An optimistic start
by Sally Colby
It’s challenging to move a farm operation to new, vacant land. Bare ground is a blank slate, but jumpstarting a produce farm requires testing and amending soil, laying out irrigation, determining where to plant each crop and, in some cases, reconfiguring a marketing plan.
Emma Jagoz knew there would be challenges when she moved her Moon Valley Farm to Woodsboro, MD, but dealing with COVID-19 wasn’t in the plan.
“This is my ninth season,” said Emma, explaining the background of her farm enterprise. “For the past eight years I leased land. I ended 2019 bartering pieces of land in Baltimore County, growing 15 acres of certified organic veggies and operating a successful 250-member CSA program.” As her farm grew, Emma established relationships with other farms including a gourmet mushroom grower on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a bulk organic vegetable grower in southern Maryland and a fruit farm to provide more variety in CSA shares and to restaurants.
Since half of Emma’s business is based on selling produce year-round to restaurants in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., she was forced to make some quick decisions in March. Rather than waiting to see if restaurants would remain open, Emma decided to start the CSA seven weeks early. “I could keep everyone employed here and help keep the partner farms going,” she said. “We had more than 200 on the CSA waiting list, took as many as we could and still have a waiting list.”
Although it’s Emma’s first season on the 25-acre farm, she planned well and is currently fulfilling 550 CSA shares each week. Customers with home gardens appreciated the option of purchasing started vegetable plants in spring, and as a Master Gardener, Emma offered growing tips.
Emma began evaluating the farm and making improvements shortly after moving. The property included a large outbuilding that now serves as a packing shed. Two coolers, one colder than the other, store produce at optimum temperatures. The farm’s gently sloping hills aid in drainage, and ample acreage allows for crop rotations. Emma plans to tweak the layout to allow construction of additional high tunnels. To keep deer out, the property is fenced with triple strands of electric fencing, offset to interfere with depth perception and discourage fence jumping.
An area behind the packing shed is used for sanitizing neatly stored crates, harvest containers, cells and trays. There’s also space for tractors and mowing and tillage equipment, all of which Emma prioritized over other expenditures as she determined what she needed to farm.
The farm that is now Moon Valley had been conventionally farmed, so Emma uses all organic practices as she waits three years for organic certification. Plant starts and microgreens are currently certified organic. Emma starts all of the plants for the farm in one high tunnel, and 600 tomato plants reach the top of another tunnel.
“I love growing in tunnels,” said Emma. “We took one down from one of our locations and moved it here. We’re going to put up a few more tunnels and I hope to have two acres under high tunnels in the next five years. With tunnels, I can grow better, more reliable crops.”
High tunnel tomatoes are trained to strings, which require a lot of labor, but Emma said there are staff members who enjoy pruning tomatoes and placing clips as plants grow. Pruning lower branches and eliminating suckers promotes air movement, which is critical for plant health in an organic system. African blue basil thrives at the base of tomato plants, taking advantage of otherwise unused space to gain an additional crop. In addition to the high tunnel tomatoes, several thousand tomato plants thrive outside.
Other field-grown crops include okra, cucumbers, eggplant and summer and winter squash. Emma selects small winter squash varieties such as butternut, acorn and delicata for several reasons: they fit nicely in share boxes and customers are less intimidated by smaller squash. An assortment of autumn crops was recently transplanted from the greenhouse to the field, including a selection of cabbages, lettuce, kale and broccoli.
Emma established more than 50 varieties of field-grown peppers this year, with varieties for all taste buds. No-heat peppers such as Lunchbox, Aji Dulce, Mad Hatter, Numex Suave and Roulette are just right for some, while a selection of super hot peppers that rate high on the Scoville scale – Jamaican Scotch Bonnet, 7 Pot, Hot Paper Lantern, Carolina Reaper, Fatali and several habaneros – satisfy those who like truly hot peppers.
Moon Valley Farm customers are satisfied with the original “you get what you get” CSA model. Emma explained that prior to COVID-19, CSA members who didn’t like some of what was in the weekly share could choose from a swap box, but that option is on hold for now. A list in the packing shed offers options for those who are allergic to certain foods. CSA members receive weekly emails that include information about what to expect in their share along with storage tips and recipes.
One of Moon Valley Farm’s most popular new options is home delivery, available to customers in Frederick, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. After harvest and prior to the next day’s delivery, employees pre-pack vegetables according to storage temperature requirements. Emma said this process makes process go much faster.
“We have trucks on the road Tuesday through Friday,” said Emma. “For CSA boxes to be delivered the following morning, packing begins at 5 a.m., with the first truck leaving at 6:30, the next at 7 and the third by 7:30.”
For those who pick up shares on the farm, carefully labeled boxes in the packing shed help make the process quick and easy. Some customers opt for “ugly shares,” which Emma started offering six years ago. “The vegetables were still good, but I wanted to make sure the standards for CSA boxes were higher,” she said. “I was taking home all the ‘ugly’ vegetables, and I decided to offer the ugly share when I had more ugly produce than I could eat myself. I noticed people who had their own gardens were open-minded about ugly vegetables, but if they had shopped only in a grocery store, they didn’t want anything misshapen.”
As autumn weather brings the harvest of outdoor-grown vegetables, Emma will continue to grow what she can under cover and supply customers with a variety of wholesome and unique vegetables throughout the season.