A Whole-Diet CSA
MO MOUTOUX, MOUTOUX ORCHARDS
Farmer Mo Moutoux and husband Rob, of Moutoux Orchards in Purcellville, VA, have an enviable set-up and an admirable work-life balance (well, for farmers that is, because we all know that farmers work like crazy). During my first visit I thought I had wandered into Farm Heaven. It was a perfect August day, not too hot, and Mo’s vegetables, flowers and herbs were bursting with lush ripeness. At that time, Mo was Mo Moody, not yet married to Rob, and they were busy getting the farm ready for their upcoming wedding.
There was magic in the air, perhaps from the upcoming wedding, or from the divine aroma of huge tulsi plants in Mo’s herb garden, or from the fecund beauty of the farm itself.
I joined Mo for her morning chores, which that day were feeding the chickens, ducks, and pigs their organic non-GMO feed, and bottle feeding some newborn calves. Morning chores are rotated among Mo, Rob and two full-time farm workers, so that no one gets stuck doing the same thing day after day. Chores are basically divided as “somebody milks, somebody feeds somebody else, and somebody starts harvesting.” As we drove around the farm in a little utility vehicle, taking buckets of feed to various locations, Mo described their operation. The more she talked, the more I thought these two really had life figured out.
Mo and Rob are among a small number of farmers nationwide who offer what’s called a whole-diet CSA. Their mission is to serve as the grocery store for their members and provide almost everything that members would need, year round, 52 weeks a year. They offer a variety of meat cuts, including chicken, pork and beef. They have eggs, both chicken and duck, and unpasteurized milk and yogurt. There is soft cheese available also, when there is enough milk for Mo to make it. Membership includes whatever vegetables and fruit are in season. The farm also grows wheat and mills its own flour.
The farm can’t entirely replace the grocery store, but it is possible for members to have the majority of their food needs met by the farm. Exceptions would be whole grains and beans, hard cheeses, fish, oils, and any processed foods.
A free-choice program
When Mo described how they structure their CSA, it sounded too good to be true. It wasn’t until I heard Rob explain their CSA in exactly the same way at the Future Harvest CASA annual conference that I finally really believed her.
Here’s how it works. Every member pays the same price, per person. This coming season the monthly price per person will be $270, with the membership cost for children being less, depending on their age. Membership allows people to come to the farm each week and choose what they want from what is laid out in the barn. Mo doesn’t prebox or bag anything. She just puts it all out and people take what they need for the week. There are guidelines as to how much meat to take, but no enforcement. However, Mo says there is no need; people take just what they need and no more.
This just astounds me. My first image when Mo explained it to me was of folks walking away with armloads of bacon. But Mo kept repeating that people just take what they need, and not more. What a concept.
Mo likens their setup to a gym membership, and just like a gym, some people use the farm a lot, and some people use it less, but everyone feels like they are getting what they need and getting their money’s worth. The farm definitely shares in the abundance when they have it. When there are lots and lots of tomatoes, for example, people can take as much as they want for their own canning at home. Some members have taken up to 14 boxes. The day I was there, there was an overabundance of pickling cucumbers.
Mo says that the biggest complaint of the traditional CSA model is that people get things they don’t want, or don’t know how to use. Often you hear that it’s too much food. “The way we organize it, people have a lot of ownership over what they are taking and cooking. If they only need one onion that week, then they’ll only take one onion and not feel guilty about wasting food. So it works really well for us and our members.”
Current membership is at 45 families, feeding about 80 to 85 people, and the wait list is longer than their current membership. “Part of the success,” Mo says, “is certainly because people are invested in the farm and in us as a couple, and they want us to do well, and they think it’s worth what we ask.” Members feel like the farm is their own; they bring their kids for pickup day and walk around. They bring their compost back to the farm to continue to enrich the soil.
The other strong draw is the unpasteurized milk, which can be difficult to find. The farm does not sell milk products outright, but membership includes ownership of a Herd Share, a legally binding agreement whereby members own a portion of the dairy herd and Mo and Rob take care of it for them. Because they own the herd, members are allowed to consume any product from their own cows. Including the milk.
Some members, especially young pregnant moms, have come to the farm and gone through the milking process before they joined the CSA. They wanted to get to know Rob and Mo and feel more comfortable with where their milk was coming from.
Quality of life
After Mo fed all the animals, we watched Rob milk the cows for a while. At the time of my visit, the farm had 19 cows on the farm, and six were being milked. The farm is a once-a-day milking dairy. For production sake, a lot of dairies milk twice a day, but Mo said they don’t push their cows to produce. “Our cows are smaller and don’t need twice-a-day milking. Milking once a day gets us less milk, but our quality of life is better and our cows are happier.”
Quality of life was a theme that came up repeatedly during our conversations. A healthy work-life balance is critical to Mo and Rob, and they try hard to maintain it. She and Rob talk a lot about what they call “martyr farmers,” those farmers who love to go on with “oh woe is me…farming is too hard, and too much rain and it’s too hot…”
Says Mo, “For us it’s like, If you don’t love it, don’t do it. We love what we do, but we also love seeing our friends, and going to concerts and going out to dinner. And at a certain point you have to put the farm at the farm and have a life. And I think that’s our biggest challenge to figure out how to do that successfully. Because with what we do, it’s impossible. So staff… Having staff that we trust and want to be around. That has saved our lives.
“And we make conscious decisions all the time. For example, next year Rob and I will earn less money, but we are going to hire an additional staff person, because it’s a quality of life issue. We would like to have a little bit more time to go do other stuff, like go away for a weekend if we wanted to. Or we’d like to take two weeks off in the winter and have enough people on the farm to do it.”
The perfect meal
Once Rob had finished milking and Mo had washed the cows’ udders, morning chores were over and we went inside for what they called “breakfast.” They had already put in a few hours’ work, so to me it felt like it was time for lunch. I couldn’t believe how much work they’d already done on an empty stomach.
Mo and Rob proceeded to make one of the most satisfying meals I’ve ever had. Almost everything on the table came from their farm. Bacon, eggs, bread, jam, fruit, and the best yogurt I’ve ever tasted. It was all so fresh and so deeply delicious. I’m struggling with words to describe how profoundly “right” that meal felt.
Mo sums it up best when she describes her choice to be a farmer. “It feels like the most honest thing you can do. Feeding yourself and your family and your community is at its most basic. It’s a basic necessity of life. Everyone has to eat, and being in a position to allow people to eat well feels like the most honest job you can have.”
The Most Honest Job
I’ve thought a lot about those words since being with Mo. She articulated so beautifully the feeling that’s at the heart of this Grounded Women project and why I feel so drawn to spending time with women farmers. I feel that honesty—and I would add authenticity—every time I’m lucky enough to be out on a farm. I feel it, too, in my own kitchen when I am cooking my fresh CSA vegetables. It feels solid and true, and I feel a deeper connection to what matters most.
So how did Mo find her way to the most honest job?
She grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, “a meat-and-potatoes kind of girl,” and farming wasn’t a part of her upbringing at all. Her mom was an avid gardener, but that and the constant site of Ohio cornfields were about as close as she got to the idea of farming.
Her real interest was studying cultural anthropology, specifically around food rituals. In college in Miami, she studied how people farmed, how they grew food, how we went from hunter-gatherers to where we are now. The theory became reality during a study-abroad experience in Brazil, where she lived with farmers and learned about small-scale farming. She spent a lot of time in the Atlantic coast rain forest with small landholders growing cacao and black pepper, and “I just got hooked.”
After college she lived in Berkeley, CA, taking a few classes but mostly working and hanging out. She was intrigued with how the local food movement had become ingrained in everyone’s everyday life, how much people talked about food, and how famous chefs had become. This all captivated her anthropologist soul.
She received a teacher’s fellowship at George Washington University and in 2008 moved to Washington, DC, to pursue her master’s degree in anthropology. She volunteered wherever she could to get to know people in the local farming community.
The local food movement in DC intrigued her as it had in Berkeley, but she found the DC scene to be very different from the movement in northern California. It was a younger movement here; there was a lot going on but it got much less press; and a food culture was definitely not as ingrained into people’s daily lives.
She was appalled, really, that in the nation’s capital there wasn’t more of a movement. She was astounded by the racial and class divide in DC, and couldn’t believe that there was no farmer’s market east of the Anacostia River. (The situation now, in 2016, is only slightly better; at present there are only six farmer’s markets and a mobile market east of the river in Wards 7 and 8, but about 36 throughout the rest of the city. Here is a useful map, updated in 2018.)
By the time Mo finished her master’s degree in 2010, she had figured out that even though she liked being a professor and the challenge of academia, she liked being outside more. She chose not to pursue her PhD but to dive into farming. She got a rewarding job at Radix Farm in Maryland and then worked at an urban farm in DC, the Neighborhood Farm Initiative, where she ran its half-acre farm for about a year.
Two fateful meetings
At some point Mo crossed paths with Michael Babin, a restaurateur committed to changing the food system in DC. Babin wanted to start a nonprofit farm that could sell produce to his restaurants, and he was looking specifically for a farmer who was also able to write grants and be the public face of his organization. Well, that was a match made in heaven! The two really hit it off, and together they started Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Among other things, Arcadia runs a sustainable farm on the historic grounds of Woodlawn Estate (a former George Washington property), conducts educational programs for area school kids, and now runs the aforementioned mobile market that sells fresh produce from the farm to underserved DC-area neighborhoods out of a bright green truck.
Curing onions and garlic in the barn at Moutoux Orchard
Don’t these curing onions look like sperm, swimming madly towards the sunlight?
While Mo was running the farm at Arcadia, she was asked to be on the cover of Flavor magazine’s Young Farmer issue (winter 2011) with other young farmers in the area. At the photo shoot, she met Rob Moutoux, who was doing great things on his family farm.
They dated. Rob’s family farm is in Purcellville, VA, and Mo was in Alexandria. If you have ever experienced the traffic in the DC area, you can understand how the commute to see each other started to wear thin. So despite the fact that Mo loved her job, it’s safe to say she loved Rob more, and she moved out to be with him on the farm.
She was excited by the prospect of having the farm be her life.
Mo and Rob confer
At the time that they met, Rob was actually looking for a vegetable farmer to help on the farm. He likes raising vegetables, but he doesn’t like the day-to-day management of vegetable production. How convenient, then, that Mo loves to grow veggies. Not only did he get his farmer, he got his life partner as well. Now that was a great photo shoot!
Life at Moutoux Orchard
Rob had joined his family farm in 2002 after graduating from UVA with a degree in Environmental Engineering. At that time the farm was a conventional peach orchard, and it was doing well. But Rob was motivated to offer more variety and to transition the farm away from pesticide use. He wanted to create a healthy, mineral-rich, microbially active soil. Over time he added vegetables, laying hens, grains, lambs, dairy cows, pigs and broiler chickens. He started the whole-diet CSA in 2011.
That’s what the 60-acre farm looked like when Mo joined Rob in 2012.
The farm is not certified organic, but they work hard to do everything as organically as possible. They don’t spray the orchards, and they try any method they have to alleviate pest problems. For example, they keep three varieties of ducks, both for their (delicious) eggs and for their ability to control pests around the orchard. Mo thinks the ducks have helped with pest control, but says it is still too early to tell with the peaches.
Best and Worst
I asked Mo what is her favorite part of being a farmer.
“First thing in the morning: sunrise on the farm with a cup of coffee, when everything is still dewy and looks really beautiful and the cows and all the animals are just waking up. It’s a magical time of day. Everything is really peaceful, and I just love that part of day.
“And when we cook a really delicious dinner and we comment that we grew every single thing that we are eating. We are lucky that that’s a common occurrence for us. That’s a really good feeling. Even down to the little things, like we sautéed the vegetables in our lard from our pigs, or I made custard for dessert from our yokes and our milk. That’s a really great feeling.
“We also really like the CSA pickup days, particularly when the kids come to pick up. We’ve had some pregnant moms come, and now their kids are walking. It’s a cool feeling to see kids grow up on food you’ve grown. I imagine I’ll feel the same way when we have our own kids.”
And her least favorite part?
Mo has come to realize that she’s a bad livestock farmer. “I get too emotionally attached to my animals. I recognize that it’s a part of the process, but I don’t like culling our dairy herd. That’s probably the hardest part for me. Like we always say, nature culls the hardest, so farmers should try to mimic nature, but I’m just bad at it.
“I love growing vegetables, so the dead of winter can be tough for me. I do love hoop house production, so we grow under plastic tunnels. So there’s at least something green. We try to do lettuce and greens every week in the CSA. And I love being in the greenhouse; greenhouse production is one of my favorite parts of growing vegetables. So the dead, dead of winter I get a little antsy to get growing again. So, yeah, that’s when I sit and read my seed catalogues—my farm porn.
“And of course we still have the animals, so getting up when there is two feet of snow and it’s bitterly cold….Rob’s great at it, but there are some mornings when I’m like ‘uhhhhh, I hate having cows!’
“Doing dairy really weds you to your farm. Vegetables can survive without you, but dairy cows can’t. We love having the dairy, but it can be frustrating when you want to get away or not milk that morning.”
All in all, though, I doubt Mo would change her life for any other. She’s just super glad that they have staff to help out.
How Much Can One Farm Do?
On my first visit to the farm, I felt like I was in Farm Heaven, like I had landed at the four-way intersection of Right Life, Purpose, Meaning, and Happiness, and warm thoughts like “I wonder if they’d let me come live here” ran through my head.
So I was really surprised and a little deflated by something Mo said to me as she set out her luscious produce for that day’s CSA pickup.
She said, “I have no illusions that we are changing the world.”
Say what? I wanted to argue the point, to defend the productive, beautiful farm she and Rob ran, to remind her of what a difference she was making in the lives of her customers, of the young children getting to experience the farm and grow up on her food.
But she knows that. She loves her customers and her community and finds meaning and satisfaction in doing the work she does. She also acknowledges that the people she feeds are an affluent group of folks who can afford what the farm has to offer. Most people can’t.
Mo maintains that we still need the big farms to feed the world, and that those big farms get a bad rap. She thinks that small-scale local farms can feed their surrounding communities, “but there aren’t enough of us, and I don’t think we are moving in a direction to be enough of us.”
Traditionally people lived among agricultural areas, but now the heavy concentration of people is in the cities, and there is “no way—zero—that the amount of small organic farms can feed all those people.” She doesn’t see that situation getting better, in fact, Mo thinks it’s actually getting worse.
“There are less people who want to farm, that know how to farm, that know how to farm well. There’s less good land and it’s way too expensive. All those issues compounded… I think everyone can do their part to grow the movement, but where we are right now, we need big farms—conventional or organic. No question about it.”
If Mo and Rob were to expand the farm so that it could feed more people, they’d need to increase staff and infrastructure, and that’s not something they can afford. And it might tip the work/life balance that they work so hard to maintain.
So they continue to do what they do—honestly, exquisitely—for their own fortunate community.
And I get it. Their farm may not be changing the world, only their corner of it. But what a satisfying way to spend one’s life.
To close, here’s my favorite photo bomb.