When it comes to harvesting herbs for tea, Tony DiMaggio takes a slow and steady approach.
For two years, the founder of Sacred Blossom Farm has tended almost an acre of herbs in Mondovi, Wisconsin, that are the foundation for three original blends of loose-leaf herbal teas.
Last year, he harvested 1,000 pound of herbs -- which is small potatoes compared to most herb farms -- but he believes the high quality teas he creates from those herbs surpass those currently on the market. The people drinking it seem to agree; since bringing his line to market in early 2017, distribution has skyrocketed. With the help of Co-op Partners Warehouse, Sacred Blossom tea is now available in about 50 locations in the Midwest, including the Wedge Co-op, Seward Co-op, and Tao Natural Foods. He also sells the tea blends and bulk herbs on sacredblossomfarm.com.
Medicinal properties and flavors are equally important to DiMaggio. “If it doesn’t taste great, people aren’t going to drink it. If it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to, then people aren’t going to buy it again,” he says. “Tiger” promotes focused energy through tulsi (holy basil), ginseng, ginkgo biloba, and lemongrass. “Dream” contains California poppies, hyssop, sage, cornflower, lavender, and red clover to induce sleep and relaxation. “Angel” is the least medicinally focused but the most delicious tasting of the blends. Its mixture of nettle, milky oats, fennel, apple, calendula flower, lemon balm, mint, rose petals, beets, and a touch of stevia promotes calm and nourishment.
The potency of the therapeutic properties and the flavors are determined by the quality of herbs; DiMaggio isn’t willing to settle for mediocre teas, and his farming practices reflect that. Most farms grow herbs like they do vegetables, using nitrogen and fertilizer to cultivate the biggest plants possible. Quick-growing, large plants are the least expensive way to yield the most plant material.
But DiMaggio says studies show that medicinal herbs taken from the wild are more potent, so he decided to irrigate and fertilize his farmland less often. The plants grow slower but have time to absorb secondary metabolites, or medicinal compounds. He also grows his plants in densely spaced polycultures, rather than in wide, open fields with lots of exposed soil and frequent cultivation. He packs them closely together and mixes varieties. “Having that biodiversity above ground leads to biodiversity below ground, especially in these perennial systems like I have, it creates more quality medicinal herbs,” he says (something else studies have shown).
DiMaggio cuts the plants by hand to ensure the best quality leaves, unlike most herb farms that use big mowers that cut everything down, including weeds. If a farm does that daily, the target plants aren’t always at peak potency or ready to be harvested. Thanks to his herb dryer – the largest for diversified herb production in the Midwest – he can wait for the right time to harvest and dry them more slowly, at lower temperatures.
The Wisconsin farmer has created an unexpected niche for someone who was a self-described “traveling nomad” in his late teens and 20s. It wasn’t until he landed a summer job at Natura Farms, a pick-your-own berry farm in Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, that he became fascinated with farming and eventually developed an appreciation for growing food for health. He liked the work so much, he returned every summer for six years and apprenticed under manager Paul Otten. After traveling for a couple of years and visiting other farms to figure out how to live a financially sustainable and peaceful farm life that honored the values of health and stewardship of the land, DiMaggio decided medicinal herbs were the best thing to grow.
When he initially contemplated how to bring his vision to life, business mentors suggested he start a tea company rather than an herb farm. “The problem is, if I were selling teas with other people’s herbs, my teas wouldn’t be any better than anyone else’s,” DiMaggio says. “It wouldn’t really work. There’s no way of doing this company without the premium quality herbs that I grow. While I appreciate that advice, I threw it out the window, because it didn’t apply here.”
It would seem his instincts were right. While tending the herbs is an “endless” job, DiMaggio seems to enjoy it. This year, he’s expanding to two acres and will also offer farm tours in July to introduce consumers to his farming practices and products.
“It’s easy to create a pretty good cup of tea,” DiMaggio says. “But to create a really great one, it takes a lot of fine tuning to get the flavors just right.”