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'It feeds my soul': Community of women-owned, first-generation farms growing in Baltimore County

Emma Jagoz, founder of Moon Valley Farm, was not born knowing she was meant to be a farmer.

The University of Maryland graduate in American Studies discovered farming eight years ago at age 25, not because it ran in her family but because she wanted to “grow arugula for my baby’s brain.”

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Pregnant and obsessed with eating healthy, Jagoz read arugula was good for fetal brain development, but got tired of buying bunches of organic arugula at the grocery store. So she built a salad table and some seeds for her apartment patio, then a larger garden in her parents’ backyard, “and I just became kind of obsessed with growing food.”

Eight years, 15 acres and six farm sites later, Jagoz is founder and co-owner of Moon Valley Farm. The organic vegetable farm, which she started on her parents’ land in Cockeysville where she lives with her children, provides produce for more than 200 Community Supported Agriculture shareholders and restaurants like Woodberry Kitchen and Artifact Coffee.

The farm is a way for Jagoz, now 33, to live her values.

“When I was in college I was really involved in some social justice causes,” Jagoz said. "I really felt like living a cause, you know, not just getting picket signs … I really felt like the biggest difference I could make in this world was through bridging community via healthy food.”

These days, more and more women and young people in Baltimore County are coming to the same conclusion.

Farming is a field traditionally dominated by men — increasingly older men. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average age of primary farm operators has climbed steadily, from 50 years old in 1978 to 59 in 2017. And nationally, more than twice as many men run farms.

But in Baltimore County, some farmers are bucking those trends. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of women running Baltimore County farms more than doubled, even as the number of male principal operators stayed largely flat. And 2017 saw five times as many principal farm operators under the age of 34 as a decade before.

“There’s a lot of female farmers in our area, and a lot of them are having kids or have kids or hope to have kids,” Jagoz said, adding later: “The young farmers we know are mostly female. They’re mostly organic. And they’re super open to sharing and exchanging ideas and equipment and collaborating. It’s really cool.”

Jagoz said it was important to her to raise her children on the land, knowing where their food originates. The farm in Cockeysville has swings hanging from trees, a trampoline and a wide expanse of grass where her children and visitors can play.

Jason James, Jagoz’s business partner and Moon Valley Farms co-owner, said he thinks the younger generation of farmers is changing largely because of the “cultural confluence” around organic food and its relationship to social activism.

Jagoz and James both said the occupation also has a draw for “doers,” people who do not want to sit in the office doing the same kind of work all day.

“Farming is a Jill-of-all-trades occupation … people are really noticing that a corporate computer-centered job is, like, sucking their soul away,” Jagoz said.

Laura Beth Resnick, owner of Butterbee Farm in Pikesville, first discovered farming in college during a summer program in which students worked on a farm in exchange for room and board. A flute player and originally a classical music major, Resnick said the farm work felt right.

"The work was just so good, it felt so good,” said Resnick, now 30. “[Farming is] very tangible and concrete. You really feel with your body how much work you’re doing.”

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Lisa Duff, owner of Oak Spring Farm in Freeland, started growing food for her family when she moved to Maryland in 2006 with a 3-year-old and 7-month-old in tow. By 2012, Duff was training with Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture’s program for new farmers.

Today Duff, a single mother, supports her family with proceeds from her Freeland farm.

“It feeds my soul,” Duff said. “This is what I love to do. I’ve found what I’m supposed to do.”

Training the next generation

Sarah Sohn, director of Future Harvest CASA’s Beginning Farmer Training Program, said her organization’s mission is to fill a gap.

Traditionally, farming knowledge was passed down generation to generation, she said. People grew up in farming communities, surrounded by farmers who had seen season after season, people who knew when to plant the tomatoes and protect their crops from a storm.

But economic and cultural changes have broken down that system, Sohn said. Ten years ago, the Cockeysville-based program’s founders determined that there were not enough new farmers to take over Baltimore County’s farmland as older farmers retired from the physically demanding job.

“We’re really kind of racing the clock here,” Sohn said.

Today, the program operates across Maryland, and thanks to a USDA grant has grown exponentially, from 12 new farmers four years ago to 80 this year.

Many of those beginning farmers have no family background in farming and did not grow up knowing any farmers or wanting to be one. Tamara Todd, in her sixth year owning Wild Peace Farm in Monkton, went to college aiming for veterinary school. Resnick wanted to be a musician. Duff was a biology teacher. And Jagoz started out applying to office jobs in Washington, D.C., after college, at the height of the recession.

Moon Valley’s James said many of their contemporaries starting small-scale farms are college educated and launching second careers. Now 37, James had spent 10 years working in information technology when he joined Moon Valley six years ago.

“I’m a lot dirtier at the end of the day here,” James said.

The mentorship program, which matches new farmers with mentors in their region, is also a way to bring nontraditional groups to the industry.

Sohn said more than 80 percent of Future Harvest’s trainees are what the USDA calls “socially disadvantaged farmers” — those whose race or gender has been historically discriminated against. That is important, she said, because members of underrepresented groups can have a harder time finding mentorships.

“When you leave it to be a de facto thing, it tends not to be as accessible to women, to non-binary people, to racial minorities,” Sohn said. “So part of our function is to have a program that makes this kind of farm mentorship that’s so critical for farm success to be accessible to all kinds of people.”

One example of the importance of mentorship is raising children on a farm, something Sohn said can be difficult because of the long hours required for farming. Communities of farmers can give each other tips on work-life balance or share child care, she said.

One of the most important parts of training, Sohn said, is making sure young farmers know the industry is a tough one, with long hours, slim margins and all the risk of burnout that comes with owning a small business.

But for many hardworking and civic-minded young farmers, Sohn said the challenges feel worth it.

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Jagoz said for her, farming is about making change in the world by growing healthy food.

“Communities can’t create positive change if they are sick,” Jagoz said. "And I think the main way to help is by eating healthy, putting healthy things in your body. I realized that is organic and ideally that’s local because it is picked fresh and recently.”

Susan Broderick, of Catonsville, is in her third year as one of Moon Valley Farm’s CSA members. She said she signed up to eat healthier. Getting a box filled with vegetables every week has taught her to be more creative and adventurous with the produce she eats, she said.

After last year’s harvesting season, Broderick saw her doctor, who told her all her metrics were healthier — weight, blood pressure, blood sugar. So she came back for another year.

For many young farmers, however, farming’s appeal is not just in the mission but in the business. That includes marketing, selling, creating community and doing something different every day.

“Stepping into the role not just as a farmer, but as a farm owner, is so empowering,” Resnick said. “I just feel strong.”

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