For most of us, herbs are an afterthought. We may put together a small back-porch planter with basil, thyme, and oregano, then delight in our ability to snip the ingredient when a recipe calls for it, but odds are you grab your crushed, dried herbs from the grocery store like everyone else.
Alise Torgusen knows firsthand what we’re missing out on. Based on a 10-acre farm nestled just outside of Madelia, Torgusen has undertaken a flavorful endeavor. In 2017 she started Under the Sun Herbs to produce local, sustainable herbs that can be used in a myriad of products.
Her journey to herbs and agriculture was unique compared to the generational farmers we’re accustomed to in this area. “I worked as a cosmetologist for almost seven years. And about halfway through that I just got really unsettled with the ingredients that I was finding in my products.”
Torgusen’s sentiments are a reflection of many millennials who now have the time and purchasing power to push companies toward more natural ingredients in their products. “I started experimenting with DIY stuff at home, started recommending that to my clients. And everything that I was finding and making had herbs in it, essential oils, dried herbs.”
In 2015 Torgusen began her career transition from cosmetology to horticulture. “I started at Drummers [Garden Center & Floral] as a seasonal employee. And that was really the first insight I had into the agricultural world. I fell in love with growing plants and I kind of had this “aha” moment: Oh, I could grow these herbs myself.”
Her instincts were spot on. It took a few years to build up a customer base at local farmers markets, but now, she’s seeing broader consumer demand. “Over the last couple years, I’ve had more interest from restaurants and other makers.”
Notably, Torgusen supplies Sweethaven Tonics, the wildly popular craft cocktail and mocktail concentrate company in New Ulm, with herbs for its bottled tonics. “We’ll see how it goes because Sweet Haven, their business is exploding,” she said. “…I could probably fill my half acre for just them and possibly not be enough!”
Under the Sun Herbs recently partnered with Wooden Spoon bakery and bistro in Mankato. “It sounds like they want it to be a year-round thing… What I love about the partnership with Wooden Spoon is that Natasha is just so locally focused, high-quality ingredient focused and so supportive of her farmers,” Torgusen said.
Even with growing success and fruitful new partnerships, Torgusen is keen to remember her core customers at the farmers market: “I have a huge demand there. Now my customer base has grown, so that’s enough to keep me busy just doing it myself.”
Southern Minnesotans are no strangers to farm life. Typically it’s not a solitary pursuit, which is why it’s impressive that Torgusen is a one-woman show. She currently handles all aspects of her business herself.
Would she consider hiring someone to help with her operations?
“Thought about it? Yeah. But the reality of farming, whether it’s big ag or small, is it’s not a hugely profitable business. There’s not always that extra overhead to hire someone,” Torgusen said. “I’m kind of treating it as more of a small homesteading business instead of trying to expand and stock all the grocery stores and all the restaurants.”
Torgusen’s dedication to her farm and DIY, can-do attitude is a good match for the niche market she’s chosen and her hands-on, natural approach. “Slow farming is what we call it. Or farming by hand. I don’t use any machinery,” Torgusen said. “No tillers, no tractors, just hand tools and small motored machinery, like weed whips and mowers.”
Though her farming methods are not technically organic, they are very similar, avoiding the red tape required for an official USDA Organic designation: “I do use a turkey manure-based fertilizer, but other than that I really don’t apply anything to my crops,” Torgusen said.
In recent years consumers have driven demand for more local, less industrialized food. The pandemic dumped fuel on the fire as supply chains were all but dismantled and people were left to supply themselves with local ingredients. Though the pandemic is now in the rear-view mirror, consumer interest in locally-grown foods isn’t dwindling. Direct-to-consumer farmers in the area will tell you that business is better than ever.
This reconnection with local food sources and the farming practices associated with them is particularly well-suited to one of Torgusen’s favorite crops. She loves to grow, sell, and expound upon the benefits of garlic. It’s rare to find someone that’s familiar with the wide assortment of garlic horticultural groups and even rarer to find someone who grows them.
“I’ve got 10 different varieties. The great thing about buying garlic locally and buying these different varieties is when you get down to it, they all have a different flavor, different cooking applications, storage, life, color, and size,” Torgusen said.
Most mass-produced garlic is grown in Asia using methods that have come under scrutiny: “The stuff that you find in the grocery store is typically shipped either from China or other places and it’s grown in questionable conditions and irrigated with questionable water,” Torgusen said.
Garlic is one of the stars of Under the Sun Herbs’ product offerings and a customer favorite. Torgusen proudly sings its praises. “It can really be the main feature of a dish rather than just that thing you throw in.”
Garlic is also a key ingredient in other popular Under the Sun Herbs products. It features a line of garlic seasoned salts that can be used in a range of meals, from eggs in the morning, to steaks in the evening. “I have a line of seasoned salts,” Torgusen said. “So, garlic salt, jalapeno garlic salt, garlic scape salt…”
Scapes are the immature flower stock of a garlic plant. Garlic growers snap them early in the season to encourage the plant to send more energy to the bulb, but the scapes are still edible. According to Torgusen, “It’s got a texture like asparagus, but a flavor of garlic.” Unique offerings like scapes are a testament to Torgusen’s dedication to her plants and products.
There’s a medicinal mindset at work on the farm as well. Torgusen knows that the benefits of edible plants go well beyond flavor. In addition to culinary herbs, she grows plants like lavender, chamomile, ginger, and turmeric, all of which are offered as teas for those who are hooked on the healing power of plants. She’s also got her eye on another plant powerhouse with medicinal properties: elderberries, the dark purple fruit of the American Black Elder shrub. Elderberries have exploded in popularity in recent years due to well-documented antiviral compounds.
“With COVID and everything, interest has definitely peaked,” Torgusen said. “I’d love to get into selling the fresh frozen berries, but right now I just make elderberry berry jelly and I can elderberry juice that I sell at market.”
Torgusen’s small farm is a testimony to generational change in the agricultural industry. Talking with her and touring her farm inspires a new respect for plants that have been passed over too often. But most importantly, it reveals a love for local agriculture that’s beyond praiseworthy.
She’s not alone in her passion. Younger generations are, albeit slowly, becoming more interested in ag. Whether these new food producers will be growing row crops, herbs, or something else entirely, remains to be seen. But Torgusen is eager to welcome them to the fold. “I’m hoping there are more people like me that are going to start taking over and bringing new ideas and new approaches.”
Under the Sun Herbs can be found at the Mankato Farmers Market every Saturday morning from 8 AM -12 PM.
Under the Sun Herbs
Email: [email protected]
Phone: (507) 351-9088