Healthy Food, Healthy Community
EMMA JAGOZ, MOON VALLEY FARM
Emma Jagoz is a young and ambitious farmer, consciously raising gourmet vegetables and two children on Moon Valley Farm in Baltimore County, MD.
The name for her farm comes from a series of stories her father wrote when Emma and her siblings were little: “Moon Valley Stories.” The stories featured the four children, and each child had a super power. Emma’s was to have heightened communication with plants and animals. In her father’s stories, she had a big greenhouse and a barn, where she had plants and animals cohabitating in peace. Her father wrote those stories when she was only three or four, but clearly he nailed her super power.
When it came time for Emma to name the farm, which she started on her parents’ property, she immediately thought of Moon Valley.
It’s now a five-year-old farm built completely out of the intention and determination of a resourceful young woman. And maybe some pixie dust magic, as well.
Why start a farm?
In college Emma was actively involved in various social movements, doing such things as organizing a benefit concert for Darfur and another one for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “I kept focusing on all these wrongs about our society,” she says. Her course of study put her pretty much on a grad school track, and “I’m really an action-oriented person, and I couldn’t see myself going to graduate school. And what was I going to do with a degree in American Studies and Women’s Studies?
“I really like learning about social injustices, and when I was thinking about it, in this time and space, it kind of boils down to food. People are eating shit food, corporations are making money off of people eating shit food, and then the pharmaceutical companies are making money off of selling them pills to help fix their problems that really are just from eating this non-food food.”
“And people are increasingly independent. They’re separated from their community. They live in the same neighborhood but don’t know their neighbors. My family has lived in that same house for more than 30 years, and we hardly ever spoke to the people on the street. It’s the kind of community where everyone goes to work all day so they can pay their mortgage; they don’t really talk to each other or hang out.
“I wanted something different for my kids. I wanted to be involved in something different. I think that action and community strength and community health is a major part of regaining justice.
“I started a farm because I wanted to do something good for my community. I didn’t just want to have a J.O.B. And a life where I’m just making ends meet. I wanted something more than that. And in some ways I feel like my college experience helped to show me that, if it did nothing else. I realized that I wanted to do something for the good of the world, and I think that that is through empowering the community, and that means connecting to people. Like to your neighbors, to people that you wouldn’t hang out with, people with different backgrounds, with different political views than you—people who might scare you at first, people who are different than you.”
“In this society we’re so separated. Like, ‘is my grass as good as your grass?’ And the neighbors are kind of passive-aggressively bickering about that kind of thing. Instead of doing that, you could just farm that land, and heal, and come together as a community. It’s really interesting, my two next-door neighbors, the two places I farm, are extremely different from each other. And from inside their houses they thought that they were such different people. They were surprised when they learned that they both agreed with me. That they were both into what I was into: my farm.
“My neighbor on the other side of me—and we’ve been neighbors for decades—has extraordinarily different viewpoints, political and otherwise, from my family. But when I started farming in the back yard, he saw that I was working really hard and he highly values that work ethic, and he values growing his own food, so we bonded from that. He knows a lot about mechanics, and I didn’t know anything, so I started asking him about mechanics. He fixed—and he taught me how to fix—my tiller, my lawnmower, my truck—all sorts of things. We couldn’t have more different perspectives. But now instead of sitting next to each other thinking bad thoughts, we think good thoughts.
“I think food unifies everybody. Everybody needs to eat. And healthy, fresh, organic, local food is increasingly rare. And if my generation doesn’t do anything about that, then nobody will, and we’ll all be stuck in this independent pill-swallowing world that is miserable. And I don’t want that. I don’t want that for my kids. So, yeah, I thought that starting a farm could help.
“There’s something about having kids that makes you want to do what you believe in. I kept thinking that you only have one chance at raising kids, and it impacts them so much. It seems like people who are screwed up are screwed up because of their childhood, and people who are a success are successful because of their childhood. I felt like I’ve had a good life so far because of my childhood, and I really wanted to step up and show that this generation can work hard, and farming is not just for men or people who aren’t smart, or whatever the stereotypes are. It’s for all sorts of people. Because, again, everyone has to eat.”
From idea to reality
I made the assumption that Emma had been dreaming of having a farm for a long time, since those early childhood stories perhaps. But I was way off. She actually thought about it for just a few months. “I’d always wanted to start a business, but I had thought it would be something like a café or a coffee shop. But then I realized, ‘wow, you really need a lot of money to do that.’
“Honestly, at one point I wrote down a list of what I had on my side. I didn’t have money, but I had a computer, and I had access to some land [at her parents’ house]….so how could I start a business with that? And I thought: Farming. I can grow food.”
She and her husband and infant son moved to her parents’ house in the winter of 2010, and Emma got to work expanding her parents’ vegetable garden, which she had helped them begin the year before. She was so tired during this process that she suspected she had Lyme’s disease, but it was her mom who made the correct diagnosis: pregnancy. Her second child, a daughter, was born in January of 2011.
Emma made the decision that she would launch her farm in the spring of 2012, and her plan was always to do a farm-based vegetable CSA. She figured having her customers come to the farm would work out well, because she was juggling two kids and the farm work. Her son was just 16 months older than her baby daughter, so she had her hands full. She worked while her babies napped, or with them strapped to her, or at night with a headlamp. She kept a pack ‘n play in the barn.
The soil needed to be built up, so she spent the winter making compost with free manure from local horse farms, free straw she got from Craigslist, and leaves she collected from her neighbor’s yard. She made a fence the cheapest way she could, out of bamboo poles she cut herself. She got a hoop house from Craigslist for pretty cheap and put it together with some friends.
I asked Emma if she had a good wealth of knowledge about farming before she started.
“No, not really!” She had become a master gardener the year prior to starting the farm, but her training through Baltimore County was primarily in turf and flowers, with some vegetables. Conveniently, the master gardeners were in the same building as the Maryland Agricultural Center, and people there would point her to farming resources. She fulfilled her requisite volunteer hours by working at a farm that ran a CSA, so she got some exposure there.
The rest she’s taught herself from books and the Internet. Eliot Coleman’s book The New Organic Grower “is a fantastic book. It tells you how to farm, on a lot of different scales.
“A lot of [my learning] is flying by the seat of my pants. You know—when something comes up, just figuring it out. Sometimes even figuring out that it was the wrong answer. With time and money spent working on the wrong answer, you learn really quickly to not do that again. It’s a pretty high learning curve when you have so much invested in it.”
That first summer at the farm, she ran a 15-member, 20-week CSA. About half of the members were people she knew. Having never grown commercially before, “I was nervous every single day. And I still am. I mean, anything can screw it up: too much rain, not enough rain, hail, too much sun.”
So here’s the picture: a 25-year-old mother of two babies, whose husband commutes all the way to DC every day for work (that’s got to be at least an hour and a half each way), with little experience farming, builds a farm from nothing and grows enough food to feed 15 families over 20 weeks. I keep wondering how she did it all. Seriously, when my daughter was a baby I felt really accomplished if I managed to take a shower.
“I’ve always been ambitious. If you don’t aim high you won’t know high. I wanted a reason to motivate myself and go out there and do it. It’s a fire under you. Starting the CSA helped me get out there. I had a lot of volunteers, because I think a lot of people saw my drive and my goals and really wanted to help me get there. So a lot of people came to help me. I never turned down any volunteer, ever.”
“I very purposefully jumped into farming because I thought it was a great way to raise kids. I think that kids need a lot of time outside. I think nature teaches kids about life and death, about change, about patience, about humility, about acceptance, and so much more. On a basic level, farming for me was the constant excuse to have my kids outside, and I think that being outside is the most important thing.”
“I was and am determined to have my kids know where food comes from,” says Emma. “I don’t want their answer to be ‘the grocery store’ when asked that question. I want them to know what a living chicken looks like and how they need sunlight and grass and a straw-filled home to be raised properly. I want them to not only know how carrots grow but how carrots taste different in the summer versus the fall, and how to store them for the winter. I think that having a basic knowledge of how life works, what food is ripe in what season, and how we as humans can interact with the earth for mutual benefits is our job as parents.
“I couldn’t think of a better way to provide that for my children than having them grow up on a farm. They’ve done everything with me; they know how compost works, they know how to start seeds, transplant, weed, how to care for chickens, how to wash and store produce, they’ve watched me troubleshoot mechanical problems and building problems, and they know how to cook with the food we grow.”
Emma’s five-year-old daughter seems to have a love of both growing things and picking them for huge bouquets she carries around. She’s able to identify what’s what in the garden and growing wild, and when I first met her, she was devouring purslane she found growing wild. A lot of adults don’t know what purslane is—and I had to have this little one show me what it looked like growing wild—so it seemed remarkable to me when she squealed, “I love purslane!”
Emma’s son, aged seven, has a talent for cooking. Recently he cooked dinner for his family: stir-fried tofu and cooked carrots. He chopped the carrots himself and seasoned them with salt, pepper, thyme and a pinch of sugar. “They were delicious!” reports Emma. After he cooks, he analyzes his seasonings, thinking what worked and what didn’t. He loves to eat what he cooks, and he encourages his sister to try things, too—a gift for any parent. Did I mention that he’s seven years old?
“For me,” says Emma, “I think that the main benefit of raising my kids on the farm is the peace of mind that I did what I could in order to accomplish my goals of raising my kids outside and have them be aware of how food and life works. I know there are drawbacks to raising my kids while hustling to grow a business that makes enough money for me to justify all the hours spent doing it, but I try not to dwell on that for the same reasons. I did my best to provide my kids with the environment that I strongly believed they needed to be healthy, safe, happy, and well-informed about how life works, and I think raising them on the farm accomplished that.”
Kids are kids
Anyone who has spent time around children knows how much they like to be included, and heard. This is my positive way of saying that kids require a lot of attention. During my first visit with Emma, her daughter, now five, was with us. As we talked, there were regular interjections of Mommy!… Mommy!…Hi Mommy!…When can I go inside? I was in awe of Emma’s masterful parenting skills as she sweetly gave her daughter the attention she needed while also gently redirecting her and taking a firm stand on going inside.
Says Emma, “yeah, the kids get stuck and a little bored and they can’t think of something to do, and they hassle you for a little bit. But then they find something to do and they’re fine.” As if to illustrate the point, we can hear her daughter at high volume in the background: What… can… I …do?
Emma marvels at single, childless people and their capacity. “Like, wow, you have your whole brain to yourself! All the time! At the same time, I’m not sure I would have had as much motivation without the kids. It’s hard to say. Because I see people all the time busying themselves with other things, but I’m so focused because I need to prove something to them, to provide for them, to show them good work ethics. In a lot of ways they also make my schedule better. I don’t go out to any parties. Ever. Because I have to put them to bed. And so, like, I go to bed early, and that helps me to be able to get up early.”
She’ll often be outside in the pre-dawn morning, working by the light of a headlamp before the kids get up. Her schedule revolves around the kids, laughing that “you always have to feed them!” She also laughs that she thinks of kids as large mammalian pests in the garden. One time, one of her children pulled up a whole row of carrots and ate them. So now she factors a certain amount of child scavenging into her garden planning. She also created a little garden just for them to fool around with.
Kids in the moment
I asked Emma for her thoughts on the differences between farm and non-farm kids, and with characteristic practical wisdom, she answered, “I’m not going to pretend that I know all the ways in which my kids are different than other people’s kids for growing up on a farm. I don’t, and I’m not sure that those kind of gross generalizations are helpful to parents—it just contributes to parent guilt, which is a dangerous thing for the minds of parents.”
Yeah, I know about that parent guilt; I’m pretty much the master.
There are times, for me, when hanging out with little kids can be much more satisfying than being around grown-ups. They are so in the moment. Without drawing any generalizations, I will say that it’s especially delightful to be outside with kids who have grown up with a close relationship to nature, and to watch them interact with the environment around them instead of a TV or computer screen.
Here are a few snippets of farm-kid adorability: On one of my visits, Emma and the kids and I went to the neighbor’s field to remove swallowtail caterpillars from the fennel and to eat some radishes. Emma’s son only wanted to eat the white radishes, so if he pulled out a non-white one, he stuck it back in the ground. “It should be fine—the roots are still intact!”
Emma’s daughter was off running and collecting another huge bouquet of wild things, singing “Dancing in the moonlight!” She ran up to her mom, hugged her tightly, and said, “I will never forget you!” Later, back up near the barn where people were coming to pick up their CSA share, her daughter very pointedly asked Emma, “Do you have any rabbit trouble?” Imagine a high-pitched voice sounding more like “Do you have any wabbit trouble?”
Her son, meanwhile, was busy making a plan for getting rain: “Get a giant flying bulldozer, and then fly it up and find the clouds, and then push the rain clouds over here.”
Sounds like a good plan to me.
Start Where You Are
After her first successful CSA season, Emma started in on her next goal: to get some more land. She still didn’t have any money to rent or purchase land, so she got creative. She had noticed that her next-door neighbor didn’t pay much attention to the land in back of her house, except to pay people to mow it, so Emma knocked on her door and asked if she could farm it. Her neighbor was very enthusiastic.
So Emma gained a nice field in exchange for a CSA share. Then she went around to other neighbors, continuing to add land. She’s presently up to seven parcels of land, two close to her one at home, and four about 15 to 20 minutes away.
The landowners are happy to have Emma farming. “They get vegetables from us, but on top of that—if they are zoned right and they can prove that someone is making income from the land—they can get a major tax break. And some people have just donated us land because they think that farming is a great thing for young people to do.”
“I come from the perspective that if you want to make change, then starting in your community is the way to do it. That’s what I did when I came back home and started a farm in my community.
“Farming on seven different properties now throughout the county has made me realize that so many people have land that could be farmed. So many people. We’ve been offered more land than we’ve taken on.
“So I think you should start in your own community. I realized I had the most power where I had the most roots. The fact that my parents had been upstanding citizens in this community for over 30 years—and my dad’s family for more than 60 years—gave me really strong roots, and it gave me really great connections. And I could do more stuff here than I could ever do by myself if I moved to Detroit, for example, to start an urban farm. It’s not that I’m against traveling or moving, but for me I was able to launch and have a much bigger impact because of my family, starting where I had roots.”
“When I asked my neighbor if I could farm her back yard, we hadn’t been friends before. But she did know that my family had lived next door for 34 years, so there was trust there, because there was proximity. I would never suggest that somebody move into a new neighborhood and knock on someone’s door and think that they would have success. But that’s why I was able to do it. That’s been the basis for the majority of my success.
“Now I know almost everybody in my neighborhood. Everybody has the impression that I work really hard. People respect hard work and honesty, and I think people respect farmers in general. Conservatives and liberals. And everybody in between. And so there’s hardly a job more unifying, because everybody respects farmers.”
And the farm keeps growing
Each year has brought new equipment, increased infrastructure, and expanded markets. A year into her farming, Emma started selling to Woodberry Kitchen, a well-known restaurant in Baltimore that features locally sourced ingredients. She sells to them every week during the growing season and has been expanding her winter growing every year so that she can continue to sell frequently throughout the winter.
The CSA in year two grew to 25 people (from its start at 15), and in year three expanded to 45 people. That year more than half of her volume of sales was to restaurants. And a frequent volunteer from the beginning, Jason—whose wife was a good friend of Emma’s husband’s—came on as an employee. The next year he joined Emma as a part owner in the farm.
Jason and Emma prepare one of their borrowed fields for planting
Now in year five, the farm has had four employees: one full-time, one full-time only for the summer, and the others part time. Labor is a huge expenditure, but Emma says, “We’re aiming pretty big.”
The farm has made a profit each season, except those first seasons when Emma didn’t pay herself, “which is why it looks like we made money. And I did start with no money, which is a ridiculous thing to do, but you know, if you don’t have it you can’t start with it. So it’s pretty bootstrap.
“We got a personal loan from Jason’s mom for the high tunnel, but that’s the only loan we’ve taken out so far. Other than that, last season we raised $10,000 through Barnraiser (a crowdfunding platform) for our mobile walk-in cooler.
“The three sites here at home total about one acre in cultivation, but the four sites about 15 to 20 minutes away total about two acres, so there are a lot of crops over there, and we had to cool them down. Last season, Jason and I would get there at four in the morning so we could harvest lettuce and greens and bring them back to the walk-in cooler here at home before the heat set in (and presumably before her kids got up), to preserve the quality of our product. We wanted to stop doing that crazy commute. So I had the idea to build a mobile walk-in cooler on a trailer, so we could take it to any of the farm sites. It can be plugged in, and it has a generator as well. I built it this past winter. It’s run by a coolbot. I put a retractable awning on it, so that it could be a mobile wash station and a farm stand. So even though we’re not doing farmers markets right now, I’m starting to get really real with my ambition level and thinking ahead a little bit.”
“I come at farming from both a human health and an environmental health perspective. I’m really concerned about our society and the direction it’s headed. I think that technology is amazing and really cool, but adults not knowing where food comes from is terrifying. And that’s a large part of my experience with healthy food, is that adults have no idea where it comes from, beyond the basic eight vegetables. They don’t know any others. They don’t know that vegetables taste good, and that they grow on plants. I think people need to eat a lot more locally. We don’t just want to suck away all the water from California and ride that until it’s done.”
She’s taken on a huge enterprise that requires unending hard work and dedication. How does she do it all? I asked her what she does on those days when she doesn’t want to get out of bed to work. “I get up and do it. I remember my commitment to the people who have prepaid me [from the CSA]. I absolutely wake up with that motivation to not disappoint them. It’s major fuel. I’ve got to produce these shares every week. And having people working for us helps. I have to be the motivator. And the very simple notion of raising my kids well is a primary driving force for me.”
Gratitude for garlic
Garlic, Emma’s favorite thing to grow, kind of follows the emotional roller coaster of farm life. “You plant in late October, when you haven’t planted for a while. It’s the last thing before winter. From February on, the rest of the season becomes such a barrage of constant planting, so with garlic it’s nice to plant just one thing at a time. When I plant the garlic, it’s like ‘Oohh—planting again!’
“They sprout when other stuff is dying in November, and it’s the first thing you see in the spring. In the spring I always get feelings of desperation, like ‘nothing’s going to grow ever!’ When it’s so early and the ground is still cold and hard. I’ve made all of these projections for how much stuff I’m going to grow, and taken all of this money from my CSA members, but I’m like, I have nothing! And then the garlic’s there, so I feel like at least I have one thing.
Washing celeriac. Notice all the garlic hanging above.
Drying the freshly washed celeriac
“When you harvest it in July, it’s the first thing to go into storage, so when I start panicking about having stuff for the fall, the garlic is the stuff I’ve had for the longest time and will have for the longest time. Garlic is just always a relief. The timing is just perfect.”
And a needed reminder that the cycle will continue.
Just as Emma is grateful for that garlic, I am grateful for farmers like her who have committed themselves to the kind of life they want for their children and communities: where land is put to use to grow healthy food; where the soil is made fertile; where people have access to real, nourishing food; and where children grow up with a knowledge of and respect for the natural world.