After her first successful CSA season (which you can read about in Part 1), Emma Jagoz of Moon Valley Farm 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.
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.” (Read her wise words about raising kids on a farm in Part 2.)
Gratitude for garlic
Emma’s favorite thing to grow, garlic, 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.
“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