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, and she and Rob were busy getting the farm ready for the 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. When there is enough milk, there is soft cheese available also. 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 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 80-85 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.”
So how, exactly, did Mo find her way to that honest job? Find out next week.