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, like since childhood. 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 D.C. 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.”
In Part 2, Emma describes what it’s like to raise kids on a farm.