Serious Eats

Meet Your Farmers: Lisa and Ali Moussalli of Frog Bottom Farm, Virginia

Note: Meet Your Farmers is a weekly series where we profile the farmers that mean so much to serious eaters everywhere. This week we introduce you to a young couple in Virginia (with a little farmer of their own on the way) who met through farming and are now making a living out of it.

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[Photographs: Lisa Moussalli]

Name: Lisa and Ali Moussalli
Farm: Frog Bottom Farm in Pamplin, Virginia

How many acres? 25 acres with eight to ten under cultivation

Your crew: Every year we hire a small crew of seasonal workers to join us planting vegetables, harvesting them, sharing them with customers through the CSA program and farmers' markets, and tending to our farm animals. Most of them find us through the apprenticeship list compiled by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service—an excellent, excellent resource for both farmers and folks looking to get into farming.

This year Shannon and Claire are working with us all season long. Our old friend Joseph also worked with us full-time this summer. We’ve hired local talent for short-term labor-intensive jobs like greenhouse construction, onion planting, and tree clearing. And we're expecting our first baby this fall. I'm sure the little one will be collecting eggs and chasing chickens before too long!

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Hours: From April until December we work Monday to Saturday, eight to ten hours a day. We start between 6 and 8 a.m., work until noon, then take a long lunch break during the hottest part of the day. In January and February we visit our families and catch our breath, then concentrate on lots of administrative and repair work. We start seeding in the greenhouse in March and it all begins again!

What you grow: A wide variety of home garden variety heirlooms and hybrids for a 100-share CSA and two farmers' markets: beets, carrots, lettuce, fresh herbs, Swiss chard, scallions, shallots, onions, fennel, radishes, sweet salad turnips, tomatoes, cucumbers, several varieties of summer squash and zucchini, eggplant, sweet peppers, hot peppers, muskmelon, watermelon, potatoes, mei qing choi, cabbage, broccoli, sweet potatoes, several varieties of winter squash, kale, collards, turnip greens, mustard greens, and so on.

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Your customers: Most of them are in Richmond, about an hour and forty-five minutes northeast of us. We take our vegetables to five CSA drops and two farmers' markets there. We also have a small but devoted group who pick up their CSA shares in Lynchburg (30 minutes west of us) or here at the farm. A Montessori school and a local cafe have also bought CSA shares. I'm so excited by their creative commitment to supporting our farm and using fresh local food every week!

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How you got into farming: Ali began farming in 1999 as a summer job during college, where he studied philosophy. He tried some other work after graduating but didn’t like any of it as much as farming. After several seasons as a seasonal farm worker and two years as a farm manager, he began leasing acreage near D.C. and farming it with his own crew.

I met him there in 2006 during what I thought was going to be a sabbatical year from my work with families and children in New York City! I was really interested in integrating gardening or farming with family support work and thought I should learn from some folks who grew things for a living. So I got a job working for the farmers Ali was leasing land from. I came for the vegetables and stayed because I fell in love. I worked on a free-range livestock farm the following year, then Ali and I decided to become business partners. We leased land and sold at D.C. farmers' markets for three years before buying our own farm here in central Virginia.

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Where did you learn to farm? Ali worked for the Planck family at Wheatland Vegetable Farms in Loudoun County, Virginia, and for the Crawford family at New Morning Farm in south-central Pennsylvania, before leasing land from the Plancks. I worked at Wheatland as well and for the Pritchard family at Smith Meadows Meats in Clarke County, Virginia.

Making a living from farming is absolutely possible but you can't get by on a wing and a prayer. It was our great fortune to learn farming—the romance and the headaches, the sweat and the swearing and the satisfaction—from these families who have figured out how to make it a viable long-term career choice.

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Your farming philosophy: Our approach is to grow honest, delicious food—to provide folks with lots of staple vegetables and enough diversity to keep it interesting. We are committed to low impact, ecologically sound growing practices. We're also committed to complete transparency about these practices—we love questions and farm visits.

We believe that good food, carefully grown and creatively shared, is a powerful tool for cultivating strong family and community connections. We want our farm to be a place of real welcome and look forward to integrating education and outreach programs.

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Why do you farm? I'm not sure we can imagine doing anything else. It's deeply satisfying to be so in charge of our days. It's good, hard, honest that work challenges us physically and mentally, all the time. We get to spend our days with a wonderful crew. Our customers are almost always happy to see us.

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The best thing about farming? The relationships we build with the people who eat our food, hands down.

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The worst thing? It's pretty hard to complain. Our sore backs?

Most important lesson you've ever learned? While there are some forces beyond our control—namely, the weather—our success depends almost entirely on our willingness to hunker down and do what needs to be done every day. Most of our mistakes and disappointments have been a direct result of our own carelessness or laziness—always a real wake-up call. But it feels really good to grow a beautiful tomato or watch the CSA membership expand or stand back and massage your own achy shoulders as a gentle rain falls on long beds of collards you've just transplanted.

What's the most important piece of advice you'd bestow on a young would-be farmer? If you want to make a living from farming: learn from people who know what they're doing, agriculturally and financially. You can't farm successfully without knowing how to manage both your vegetables and your money. You can stumble, and you can develop your own business in ways that are quite different from the people who taught you, but the stakes are high. We really believe in good, on the ground, in-the-mud-and-the-muck training.

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The future for good food? I'm nothing but optimistic. It's a real movement, this return to producing delicious food on a small scale for people who live nearby. All kinds of artisanal and farmstead foods are available: fruits and vegetables, meats, eggs, dairy, breads and pastries, grains, beer, preserves, vinegars, oils. And it seems like new ways of producing this food (farms, backyards, community gardens, rooftops, truckbeds) and distributing it (farmers markets, CSAs, co-ops, online buying clubs, home delivery services) are emerging all the time.

And in tough economic times, farmers are still often producing more than their customers can eat. Most farmers' markets and many CSAs partner with community organizations able to get this fresh food to more people who need it. I'm particularly excited about the trends in urban agriculture and community food security. I want everyone to be able to eat food that tastes this good. Perhaps even more importantly, I want everyone to have the chance to feel connected and cared for. I think the best part of this whole movement is the way it makes us need one another again—the way it makes us feel not alone.

Frog Bottom Farm is on Facebook and Twitter. Keep up with Lisa's amazing farm photography on Flickr.

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