Backyard Bartering with Emma Jagoz, Moon Valley Farm CSA

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Show Notes

In this episode, we chat with Emma Jagoz, Founder of Moon Valley Backyard Bartering with Emma Jagoz, Moon Valley Farm CSAFarm CSA, and learn how she started her CSA in her neighbor's backyards and grew to their own 25 acre plot. After the pandemic struck, she shifted the CSA from catering to high end restaurants and chefs to feeding consumers with their extended season of growing. 

Links for resources referenced in this episode: 

Episode Transcript

Meaghan Malinowski:

Welcome to the Farm Credit AgVocates podcast. I'm your host, Meaghan Malinowski, Content and Digital Marketing Strategists at MidAtlantic Farm Credit. Today’s guest t is part of the 36% of women producers in the U S and has an amazing story to share around her CSA, Moon Valley Farm in Woodsboro, Maryland. When the pandemic hit Emma and her team at Moon Valley had to pivot away from high end restaurant sales and extend their growing season by seven whole weeks to make sure that they could adequately feed their customers and communities. So without further ado, let's jump right into my interview with Emma Jagoz at Moon Valley Farm.

So we'll go ahead and get started. Thank you so much for joining me today. Emma, I'm glad to have you on here.

Emma Jagoz:

Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Meaghan Malinowski:

 I want to kind of jump right in and introduce you to our listeners because you guys have had a really busy year, and I'm really interested to hear how you got started with Moon Valley Farm and how you decided to start a CSA? Because it's a very interesting and unique business model.

How did you get started with Moon Valley Farm and how did you decide to start a CSA?

Emma Jagoz:

It is. So this is my ninth season of running a CSA farm. But I had heard about a CSA program for my sister and I fell in love with it from the start. I really strongly believe that communities are strengthened by access to healthy and nutrient dense food. And that's so many communities are lacking access to this processed and prepackage fast foods have become the core diets for many people.

So I believe that re-centering our diets around whole foods grown locally and organically communities will be able to take back power and control in our lives. And I just really wanted to be a part of that work, the reclamation of health and power by helping people lead healthier lives.

So I started growing food when I was pregnant with my first born. I read somewhere that if you ate arugula while pregnant, your baby could get a stronger brain development. There’s other foods too. But  I latched on to that and I started growing a lot of arugula out in my apartment balcony, so that I could have a smart baby, and it was just one of those random things that I latched on to. And, and then I started an in-ground garden the next season and wanted to raise my kids, myself and also start a business, doing something I believed in.

Meaghan Malinowski:

How cool, that's amazing. I'm adding that a regular thing to my back pocket for trivia night for whenever we can go back to that. That's so awesome.

So when I first started at MidAtlantic I started as an intern and one of my first tasks was to do research on different topics in Ag and write blog posts and articles and stuff for like our SEO. Community supported Ag was one of the topics that that I read about and I don't come from an Ag background. So I have been really excited to talk to you about the community aspect of a CSA and kind of where that comes from.

What does the community at Moon Valley Farm look like and how do you how do you use that network to help you run the farm and contribute to that bigger picture?

Emma Jagoz:

Well, to be honest, this has looked different each season of the farm. When I first started, I was the sole farmer and I was also raising my two children who were under age two at the time. So the community aspect then, looked like friends and neighbors, volunteering to watch my children for a while or pull weeds or help me harvest because they could see that I had my hands full. And throughout the next several years, I leveraged networks that I had to and created new networks to access more land by bartering with my community to grow on their land. So the community engagement then was very central to the farm. But I think the, the main question is how most of my CSA members involved with the farm are? And most of the CSA members receive a weekly box of veggies and their primary engagement with the farm, our on-farm events that we offer several times a year, we'll offer a potluck just so that people can come to the farm and meet the farmers and share some of the delicious dishes they make.

And we also offer workshops than events like cooking classes and plant sales and on farm festivals in the falls. So all of those are canceled this year. This year we have increased our focus on our online community which is something that we've always actually been cultivating. We have a weekly e-newsletter for our members where we share on farm happenings, as well as what our harvest or that week recipe ideas storage tips, preservation tips. And we also have a really active, closed Facebook group for our CSA members in which all of us share recipes, kitchen hacks, and meal prep tips. Sometimes it's just takes a picture of what's in your share and say, wait, what is this again? And how should I cook it or help my dish turned out weird? How can you help me? So we offer things like that as well. And, and that's, that's been a big part of the community year.

Meaghan Malinowski:

I imagine that's probably something that really kind of grows legs of its own more or less. And everybody kind of gets engaged and I love joining groups like that because it's so nice to see, you know, what other people are working on and get advice.  I think for food, it's, it's really at the center of a lot of our, you know, more personal interactions with people and the events that we go to, like you said, it's, it's really food makes an event really a production, you know? So I think it's really cool to, to hear how your community has kind of grown over time and how that shifted. And I'm sure, you know, with the pandemic taking things online, it's probably nice to have that already kind of set up.

Would you say people are more engaged now than they were before during the pandemic?

Emma Jagoz:

Yes, absolutely. With the online community, yes. And then I, I get messages from those who prefer in person and events and they are active online as well, but they do miss it, but yes, a lot, a lot of people are focusing more on cooking. We also started a Facebook closed group for a garden club. We've always sold seedlings each season. And we actually did contactless home delivery for our plant sale this year instead of offering an on-farm event. And so a lot of people got access to our seedlings and they've been sharing progress photos of their gardens and disease and pest issues sometimes with their plans or just they're proud harvests. And so that's been a really fun new group that we started this year. And the engagement is great in that one as well.

Meaghan Malinowski:

Awesome. I love hearing that. I, I really got into gardening during the pandemic and I went and bought all of my seedlings. I've actually got two watermelon plants out front that have really taken over our driveway. And at one point probably about a month ago, we had about 18 watermelons just sitting. And it's funny because we, you know, we just bought our house a year ago, but with working all the time and living near the beach, you know, we're always doing something or going somewhere, but we have been so blessed to have been able to meet our neighbors and make friends around our watermelons. We have people that stop by and they're like, wow, they look great. Like you better be careful people are going to run off with them. And it's like, well, it's fine. At this point, we have so many, you might as well, but that's really cool to have that connection with people and be able to have them kind of journey through that together through your CSA. So that's awesome.

And I want to go back to what you were saying about bartering and expanding the CSA, because I think that seems to be a really unique solution to like the biggest challenge of starting your first generation and, and having the space to do that.

What does [bartering for land] look like if you're willing to share us your trade secrets and stuff?

Emma Jagoz:

Yeah. I a hundred percent. So I started off farming, my parent's backyard. They had about half an acre of cultivatable land. And I realized that when I started with a 12 person CSA, based on that half acre of land, that I wanted more space to grow a greater diversity of crops, especially some of those bigger crops. Like you mentioned, watermelons that take up just a lot of space, but also sweet potatoes and potatoes and winter squashes. So I looked at my next door neighbor and I asked her if it would be okay if I farm her yard. I noticed she didn't use it very much and just pay the service to mow it. And I thought, well, it might be a little cheaper for her if I farmed it and I would be great for me. And she said, Oh, nobody's ever asked me that before, let me think about it. And then she thought about it and said, yes. And at that same time, actually another neighbor on the street saw what I was doing and had chatted with me about it and said, Hey, you know what, I've got a brother-in-law who's about 20 minutes away. And he had some land would you be interested in using that? And this man was a quadriplegic, and so he had to pay somebody to mow and maintain his property. So he was very motivated to get somebody to do it and was happy to barter for a CSA share. So we started off with those three and actually the neighbor next door saw what I was doing on the, on the first two pieces of property. And they said, oh, would you want to do it that on my yard too, I've got about an acre back here you could farm. And they were delighted to get a CSA share and to mow less. And so I ended up farming six different properties, spanning 15 acres of certified organic vegetables at the end of 2019. And that's the same time that we took the plunge and purchased property. So I was finding that I absolutely loved everything about the generosity of the landowners that allowed us to use their property, but I had to make long-term investments for the farm, like greenhouses and high tunnels and some other infrastructure like permanent walk-in coolers in order to do the right thing for my business. So we ended up purchasing land, but for eight years we bartered for the use of land in order to gain experience and be able to take the time to invest in equipment and really find a community of eaters who are willing to support us in the meantime. So it was a lot lower risk when we purchased land. Cause we already had a lot of things in motion.

Meaghan Malinowski:

So you went from a 12 person CSA on a half-acre to how many acres do you guys have now? Are you in one location now?

Emma Jagoz:

Yes, we are just newly in one location this year. The farm is 25 acres and we're growing for over 500 members CSA.

Meaghan Malinowski:

Wow. Oh my gosh. That is amazing. So you guys you guys are busy normally, but then this year. I'd also like to mention, this is a very good example of how, if you don't ask the answer's always no. So I love that you approached people in a different way of, of trying to get around to it. You know, it was beneficial for them, but also gave you the space that you needed to grow. And I think people are probably more open to it than we think initially. Because you know, you probably are like, oh gosh, like nobody's going to want me to like grow things on their land. And it's a lot of this and that it's I love hearing that people were so open to it.

Emma Jagoz:

Yes. People ended up being really proud of the tomatoes they had in their backyard. Right. They didn't have to do much for it. And they could show their friends, their big tomato patch or their herb garden.

Meaghan Malinowski:

That is so cool. I love that. Well, let's flash forward then now that we're, you know, we're at the 25 acre property, I wanted to see if you would walk us through kind of what happened when COVID struck, you know, we had the stay at home orders and everything kind of shifted to everybody being at home and not really traveling and doing that thing.

And what did [COVID changes] look like for you guys?

Emma Jagoz:

Well, we have been selling 51 weeks out of the year for the past five years. Our CSA program goes from May to the end of December which is a 33 week span. But the rest of the weeks were made up with restaurant sales in the winter time. So we do restaurant sales year round, but they're the only sales outlet from January through April. So when COVID struck in March we had a lot of product in storage and in our greenhouses for the restaurants and we had some folks on staff to help with that including a delivery driver. And when we got the news that COVID was here and we had the stay at home order, I decided to offer our CSA program seven weeks early. So we had product, we felt like the best way to utilize it under the circumstances was to offer home delivery shares to our CSA members.

We, we saw that people were scared that grocery stores were overburdened, shelves were empty. We knew that many were unable to risk leaving their homes. If they were at higher risk or, you know, some people were, a lot of people were unwilling to and really wanted to help slow the spread. So we launched our program seven weeks early and the response was overwhelming and we ended up deciding to double our CSA membership from last season to this one. So last season we ended with a 250 member CSA. So this season we really embraced home delivery because of COVID. We still utilize our pickup locations, which are primarily at Mom's Organic Market location throughout Maryland and also some small businesses. So we continued offering pickup at those starting in May when our regular season started, but we actually still sell to restaurants and we're selling to makers and restaurants the whole time, but demand changed significantly from how we anticipated it. And the CSA program has been more popular.

Meaghan Malinowski:

I'm sure your customers were very relieved probably to see that you guys were, were able to do that because it was, I mean, it was definitely a little bit scary for a little while trying to navigate it. And I mean, I can't imagine, you know, having children and having to think about that aspect too and thinking, you know, how am I going to feed my family? And that's, I think it's awesome that you guys really approached it from a, you know, how can we, how can we alleviate some of that stress for our customers and work through that together. So I think that's pretty awesome. I think that part of that anxiety is coming from not knowing, cause we've seen so many supply chain disruptions in this time and a lot of people don't really understand how each piece affects the rest of the puzzle. If it's not, you know, in the right spot, then everything kind of has to shift a little bit pivoting a little bit away from what the fundamentals were I guess that shifted.

How's the pandemic and everything that's happened, maybe with this the supply chain disruption, how has that changed the way you view your CSA and what your purpose is as a farmer?

Emma Jagoz:

Honestly, it hasn't really, we have been community supported from the beginning and we've always highly valued growing for our neighbors and our friends and what we call our “farmaly.” We have always found great purpose and inspiration and that growing for people who value nutrient and seasonal vegetables, I think that a lot of new faces decided to try out our CSA program and other CSA programs throughout the whole country. And I think it's, it has strengthened the idea that local is more reliable and can be better.  It’s strengthened our sense of purpose for sure as well, but I think it's really strengthened other people's value of CSA programs.

Meaghan Malinowski:

Yeah, absolutely. And maybe willing to try something a little bit new and outside of the box. I had an inkling that that was going to be your answer. You guys are very, I mean, if you go on your website or your Facebook page, you guys are very purpose driven and have a very, very clear mission of what it is that you're trying to do. And I think for some of the producers that maybe don't have direct access to their customers I think pivoting may have been a little bit more difficult just because the experience is probably not really there or it's so new, it's, it's definitely kind of a scary thing. I think you're absolutely right. I think it's very reassuring to know that your purpose is really where you guys are coming from and what your, what your strength is.

Is there anything that you think we'll stick around after COVID like perhaps the home delivery thing or maybe expanding the CSA? Time-Wise like, what do you think about that?

Emma Jagoz:

For us personally, we are having our longest CSA season to date. Like I said, we're, we're growing for that 33 weeks you in close the seven earlier. So this year we'll have a 40 week long CSA program. And actually to be honest, this was in our plans before COVID, but we are going year round with our CSA starting 2021. So we were going from the 40 weeks CSA in 2020, and we're starting off the first week of January with a new CSA program. And this is because we've had the experience of offering year round vegetables for our chefs for the past five years. And this year we're able to make those investments that I referred to in our high tunnels to expand our winter production ability and the diversity that we can offer in the winter months. So we feel confident that we'll have great CSA boxes for our members.

Like I said, that's kind of that, that was our plans anyway, but a longer CSA program is definitely I'm going to stick around for us. And we are planning to stick with home delivery as well. I think to some degree it was of the times and people are really used to having Amazon boxes dropped at their door and frankly people's lives are just so busy that they, they need convenience. So and then in the climate with COVID, a lot of people just, you know, are avoiding stores rightfully so and want to trust that the people that they do come in contact with are being safe with COVID. So actually one other thing is that COVID force us to rethink our packaging. We changed from using a waxed box for a CSA so that we could reuse it to a recyclable cardboard box because we weren't sure if, especially in the beginning of COVID if COVID stayed on materials. And so we didn't want to recollect the boxes from our members and we wanted something that they would be able to recycle or reuse. So we switched to our cardboard box and we're going to, we're going to keep those as well after COVID.

Meaghan Malinowski:

That's awesome. Yeah. Cause I happened to collect those back again in the sanitizing and all of that stuff. I was probably a, a good move for the efficiency of that kind of process.

Emma Jagoz

Yes.

Meaghan Malinowski:

So you answered quite a few of my questions now. I'm like, okay, what else do I want to know? It seems like, I think it's pretty lucky that you guys, you know, already kind of had those growth plans in place, and we're already thinking about what expansion was going to look like.

Is that something that you evaluate each year or is that something that you kind of planned for when you started the company or, you know, what did that look like? That planning process?

Emma Jagoz:

I would say that it's grown organically if you will. As, as I got to know my customers and what they wanted, and I got to know the land better, I realized that year round growing is possible here. So I strongly believe that habit is a big part of changing the way that you eat. And I think that if we want to change toward a more local diet, which will help curb carbon emissions and can ultimately help improve the health of the Bay, if the local land is managed organically.  I think that we need to help create good habits that can stick for our customers. And I want to not disrupt the way that my customers are eating and cooking by having it be seasonal and ended up costing me a lot of time and money to tell CSA members when the signup again, and sort of get them back in the habit of buying. And I saw that with chefs when we went away for a few months in the winter, it was hard to get them back in the habit of buying. I saw that also with my staff. I didn't want to end up laying them off seasonally and then training a whole new staff the next season. So I want my whole community from everyone, from the eaters to the people that work on the farm to be in the habit of growing and eating locally. When I realized that that would help with customer retention and that would help with customer happiness and their success with their CSA boxes, if they just stayed in the habit of eating locally. And if my, my employees stayed in the habit of growing food and working on the farm, they stay strong and they would be able to help me in the off season with all sorts of different infrastructure projects.

Meaghan Malinowski:

So you really just had to grow into it?

Emma Jagoz:

Yeah. Yeah. We, we just sort of, I just kind of had a revelation throughout time that, you know, Hey, what's frustrating me is like customer retention is like, I have all the customers. And then at the end of the season, I tell them we don't have anything else for you see you next year. And I decided, well, that's actually my problem. And I can change that. I didn't say, you know, I can grow some, you know, some more cabbage, some more winter squash and you know, some winter hardy greens, especially utilizing high tunnels and all sorts of different techniques to really expand on that. So that's been a main thing and for me in the beginning, and, and always, I've just loved growing for CSA and for chefs. I just realized that if I could expand on the number of weeks I sell to those people, I don't really have to find new people. I just have to grow more for the people I already have.

Meaghan Malinowski:

And you now have a whole year's worth of things to be marketing to them.

 How do you guys market your shares when you are like accepting new customers or is it mostly just people that sign up pretty much from year to year?

Emma Jagoz:

We have expanded our CSA program every year. So we, we do end up marketing. I realized after the first couple of years that, I didn't, I was too busy and didn't take any photos. And, but when I tried to market in the winter time, when I finally had time to sit at the computer, that I didn't have any proof that I farmed that year. And I didn't have of photograph of what I was trying to sell. And so that really stuck with me and I, and I committed to documenting the process. And I think that our customers really want that ability to see what's going on in the farm, even if they have busy lives and full work schedules and childcare schedules and things like that. So I wanted to be able to show my customers what we're doing to be transparent and to be educational and help them see what we do in order, like what goes into their food.

So I started using anything free that I could find to help promote throughout the year. And I realized that, you know, if I started taking pictures in the winter when we only had kale and spinach people weren't as excited about that. So I started taking the approach that if I do a little bit of kind of marketing all the time that it would just, it would help. So we committed to posting on Instagram and Facebook regularly, and we send out a regular newsletter to a list of folks who are interested in local and seasonal eating in which we share tips, then preservation ideas, and like hey everyone, time to make tomato sauce and like a little heads up and things like that and how to grow food. And so we kind of do it regularly, but I've, I've utilized all sorts of different things. I like to give out stickers that people remember us and I handwrite postcards and things like that.

Meaghan Malinowski:

There's nothing better than receiving a handwritten note.

Emma Jagoz:

I think it's meaningful.

Meaghan Malinowski:

It really is. It means, you know, when I get them, it's one thing to get, like the little note that like comes with it or whatever it is, like something typed up, but when somebody writes it out, there's just something about it. I keep most of them, I have drawer full of them. Yeah, it's, I think taking that extra step people really appreciate it. And it sounds like a lot of what you're doing to market the farm is really providing value and that's what people are looking for. So I think that's amazing. Yeah. And you know, the growth that you guys have experienced is I think it's nothing short of amazing. I love I love hearing that you guys really just took it year after year, pushing those boundaries.

What advice do you have to another first-generation farmer?

Emma Jagoz:

Get a mentor and, and then get another mentor. I think that you need to be bold about asking questions. I took several bold steps and asking people if I could farm their yard out of the blue. And I have asked people that I thought were kind of out of my league if they would be my mentor. And they've pretty much all always said yes. And if they said, no, it's fine. You know, just ask somebody else. But farmers are extremely generous with their knowledge, and it's really wise to take them up on the opportunity to, to learn from them. Most farmers I know are extremely humble and are also willing to share the knowledge they do have, and not only getting a mentor for farming, but also getting mentors in other things. I have a business mentor. For example, I have a mechanical mentor as well because I realized that farming is running a business and wait, do I know how to do that as well? Like I learned how to grow tomatoes, but do I know how to grow a business? So I asked somebody who's not at all related to agriculture and his background to help mentor me on the business side of things. And I asked somebody who also knows nothing about agriculture to help me learn how to fix my equipment. And those connections have been really invaluable to me. I think you can absolutely be a self-taught farmer. I am a self-taught farmer. I did a ton of reading by some of these folks that I thought were farming, how I wanted to, and I took classes that I could find and that worked for my schedule. And I did a lot of learning on the internet, but there's, there's, there's nothing that compares to being able to call somebody up on the phone and ask them a question.

Meaghan Malinowski:

One of the things that we talk about quite a bit is that we want to surround ourselves with people that that we want to be like, or I may not be very good at one thing, but if I can surround myself with somebody or a group of people that is much better at it than I, than I am always learning and always growing. And I think that approach is so sustainable because you're, you're curious and you're just committing to continuing to learn and building those relationships. And that's, that's super important if we want to keep growing our, you know, our farms, our selves.

Emma Jagoz:

Yeah. And I mean, you mentioned that being a first generation farmer, I think in addition to access to education, two of the other biggest challenges for me were access to funds and access to land. And we had talked a little bit about how I access to land until I could save enough to purchase land on my own, but access to funds was a huge thing. I really started a farm with just a couple of hundred dollars, which is way less than what I would recommend starting a farm with.

Meaghan Malinowski:

If you have the option.

Emma Jagoz:

Right, but you know, bootstrapping is totally something that works again, especially if you do have access to people who know how to fix things, or if you're handy, you know, that kind of thing. And I know that a lot of farmers are debt averse. I definitely started off debt averse as well. In part, because I wasn't really confident about my marketing and my cash flow, but when I did decide to get my first business loan to purchase a tractor and a high tunnel, I was just truly stunned at how those purchases were able to increase my ability to farm efficiently and how big of an ROI they had. So I would not necessarily recommend getting into debt right away, but, to really consider the value that some of those pieces of equipment or infrastructure pieces could add to your operation.

Meaghan Malinowski:

And I think he took a really creative approach to it, too. It's you have to grow sustainably and kind of buildup that capability, or the it's difficult to visualize doing that when you're just starting off, you're in a couple backyards, you know, doing something, but it's super small scale. It's like, well, what do I need to, what do I need to do that for? But as you start to expand that and grow into it I think it becomes a little bit easier to, to visualize that, but like you said, surrounding yourself with people that that might be a little bit better at something than you to also kind of gives you, gives you that scope and helps you see the bigger picture. Thank you so much for joining us. This has been extraordinarily eye-opening, and we do have one sign off question that we like to ask everyone.

What do you advocate for in agriculture?

Emma Jagoz:

This question brings me back to my experiences, starting out as a farmer and the barriers I faced, which were access to land, resources and education. I advocate for more resources on these topics to not only more young and female farmers like myself, but especially for BIPOC farmers as well, and all experience levels in our region. I think that I advocate for more loan and grant opportunities. More land management opportunities for BIPOC folks and agriculture. I would challenge banks to give out loans to farmers and to examine who is and who isn't receiving them already and, and their loan history, and to make movements towards challenging systemic racism so that BIPOC farmers can have more, better and more affordable access to resources, land, and equipment. And I advocate for challenging those organizations who offer grants to be sure that BIPOC folks have access to those opportunities as well.

I advocate for more and more land to be managed organically and responsibly. I fully believe that if we use more cover cropping and regenerative ag around the Chesapeake Bay, that we will be able to curb a lot of the issues that are happening with our Bay right now. And that as stewards of the land surrounding the largest estuary in North America, we have a responsibility to do so. I think we have to all be open-minded to change our farming practices quickly, as we discover new ways of protecting our soil health and our waterways. And I truly believe that if we focus on giving more BIPOC folks more resources and access to land it will get us to a healthier Bay and region faster than if the status quo remains in place. And really in summary, I would like to say that I advocate for LOVE, which stands for local organic veggies for everyone.

Meaghan Malinowski:

I love that. That’s a great summary.

Emma Jagoz:

Thank you.

Meaghan Malinowski:

Well, thank you so much for sharing that with us. I think what you guys are doing at Moon Valley Farm definitely acknowledges so many of those issues and so many of those things, and I think even better, it encourages us to work together to find solutions. So I appreciate your insight. And that is a great way of looking at it.  So one last thing I wanted to give you an opportunity to share with our audience where they can find you if they wanted to sign up for a CSA share.

Where can we find you online or in person, all of that good stuff?

Emma Jagoz:

Well, we are located in Frederick County in Woodsboro Maryland, and you can find us online on Instagram @MoonValleyFarm. We have a website at www.moonvalleyfarm.net. And you can find us on Facebook as well @MoonValleyFarm. And that Facebook group that we're talking about is the group's backslash Moon Valley Farm.

Meaghan Malinowski:

You will definitely find those and put them in our show notes. Thank you all for tuning in today. And please remember to rate, review and subscribe. Don't forget to share with a friend. You can get all of these podcasts notes and subscribe to email alerts at mafc.com/podcast. And if you have any suggestions for topics or guest suggestions for the future, please feel free to email us at podcast@MAFC.com.

So thanks again, Emma, for joining us, we appreciate your time and look forward to seeing how you guys grow in the future.