ASHLAND, Wis. – There’s an important circle that some people forget. As we travel that circle we encounter love, respect and understanding one after the other. It doesn’t matter which we encounter first because it will lead to the others. So long as we keep moving on that circular path things happen in a good way. Relationships with land, water, plants, air and people become stronger.
For a select group of folks love of the natural world draws them to life partners. A few years ago Owen Maroney was working on a project called Mino Wiisinidaa! – Let’s Eat Good! – at the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission in Odanah, Wisconsin. She and her colleagues were collecting and studying traditional Anishinaabe recipes, compiling them in a book and sharing the traditional knowledge with the Ojibwe Nations in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Owen found herself at a farm market as she looked for quantities of native wild ingredients for the recipes.
“It so happened,” she said, “Gil Schwartz and a couple of his friends were foraging and decided to sell their surplus at the farmers market. Some of those foods they were foraging were traditional foods we could use in our recipes. That’s how we met. Our conversations centered around foraging and harvesting, and grew from there. It was mutual appreciation and I learned a lot from Gil. Being able to learn from each other was very important.”
After the two discovered themselves traveling in the same circle a lot happened. Mino Wiisinidaa! was published and distributed. He started a business in 2015 called Seasonally Sourced Foods LLC, through which he marketed his sustainably foraged and grown food – to individuals as well as restaurants.
“I wanted to showcase all of the amazing wild edibles in our region – especially those wild edibles that are tasty, easy to gather and abundant,” Schwartz said. “So my focus was on abundant foods like stinging nettle or wild ramps. I formed partnerships with restaurants that wanted to feature wild foods. One featured a wild breakfast bowl with wild mushrooms or milkweed pods or stinging nettle greens, with a side of wild rice and eggs. I also set up at farmers markets and sold wild foods.”
Meanwhile love grew; the two married. They moved to a farm with land that needed respect and understanding.
“It’s a 10-acre farm with about 3 acres open and the rest wooded,” he said. “It’s a perfect blend for farming and foraging. We pick fiddlehead ferns in the woods, gather maple syrup and several species of gourmet wild mushrooms that grow naturally.
“We also launched a specialty-crop part of our business. We began cultivation of unique and interesting specialty crops – mostly perennial vegetables and fruits, and cultivated mushrooms. We have a flock of ducks and we sell duck eggs. This land produces a lot of berries, root crops, herbs, mushrooms and eggs.”
For the past three years community-supported-agriculture subscriptions have been available for duck eggs.
“We’re borrowing an egg incubator and are expanding our flock this year,” Owen Schwartz said. “During much of the year the ducks are free-range. They go into the fenced garden before seedlings come up. Once the plants come up they free-range outside of the garden.
“They aren’t just for eggs; they’re also for bug control, their manure is regenerative (as fertilizer). We’re adding carbon and natural nutrients back into the earth.”
Gil Schwartz said, “We describe our farm as a regenerative farm. It is really beyond sustainable. We are actually adding more organic matter to the land each year. We add massive amounts of local wood chips and mulch each year. We are sequestering carbon. We are growing perennial plants that also sequester carbon. Our garden is no-till; we use thick mulch.”
A major advantage of the heavy mulch is that the established plants do well in dry conditions
Owen Schwartz said, “We have mushrooms throughout our entire garden. They help to provide nutrients through their root network. They help spread the nutrients we put on the garden throughout the site.”
The couple works with local farmers to source organic hay and local manure for their farm.
Gil Schwartz said, “Beyond that we make all our own fertilizer and we are particularly proud of that. It cuts down on overhead expenses, and makes our business financially viable and sustainable. Perennial plants get bigger and more abundant over time so we don’t constantly re-till and reseed. There is a lot more up-front effort but it pays big dividends over time.”
The term “sweat equity” is heard a lot in conversation with Owen and Gil Schwartz. Their extensive composting system is human-powered. Wood chips, mulch and manure are moved by wheelbarrow around their large market garden. Outbuildings like their greenhouse and duck house are homemade from salvaged scrap. Salvaged fencing 8 feet tall encloses the garden.
One discovers their circle is larger than their farm as they discuss the beehives a partner brings to their garden every year. There are partners who invite them to forage on their land, partners who supply wood chips and manure, and partners who purchase their produce. And there are partnerships with organizations like Authentic Superior and the Bayfield Foods Co-op that help them with marketing.
Standing near the garden, the couple share the wide variety of crops they grow. Several varieties of currants, elderberries, hazelnuts, grapes and hops are there. Other plots contain Sunchokes – Jerusalem artichokes, skirret, groundnuts, earth pea, mountain yams and marsh mallow. And there is an abundance of mushrooms.
Sharing knowledge is important.
“I lead community workshops because not only is harvesting and cultivation of these plants important, so is sharing the knowledge and empowering community members to recognize and harvest fungi and plants on their own,” Gil Schwartz said. “I do workshops about once a quarter at the Chequamegon Food Co-op in Ashland (Wisconsin) as well as the Duluth Co-op (in Minnesota). We have had classes on how to harvest and process acorns. For a wild salad workshop we went around Ashland and identified edible flowers and greens. I pre-harvested some so we could prepare them in the classroom and people could taste them.
“My classes have a strong experiential hands-on component. For me getting the facts and data is good, but hands-on experience solidifies the knowledge in my mind. I also talk with customers about foods I sell at the farm markets. Milkweed is one of the more-intriguing plants I sell. It can be eaten in four main stages – young shoots, flower buds, young pods and the early silk in the pods. It’s fun to showcase it at the table and it has become quite popular with some people.
“Some people are concerned I sell milkweed because monarch butterflies need milkweed to survive. But one of the best ways to help monarchs is to nurture more milkweed. Developing a love for milkweed isn’t going to lead to people decimating fields of milkweed. It makes people protective of milkweed. I pick in a farmer’s 20-acre field. I only pick a little bit here and there, not every plant. By promoting love of milkweed, growing it (and) teaching others to grow it, I get people more excited about it as they grow and promote the plant.”
A new specialty crop for the couple is hemp. In 2019 they obtained licensing to grow certified industrial hemp.
“We’re calling it Northwoods Botanicals,” he said. “We’re producing state-certified hemp that’s high in cannabinoids like (cannabidiol) and (cannabigerol). It’s exciting to be growing these plants locally, and helping humans and even pets. We have the CBD oil available for dogs and cats. We already have many returning customers who say it helps their animals. We have good reports back from humans who have used our products too. Our naturally grown hemp plants are processed locally. We have new products including a topical salve.
“It’s a full circle. Having a diversified farm means you never get bored. There’s always something to do. There are so many different crops and animals. One system plays off the other systems. Wood chips create mushrooms, create fertilizer; fertilizer creates plants that feed the ducks. It just makes farming more exciting. It’s rewarding beyond the financial part. It’s rewarding being able to feed the community, to be able to keep heirloom varieties alive and to grow rare perennial vegetables.”
As one looks at the extensive market garden a family member, Tulsi the dog, goes on the job. She sounds off and charges out to patrol the perimeter fence. Another family member, Theo the cat, jumps onto Owen Schwartz’s shoulders to caress her. Ducks quack happily in the winter pen while crows caw in the woods. Thousands of perennial plants are being nurtured in concert with wild and cultivated fungi in specially amended soil.
Produce for the community is made with love. Love unveils knowledge that brings understanding and respect. All is shared. The love radiating from every being at the farm is pervasive. What is going on here is far deeper than the depth of amended soil in the garden.
People wonder how to save the world. Owen and Gil Schwartz show us the way. Their circle of love, respect and understanding is expanding. There is room for everyone.
Jason Maloney is an “elderly” farm boy from Marinette County, Wisconsin. He’s a retired educator, a retired soldier and a lifelong Wisconsin resident. He lives on the shore of Lake Superior with his wife, Cindy Dillenschneider, and Red, a sturdy loyal Australian Shepherd.