I want to repeat a quote from Mo Moutoux of Moutoux Orchard from last week’s post : Being a farmer “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.”
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. This is a useful map.)
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.
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. And the rest, they say, is history.
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.
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 what about 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.
Next week, read how Mo bursts my rosy bubble, and view my favorite farm photo bomb.