Local Farms Key to Healthy and Resilient Food Systems — Episode 140 of Building Local Power

Date: 25 Nov 2021 | posted in: agriculture, Building Local Power, Composting | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

On this episode of Building Local Power, ILSR’s Linda Bilsens Brolis and Sophia Hosain speak with Emma Jagoz, owner of Moon Valley Farm in Maryland. They discuss the benefits of local family farms to food system resilience, food accessibility, and having more nutritious and delicious food.

Highlights include:

  • What motivated Emma to get into farming, and her long-term mission to improve soil health and the biodiversity of farms. 
  • How Moon Valley Farm uses compost to build healthy soils. 
  • How the pandemic impacted farm operations and increased the public’s interest in local food. 
  • Challenges small farmers face such as land access, labor, and the lack of sustainable agriculture training programs. 
  • The importance of farming year-round and partnering with other farmers to build a sustainable and robust food system. 

Regenerative agriculture practices are rooted in Indigenous knowledge and practices. Read ILSR’s land acknowledgement here

“I wanted to shorten the chain between myself, my neighbors, and their food. Because it just connects the farmer and the consumers so directly. And I can communicate with my customers exactly what’s in season, exactly how to prepare it. It just felt so magical.”

“I think COVID brought to light a lot of different issues, especially with the food supply and what is considered essential. Our community members were able to access food through our farm via home delivery, and also pick-up locations with some new COVID safe practices throughout the whole time — from when COVID began in March in 2020 to today.”



Jess Del Fiacco: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies, and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power and communications manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For more than 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands.
Jess Del Fiacco: On today’s episode. You’re going to hear from my colleagues Sophia Hussein, and Linda Bilsens Brolis, as well as a farmer named Emma Jagoz. They’re going to discuss the role of composting in farming and in our food system. But before we get to that main conversation though, Sophia and I are going to briefly set the table for you guys. So I’m here with Sophia Hussein. Hey Sophia, welcome.
Sophia Hosain: Hi everyone.
Jess Del Fiacco: But a few minutes, our listeners are going to hear from Emma about her farm, which is called Moon Valley Farm, and her journey that she took to feed her family and feed her community. So Sophia, could you just give us a bird’s eye view of the role of composting in a sustainable food system?
Sophia Hosain: Absolutely! I think it’s really fitting that we’re publishing this episode around Thanksgiving. A day when many of us are thinking about food, abundance, and gratitude even more so than usual. So in this interview, we talk with Emma from Moon Valley Farm, about how she’s created a resilient farm ecosystem by harnessing biodiversity, partnering with other farmers and by using compost. And I think it’s important to note that as our population grows, so does the importance of supporting local food systems.
Sophia Hosain: By avoiding those long shipping distances, like bringing food over from California. We’re able to cut the carbon footprint of what we eat, and build local food system resiliency by keeping those resources in our own local economy. And before we dive in, I do want to take a moment to acknowledge that it is indigenous communities who really spearheaded the regenerative agricultural movement. We see their synergy with natural systems permeate throughout their culture. Whether it be in their agricultural practices or in their zero waste cuisine.
Jess Del Fiacco: I think that’s a really important point. I know for me personally, I really appreciate celebrating gratitude, and cooking food, and being with family during this time of year. But Thanksgiving is also a day for reflection on the systems that we’re choosing to participate in and to perpetuate. Certainly, I want to recognize any glib of retelling of the colonizers Thanksgiving fantasy is perpetuating the rasher of indigenous communities, their experiences, and the harm done to them.
Jess Del Fiacco: And then bringing this back to today’s topic. I’m thinking about how the decisions that I’m making in my kitchen are tied to the people who grew, and transported, and sold me this food, and the land itself that produced it. So certainly it’s just a time to think about how all those systems are working around me, and how I participate in them. So and this is a great conversation for today. Thank you so much, Sophia. Without further ado, let’s get onto this conversation.
Sophia Hosain: Hi guys.
Emma Jagoz: Hey, Sophia.
Sophia Hosain: Emma, start us off. Tell us a little bit about Moon Valley, and how you found yourself farming full time?
Emma Jagoz: All right. Moon Valley Farm is a 25 acre year round specialty veg and herb farm, located in Frederick County in Maryland. We grow for a CSA program, and for restaurants in Baltimore, Frederick, and Washington DC. I am a first generation farmer, a mother of two, and the owner of the farm. I started Moon Valley in 2012, because I wanted to share the vegetables that I was growing for my two little babes with people that lived in my neighborhood. And I started with a 12 person CSA then. And that has grown into over a 500 member CSA now. And yeah, we just really love growing veggies.
Linda Bilsens B…: And we were just talking about how impressive it is that you were able to start this business as your babies were growing up. How old were they when you started?
Emma Jagoz: They were both under two.
Linda Bilsens B…: Amazing! I don’t know how you did that. It’s impressive. I know COVID in particular underscored weaknesses in our food system. And I’m curious how you view your farm as promoting a more sustainable and resilient food system.
Emma Jagoz: That’s a great question. I think COVID brought to light a lot of different issues, especially with the food supply and what is considered essential. Our community members were able to access food through our farm via home delivery, and also pick up locations with some new COVID safe practices throughout the whole time, that from when COVID began in March in 2020 to today. We have been delivering food to our community every week since. So I do believe that COVID showed some new people that supporting local farms could be a really great idea since the food chain disruptions, and the safety of accessing grocery stores. And the ways that we traditionally accessed food were not safe for everybody in every circumstance. So we did see a boost of individuals and customers interested in purchasing direct from farmers as a result of COVID.
Linda Bilsens B…: At Moon Valley you guys are a certified organic farm. Right?
Emma Jagoz: We are in the second year of being transitionally organic. So we’re considered transitionally organic right now. Because in late 2019, we purchased a farm that was in conventional practices. And are transitioning that to certified organic practices. And we will be certified again in July 2022. However, before we purchased this new property, we were certified organic in Baltimore county.
Sophia Hosain: And the reason why I’m asking this, because I know that you guys use a lot of sustainable growing techniques on your farm. And one of those in particular is composting. And I wanted to talk to you a little bit about how in your effort to create a sustainable food system, you’re able to close the loop with composting on your farm, and how that also adds to your soil and your nutrient management process.
Emma Jagoz: Yeah, an organic farm is complicated. And a lot of our practices are dependent on one another and different processes working. So when we started farming, we were on… and by we, it was really just me at that point. But we were growing on no more than a quarter acre. And even though it was all with my body and a pitch fork, I was able to produce enough compost to add to that quarter acre plot. As the farm has grown throughout the years, the compost needs have changed. And so the farm has never been in really the same place to easily answer your question. But right now we’re on a 25 acre property. We went from a quarter acre to a half acre, to one acre, to two acres, to five, to 10, to 15, and now 25. And all of those scales have had different requirements. And I’ve had to change the techniques throughout.
Emma Jagoz: When I was farming 10 acres and had a few staff members, but I was leasing different properties, and farming on sites that were 15, 20, 25 minutes apart from one another. The logistical impact of making my own compost was too much to manage. So I couldn’t produce enough compost and haul it, transport it, and spread it on all of the different sites with enough efficiency to have that make sense. So I started supplementing the compost that I was able to make with purchased compost in order to still prioritize that organic matter boost and the other benefits that adding compost to soils offers. In addition to adding compost, we add organic matter in our soils by the use of cover crops. And some of the other organic practices that we employ on our farm are crop rotation, crop timing, cover cropping, adding insect strips, practices like that as well. That create the full picture of an organic farm.
Linda Bilsens B…: That’s awesome! I mean, part of the reason why I was so excited to talk to you is because of ILSR’s involvement in the million acre challenge. Which is a collaborative effort to promote regenerative agricultural soil health practices on 1 million acres in Maryland by 2030. And you were certainly one of the farms that we’re excited to be engaging with through that. And I view you as a great model for many reasons. I think all farmers are superheroes, but any farmer that can do it while raising two small children is extra impressive. And so it was really great to hear you list the other soil health practices that you’re integrating compost application with. And I’m wondering, this may be a hard question. But can you tie any observable benefits of compost applications specifically, to what you’ve seen in your fields? I know that’s really hard to do when you bundle so many practices together.
Emma Jagoz: Yeah. When I was farming in Baltimore County, we had really clay heavy soils. And I saw that the soils that we were adding more compost to had better drainage than those that didn’t have those compost additions. So they were able to dry out a lot faster in the case of heavy rain events. We were able to get in those fields sooner. Now here on my farm, loam is the primary part of our soil. So we have much better drainage than a clay, heavy soil. And when we add compost we get better water retention. Now, I also see that certain crops really thrive with heavy compost additions, including cucumbers and broccoli. They just really like organic heavy soil. And they really like the rich nutrients offered with organic matter like compost.
Emma Jagoz: Before I started the farm, when I was a gardener. I created this compost pile like any regular backyard gardener, just in a circular bin off to the side. And I was so wowed by the compost creation, like how my food scraps, and garden waste, and shredded leaves had turned into this rich, dark, sweet smelling soil. And I was so impacted, and excited. And just so tickled with the magic that come compost is that I knew I had to make it a part of my operation. I would’ve never foreseen where the operation has gone at that point, but I am fundamentally passionate compost. And I think that more people should experience the magic that is compost creation.
Linda Bilsens B…: We definitely agree with you. Super cool! Just listening to you talk about all the iterations that you’ve seen your farm through, and just getting things done. And how resilient of a business you’ve created, it’s really impressive. And I’m wondering if you have any advice for other farms out there. What are some keys in your mind to creating a resilient farming business?
Emma Jagoz: I’ve thought about this a lot, because farming is a very risky business to get into. And even though I have perhaps a higher risk tolerance than some. I still need to mitigate that risk in order to confidently hire a dozen people, and offer the promise of future CSA to hundreds of members. So I have created a farm that is resilient on five main levels. One is with crop diversity, we’re growing dozens and dozens of different kinds of crops. So that if we are to sustain a crop failure, we are still okay. You never know when you’re going to have a crop failure. It happens most years, that one thing just doesn’t go as planned. Whether it’s the failure of the farmer, or the potting soil, or a rain event, or an early or late frost, or a lack of arena. And you just never know what’s going to happen. So crop diversity is really important.
Emma Jagoz: Another really important factor for resilience for us is having high tunnels, that helps to mitigate some of those risks directly. Where we can control the amount of rain or water that the crops get. And it offers a few degrees of protection for frost. Another is that we grow a lot of perennial herbs. Perennial herbs are a fantastic crop to have on your farm. And I always have something to offer my customers in the form of perennial herbs. And I would extend that to perennial crops in general, as well. So fruit crops or anything like that. But since I’ve just moved in into this new farm, we don’t have seven Euro asparagus patch, or fruit tree. But we will.
Emma Jagoz: And storage crops is another way to have resilience. Once we have a crop like Kohlrabi, cabbage, carrots, beets, winter squash, sweet potatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic. It can really help buffer a CSA share, or the amount of risk that we’re taking with any climate change events that are going on, or any crop losses that might happen in the future. So we have focused on a lot of storage crops, not only to extend our season into 50 weeks out of the year. We are doing a year round CSA now. And we’ve been selling to chefs year round for six years. So storage crops are a big part of that.
Emma Jagoz: But they do offer resilience at all times of year. We just started really playing with spring storage crops as well. To offer carrots, beets, kohlrabi, cabbage throughout the summer as well. And the fifth piece of my resilient farm business plan, is to have farm partners. So other farmers that we work with that grow some of the same crops, or sometimes totally different crop then we’re able to grow. So that if we were to sustain a crop failure that would be devastating to the farm, we can lean on our community members to still offer that to our customers.
Jess Del Fiacco: You’ll hear more from Sophia, Linda, and Emma after a very short break. Thanks for listening to our show. If you’re enjoying this conversation, I hope you’ll consider heading over to ilsr.org/donate. I know we’re getting towards the end of the year, and you’re going to be hearing a lot of these asks from every nonprofit you’re a fan of. But your support really is a game changer for us. And I hope you’ll consider helping support our work. We really couldn’t do what we do without your help. So visit ilsr.org/donate to make a contribution today. Any amount is sincerely appreciated. Thanks. And now back to the show.
Sophia Hosain: It’s so inspiring hearing about how much thoughtfulness you’ve put into every aspect of farming, like from just caring for the land to making sure you’re not creating waste that you can’t take care of, to farming cooperatively with neighbor and working together to bring food to your community. And I’m curious, was this always your vision? Going into farming in what ways were you hoping to affect the food system? And what were the problems that you were trying to solve through growing food?
Emma Jagoz: I saw one of the main problems that people face, people especially mothers like myself. I was really facing the problem where I wanted to know where my food came from. I wanted to know exactly what I was putting in my body and in my children’s bodies. And it’s really difficult to know that in the grocery store. You don’t really know where it came from. You don’t really know what farming practices were employed. And it’s really hard to trust how long ago it got harvested, exactly what inputs went into it. So I wanted to shorten the chain between myself, and my neighbors, and their food. Because it just connects the farmer and the consumers so directly. And I can communicate with my customers exactly what’s in season, exactly how to prepare it. It just felt so magical. So I really wanted to problem solve food accessibility to people.
Emma Jagoz: And I know that a big problem that we have here in the Mid-Atlantic, is that a whole lot of the food that you see at the grocery store is from the West Coast. And as an environmentalist, this didn’t feel right to me. And as a lifelong Marylander, I know that the season here is long enough to grow all of the food we need here. So I don’t understand why we are shipping all of the food across the country. That doesn’t make any sense environmentally, and it doesn’t make any sense nutritionally. As a gardener I knew that the moment that I pick the tomato, that’s when it should be eaten. It’s best if you eat it in the field. It’s great if you take it in the kitchen that day, and have a tomato sandwich right there. And when you pick it green, it just doesn’t taste as good as when you pick it ripe off of the plant.
Emma Jagoz: Humans have evolved to equate what tastes better with what is more nutrient dense. So flavor actually indicates nutrient density. And I realized that the things that I grew in my garden tasted better. And I knew that there was more to that. So I really wanted to problem solve that for my customers and offer these questions. And as the farm has evolved from that first point. I realized that a lot of farms around me, myself included were offering about a 20 week CSA program. And so I was able to get for these five months out of the year, four or five months out of the year, my problem solved. I was able to know my farmer and get this nutrient intense food. But what was I supposed to do the rest of the months out of the year? And that became a new passion of mine.
Emma Jagoz: I saw that there are farmers in Maine like Elliot Coleman, and farmers in Quebec that are farming year round. And I was wondering why are we all taking a break down here in Maryland? We’re so much warmer than they are. Even with a high tunnel, we can really extend the season very well. And we can grow a lot of storage crops, and they last a really a long time. And besides that, we also can grow things like mushrooms year round, that really add a great part to our diet. And most of us really, at least before I started farming, I really didn’t pay that much attention to local mushrooms. I didn’t really think about that. But now that we’ve partnered with king Mushrooms from Barclay, Maryland. We are giving our customers access to gourmet mushrooms, 52 weeks out of the year. And that’s adding a really nutritious part of your diet that is really meaningful. It’s really healthy and it’s fully local.
Emma Jagoz: So I realized that if I wanted to change the food system, meaningfully, in not only offering customers food that they can trust, but food that they trust year round. And not only that, but food that was grown in this region. So it tastes like food that’s in this region. So then when you go to the Mid-Atlantic, it has a flavor. It’s not just Taco Bell and McDonald’s then Apple Bees, it tastes like Pawpaws, and it tastes like Maryland tomatoes, and it tastes like Maryland sweet potatoes stuff that you just… there’s subtle flavors based on our soils, and based on our weather that you can’t get anywhere else. Because it is regional, and it is seasonal, and it is direct from the farmers who are passionate. And so that’s what I’m offering now.
Linda Bilsens B…: That’s a lot that you are offering. That’s impressive. I don’t know how many times I’ve said that word in this interview. But I’m curious if we wanted more folks to be able to farm the way that you do. What are the biggest challenges that you are facing or that you feel like a really, truly resilient food system in Maryland? What’s keeping them achieving that? I know that’s a really big question.
Emma Jagoz: Resources, land access, and labor are definitely the three biggest. Resources, yeah, as a first generation and farmer, I didn’t have money when I started to farm. I didn’t have a robust career, I was coming from. I was in my early 20s, and I didn’t even have a big savings account. I bootstrapped the farm from free stuff on Craigslist that I up cycled into things that I could use. It would’ve been much easier to start with money or the other resources.
Emma Jagoz: I was pretty confident to be self-taught in that I found some farmers who had written books. There’s tons of books on how to farm, and there’s tons of resources available on the internet on how to farm. So I was pretty confident in taking those combined with my gardening knowledge to get started. However, there are really limited number of sustainable Ag university programs, classes, courses, and there should, and could be more of those. That would really help people get started, and acquire the knowledge that they needed to use as a farmer before getting started.
Emma Jagoz: Access to land is huge. Land is extremely expensive, especially if you’re trying to get high quality land near a market, that has enough wealth to sustain your operation. That is definitely big. When I first started the farm, I was on borrowed land, and I spent the eight years bartering for the use of land in order to avoid paying for it, at first. While I built my customer base knowledge, and infrastructure, and acquired equipment along the way. But that took time. If you had money and knowledge and resources up front, you would save yourself those eight years of slowly bootstrapping. And would be able to start a profitable business much sooner.
Emma Jagoz: And labor is a huge issue. And I think more education on how farming can be a career that you can make a living on. And that’s good for your family, and not too hard on your body. All of those things would be really helpful to know. I think there is a lot of misinformation out there about farming not being a viable career option for many people. And that deters a lot of good people from pursuing a career in agriculture. Those are the three main obstacles that I see.
Sophia Hosain: I’m going to repeat myself again too. But it’s just so inspiring hearing how much you’ve grown in such a short period of time, and how much you’ve been able to achieve. And, yeah, if we haven’t said it yet, but congratulations on buying your farm earlier, right at the beginning of COVID. I know that was crazy. And also really fortunate timing in a lot of ways for you to consolidate on one piece of land after farming on neighbors land, and across town, and trying piece it all together for a really long time. So, yeah, big kudos, always driving inspiration from your work. And, yeah, what’s next? What do you see next for Moon Valley? And what do you see next for yourself as a grower and a cultivator?
Emma Jagoz: Thank you so much. Buying land was major, and I really didn’t know that I could do it until I did it. It was a game changer in so many ways for our efficiency and my quality of life. So I was really happy, and I still am grateful every for that opportunity to farm on this property. In the future, we plan to continue growing our infrastructure out to build resilience for our farm. Including investing in more high tunnels, greenhouses, and coolers space to restore those storage crops. So that we can have a bigger diversity, and a bigger store of storage crops throughout all of the seasons, like I mentioned, even in the summer. That’s definitely one thing. We’re going to continue growing the health of our soils. As we mentioned, the soils that I inherited were farmed conventionally, and we’re high-end phosphorus. Our is still high-end phosphorus.
Emma Jagoz: And I am on a long term mission to improve the soil health every year that we farm here. And not only improve the soil health, but the biodiversity of this farm we’re putting in trees, wind breaks. Like I mentioned, we have an apiary and we’re putting in some permanent wild flower areas to help support the apiary. And we have a bunch of projects in the works that will improve the biodiversity of the farm on many levels. So I’m really excited for that. Oh, we also just started selling to the local school system as a new customer here. And my whole team is really, really excited this week, we are selling to two elementary schools in our community and feeding over a 1000 kids. So we were really excited for that as well.
Linda Bilsens B…: What lucky kids, and what a lucky community to have you providing nourishing food for them. I am so grateful for your time, and for your inspiration. And I am definitely a fan girl. I follow you guys on Instagram.
Emma Jagoz: Thank you.
Linda Bilsens B…: So it was a great pleasure to get a chance to talk with you and catch up with you.
Emma Jagoz: Pleasure was mine.
Sophia Hosain: Thanks everyone.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to everything discussed today by going to ilsr.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s ilsr.org. While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters, and connect with us on social media. We hope you’ll also take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast, and supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website. Finally, we ask that you let you us know how we’re doing with a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. The show is produced by me, Jess Del Fiacco. And edited by Drew [Bergecork 00:30:14]. Our theme music is Funky Doloude by Dysfunctional. Now for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jess Del Fiacco. And I hope to join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.


Like this episode? Please help us reach a wider audience by rating Building Local Power on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. And please become a subscriber! If you missed our previous episodes make sure to bookmark our Building Local Power Podcast Homepage

If you have show ideas or comments, please email us at info@ilsr.org. Also, join the conversation by talking about #BuildingLocalPower on Twitter and Facebook!


Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Android | RSS


Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: Brenda Platt (both photos) 

Follow the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on Twitter and Facebook and, for monthly updates on our work, sign-up for our ILSR general newsletter.