexican food, some sun on my face, and some time strolling along South Congress with my parents.
Misha: I’ll enjoy visiting a café or a museum, but I often find myself in a park, or another natural area when I visit a city.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
Taylor: We sell our herbal products - tea blends, culinary herbs, and a variety of herbal remedies - at farmers markets and local stores. I love introducing people to our products and to a new way of thinking about their health. Growing herbs and using them medicinally myself has also been inspiring.
Misha: A desire to be good to the Earth and live well. We farm in a dynamic freeform way, drawing inspiration from all around us in the natural world, in our communities, and in each other.
Have you noticed a change in yourself or your work since moving away from the city?
Taylor: Sometimes completing a single task on a farm can involve solving four problems in the process. I'm not a natural when it comes to problem-solving, and living here has made me have to develop ways of coming up with alternative solutions. I would like to think that I've become more patient and more competent.
Misha: I feel ever more grounded in myself and my work.
Walk us through a typical day in your country existence?
Taylor: There's no typical day here, every day is a-typical! Perhaps that's what makes it so different from the city, where routines are key. Here, we are always working around the whims of the weather and the plants and upcoming markets or orders. Although the day always starts with breakfast and ends with dinner, what happens in between ranges widely. There are some animal chores (checking on the chickens and sheep), herb processing (blending teas, pressing tinctures, packaging products), farmers market planning (we run our local farmers market & sell at another), homestead tasks (putting up tomatoes or making pesto), computer work (emails, website updates, communication with our vendors)...the list goes on.
Misha: The rhythm of days is always evolving through the seasons. It the spring and summer we go through planting, harvesting, and processing in waves. We get to emails and calls when we have a moment. In the fall and winter we’re putting the fields and yards to bed for winter, stacking wood, and stocking the root cellar. Winter is a time to be slower, to process and rejuvenate from the season, and to wizard up creations in the apothecary.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn’t have dared to try before moving from the city?
Starting our own business!
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
Taylor: My happy place is sitting in a chair beneath the maple behind our house in the late afternoon with a cup of tea or wine, reading and looking up every one and a while to see what the chickens are squabbling about or watching the pairs of doves landing on the butternuts.
Misha: Many places and spaces, but perhaps none more than our woods, a place of mystery and history. The trees, rocks, soil, and perennial inhabitants of the woods offer a raw history of the land, which offers endless inspiration and wisdom to live by.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
Taylor: I think a lot of people associate the country life with relaxation. And it is true that my work here feels less like "work," since I'm participating in a vocation I love and am proud of. But country life is a never-ending endeavor. During the summer and fall, any time we're not farming is time we should probably be farming. Our days don't end at 5pm; our days end only when we're asleep. Even homesteading of any kind involves working during what would normally be down time. The payoffs are huge, but that doesn't mean it's easy or quick.
Misha: The country, in a more quiet, subtle way than the city, is rich with culture, craft, and skill. Its folk are quiet and persevering, many of them tending the land and providing valuable nourishment to the cities every day. Relationships are also much different here than in the city, everyone has many layers of connections. For many that history goes back generations, connecting land and people.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
Taylor: Being a farmer means that every year, there are things we say we’ll be better at next year. The glorious truth is that it’s true; each year we are wiser, a little more skilled, a little more efficient, and always forgiving of ourselves for those tasks that we simply cannot complete. This coming year, our farm will grow and so will we, and that likely means an expanded product line, our products sold at more stores and markets, and discussions with new people about the world of herbs, which is a very fine world indeed.
Misha: We still have much settling in to do here. Next season will be our first since establishing our farm that we are not moving our plants from another property in the spring, so we will really be able to build upon our progress from last year. This includes building infrastructure such as a larger herb dryer and high tunnel, establishing new areas for perennial herbs, and continuing to improve our soils.