We live in a fast paced world, dictated by the clock, our jobs, and busy schedules. We don’t know our neighbors and never have enough time to sit together with a home cooked meal. While yes, we live in a modern world, it is also important to connect to our roots and world which happens with farmers like Emma Jagoz, founding farmer at Moon Valley Farm in Cockeysville, MD. Emma lives two houses down from me [Rachel] and has become a staple business, not only in our community but in restaurants in Baltimore and D.C. Emma farms on properties in Baltimore and Howard County in exchange for weekly fresh produce. My family is a part of the CSA and the magical connection that a garden in our backyard brings feels only natural.
At the beginning of the spring growing season, we spoke with Emma on her early life, farming, and what success means to her as founding farmer of Moon Valley Farm.
Tell us a little bit about your early life – where did you grow up? We know the name ‘Moon Valley’ came from stories your father wrote, can you tell us about that?
I grew up here in this house. [M]y family has six people – four kids, and I am the third of those four – and we’re all two years apart so we’re really close. We grew up playing in the woods a lot outback and doing a lot of independent things such as horseback riding, which ended up being a big part of my childhood. I ended up taking my first job at a horse farm and second and third and fourth job which is perhaps why I ended up really liking working outside. We went on vacation camping so I got really comfortable being outdoors always enjoying that. Being outdoors has been a big part of my childhood and my family has very strong ties – everyone really likes each other and we’re all really close.
When I was three years old, my family, who up until this point had been vegetarian, decided to let each person choose for themselves their dietary needs. My older brother was five and just wasn’t really eating as much as my parents wanted, and you know as a parent you really worry about a different dietary choice like vegetarianism. So they rethought their approach to the subject and let the kids pick for themselves. My two older siblings said they wanted to eat meat and I said that I am going to stay being a vegetarian. I actually have been vegetarian or vegan my whole life and I think maybe partly inspired by my insistence on not eating meat, my Dad was partly inspired by that for my chapter of the story. When I was growing up he wrote stories called Moon Valley Stories. Moon Valley is a special land in which everyone who inhabits it has a gift. The gift sometimes shows up right away, sometimes it takes several years to show up, everyone’s is unique. I was called the “Plant and Animal Girl” and that was my gift. I could communicate plants and animals; they all thrived under my care and were peaceful in my garden and greenhouse. My parents didn’t do anything farm related just a little gardening, mostly just perennial flowers, so I have sort of carved my own path in creating a vegetable farm but I think from a young age I was inspired by the world around me and the experiences in my life. I decided to name my farm Moon Valley Farm after the stories. I think having gifts – the idea of having sort of a superpower is a fun fantasy to think about. We talk about the people who work here – What is your superpower? What is your gift? I couldn’t think of a more appropriate name for a farm especially one started in my parents backyard.
Have you always been interested in growing food organically and having your own farm like Moon Valley? What brought you to start this farm?
I had no idea I would be a farmer growing up. No one I knew was a farmer and it’s not something that you talk about in high school. I was good at the subjects in school – all of them. I didn’t really feel that I was particularly better in one subject over another; my natural efforts never really narrowed down what path I would follow. I always resisted the idea of specializing. I didn’t really want to specialize in something; I always wanted to be a well-rounded person and use all of the parts of my brain in my work. When I discovered farming, I got really excited about that. I am not only working outside with the land but I am doing marketing, bookkeeping, mechanics, construction, managing people, a little bit of everything. There’s so many things that I’m doing that it feels like a really well-rounded occupation so I really enjoy that.
I came to farming because I wanted to start a business. I always wanted to work for myself. I never wanted to work for anyone else. I wanted to raise my kids myself as well so in some ways I just wanted it all and I refuse to not want it all. I actually sat down one day when I was pregnant, I was trying to figure out how I would start a business and raise my children and I wrote a list of resources that I had. I wrote these resources that I have including people that I knew as well as the things I wanted out of being a parent. I decided I really wanted to raise them outside; I want my kids to roam outside so I really didn’t want to do something that was office-centric. Being a vegetarian forever I really believe in vegetables. I love vegetables. I wanted to do something I believed in and I thought a community-based farm would bring the things I loved together. It would help bring the community together which is something this world really needs. I think the world desperately needs more community and more health – community empowered health. I think eating a lot of organic vegetables no matter what else your diet or lifestyle entails is a good thing for almost everybody, so that’s that’s kind of how I came to it.
Tell us about your farm and how it works.
I started the farm on this site with my children so they were just several months old and a year-old at the time. I knew I wanted to grow it for a CSA because I wanted that community support and I knew I could distribute food to a CSA while maintaining my duties as a mom. So I started with a 12 person CSA here on this site and I quickly realized that I wanted more land to grow the things that would support the CSA the best. My second season I got two more properties – [Rachel] your grandmother’s yard and another neighbor introduced me to his brother-in-law in Phoenix, Maryland. He has 28 acres but he’s a quadriplegic so he cannot farm like he used to so he wanted to support farmers. I said yes to that opportunity and started farming about a half acre there. So I started my second year growing on three properties and now I have eight that we do most of our row crops on. This space at the home site has turned into more of the infrastructure – the barn is our pack shed and our CSA pick up. That’s the sort of evolution from the land face – we went from about a quarter acre in production to now 12 acres. I started it myself running with volunteers and now I have a business partner, Jason, as well as about six most of them are seasonal. We run a CSA program and we sell to restaurants. Starting the second year, I began selling to high-end restaurants in Baltimore and D.C. It’s really great, we love selling to restaurants and we love selling to a CSA. I think it makes sense to grow them both. So we’re growing herbs and vegetables to sell through now about a 200 person CSA program that runs either 22 or 33 weeks out of the year and to restaurants year round.
What is the hardest thing about owning your own business? How have you worked through those challenges?
Owning a business is really challenging on every level because everything that happens or doesn’t happen is my fault. It’s either I didn’t share correctly with somebody on how to execute a task or I didn’t communicate properly with the chef or with a CSA member and now we don’t have that sale anymore. Being financially responsible for yourself, your family, and other people’s families is really difficult, so constantly having a positive and hustling attitude [is important]. I didn’t realize when I first started farming that it would be so much more than growing food. Growing food is actually by far the easiest part of farming and of owning a business. Selling food is the hardest part probably because people’s lives are so busy and they’re so interrupted. What we’re doing is so different than how a lot of people get their food, it’s not going to the grocery store so communicating exactly what people are getting, what we’re doing, and why people should by products a certain week not necessarily when they may want them. Communicating the seasonality and the urgency of going with the flow and the seasons is difficult. Right now our chefs are so eager to eat spring food and they want tons of spring vegetables and to communicate that this was a long winter this year and so things are a little bit delayed – being the sort of voice for explaining mother nature is difficult to do because it sounds like an excuse. Explaining that and having people go with the flow – finding customers that are willing to go with the flow of Mother Nature – so that might be the hardest part of this kind business.
It’s also really hard to separate your workplace and your family life; they bleed together, they melt together so hard for me. My office is in my house, people work out of my house so coming to work for me is really easy and going back inside is really easy but it’s hard to to create these hard lines. Saying no I’m going to go in and eat dinner now even though I should be hoeing that field. Speaking for both my personal needs and the farms needs at the same time and being so invested in both, it’s really hard to say no now and feeling like I am letting things go on one side or the other. I think the hardest part actually is drawing the lines between your farm life and your personal life and saying even though I have thirty emails in my inbox right now I’m not going to answer them because I need to do something else. So I think I think that’s the hardest part.
What advice would you give to another woman entering into your field?
I’m not 100% sure how to answer; there are a lot of women in farming and we talk about a lot of issues together. You’re in the minority when you’re a woman farm owner. I struggle when I am in construction stores, plumbing stores, mechanical stores – they’re all sexist and I hate blanket statements but it just is the truth. Almost always one person in the store pisses me off every time I go into male dominated stores and it’s all part of navigating this occupation. That’s a struggle but it’s so worth it. If that’s something that’s on the mind of a woman going into farming – just do it. Buy a truck, learn to fix it, do whatever you need to really go for it. Many women have asked me about how to run a farm and have kids and like I said that’s the hardest part.
It’s different for everyone. Every day is different, you have to constantly make new choices, draw new lines. Navigating all of that is difficult but I would tell a woman interested in farming that it’s so doable. It’s worth it to work for yourself, to work outside, to raise your kids outside. I’m so proud of how my kids know about where their food comes from; they share with their friends about how a chicken lays an egg, how to collect them and cook them. I think that the struggles are worth it.
Has being a woman affected your success, especially in a more male dominated field? If so, in what way and how have you worked with this?
Probably, it’s it’s kind of hard to say. I’m not sure because I don’t have the man counterpart to see how life would be different in that way. I’m sure that many of my CSA members chose to get vegetables from my farm because I am a woman. We have a lot of women as our customers on the CSA front, almost all of our customers are women. In that respect they also are men because they are the spouses or partners but a majority of our customers are women. I think that a lot of them were really interested in finding a farmer who is a woman. I think that being a woman and mother really played into gaining customers on the CSA front. I would also hope to say that part of my success is because I have a good product that I market well and that’s not because I am a woman necessarily.
On the restaurant front, it’s really interesting going into a kitchen with a product and saying “Hi I’m a farmer I wanted to bring you this product. Will you buy it?” The reaction there is often “You mean your dad has a farm and you’re the farm girl?” And I have to say “No actually I am a woman and I own my own farm.” You have to weigh if you want to run out cursing and screaming or if you just want to try to correct them and move on. I am not sure how all of our sales have been affected. We worked out that my partner, Jason, is in charge of restaurant sales now, he fits right in in the kitchen; he looks just like them. I’m not sure if my personality would have worked as well or not. It’s hard to say because for other reasons I chose it to be more CSA-centric on the sales front because I couldn’t do it all.
I think a lot of people are really excited about the fact that I do things that are more thought of as male tasks. I think people are really excited that I built a walk-in cooler; people really want to support that especially because I am a woman.
What is the most important lesson you have learned thus far?
Let’s talk through some lessons I’ve learned to try to come up with the best one. The to-do list is never ending but you have to stop working at some point in the day. Some days it’s OK just call it even if you’ve done hardly anything on it. Managing your expectations is a major part of farming and actually just being a human. I think many relationships fail because people have different expectations – it is all about expectations. If you expect that pretty much everything you do is going to break or have a problem then you have a positive attitude when it happens. Expect the unexpected, expect there to be problems. Attitude is everything and that’s just really a life lesson but it’s so true on the farm. Every day is hard, every day is full of unexpected challenges that are often Mother Nature related and sometimes there’s really nothing you can do about that.
What is your definition of success?
First and foremost, and this is the most boring answer and the one in some ways I hate to say, you have to be financially successful, which means completely different things to different people. Again it’s about expectations. The farm is not a lucrative job, it’s not a lucrative career, but it’s still really important to make money. I can’t keep doing this next week or next year if I don’t make money so it does have to be financially successful. Also doing something you believe in, selling products you believe in on many levels is really important to me. I would not want to do this if I didn’t have a product that I could stand by and defend to anybody. I think having fun and being happy are also the most important parts of being successful. So doing something you believe in, making money and being happy – that’s success to me.
Learn more about Moon Valley Farm by visiting www.moonvalleyfarm.net/ and following them on Instagram @moonvalleyfarm!
All images © Rachel King, 2018