Lisa Moussalli of Frog Bottom Farm: Show & Tell Farm Tour

Shari Altman
6

Lisa Moussalli
Today, let's head to Virginia to see new mama Lisa Moussalli's beautiful Frog Bottom Farm. Lisa and her family have created such an inspiring place to live and work.

turnips, lettuce, scallions, beetsSpring! Here you can see scallions, beets, hakurei turnips, and lettuce.
Just out of the frame is fennel.
Tell us a little about your family and your family farm.

We (me, my husband Ali, our nearly 9-month-old son, one dog, one cat, one dairy goat, one rooster, twenty chickens -- and the resident deer, groundhogs, raccoons, rabbits, wild turkeys, turkey vultures, pileated woodpeckers, stinkbugs, and Colorado potato beetles) live on 25 rolling acres in central Virginia, a little under two hours west of Richmond. We grow heirloom and home garden hybrid varieties of vegetables, and a few small fruits, for about 300 families who are part of our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable subscription program, and also sell at one farmers' market in Richmond.

planting lettuce
Last fall's lettuce planting. How do you approach farming?

We believe in being as gentle as possible to the land, to ourselves, and our crew, and to the folks who eat our food. So we don't use any pesticides or harmful fertilizers, and instead rely on things like row cover, beneficial predators, crop rotation, successive plantings, hand weeding and hoeing, and tractor cultivation to try to stay a step or two ahead of weeds and pests. Our approach is to grow honest, delicious food: to provide our CSA members and market customers with most of their weekly vegetable staples, with enough diversity to keep things interesting.

beets
Washing Red Ace and Chioggia beets.
We love farming. It's a pretty wonderful thing to grow really good food for people. We get to spend our days with a crew who are very funny, quite tireless, and full of hope for where local foods and small scale agriculture are headed. We love that the work is creative and practical at the same time. We love being so in charge of our days.

We think a lot about balance and sustainability: not only in terms of our growing methods or the size of our food shed, but also in terms of how our farming challenges and enriches our life as a family. We want to be gentle stewards of our land, and we want to earn a decent basic living, and we want a substantial amount of time together as a family.


blackberries
Blackberry foraging along the edge of our fields. You have a young child. How does this influence how you farm?

Becoming a mother changed the shape of my days completely. I think that perhaps my greatest charge -- and my greatest happiness -- as a parent is to surrender my ideals and expectations to the ways that my baby's universe is actually unfurling, day after gorgeous mind-blowing exhausting day. We tried to prepare for this surrender, if that makes any sense. I'm not out in the fields picking or weeding or irrigating with my husband and our crew, although our little guy is a very good one-man pep rally when he sits in a bed of Swiss chard or giggles uncontrollably as garlic bulbs are snipped from their stalks!

We doubled the size of our CSA this year and decided to increase our full-time crew by one worker. These steps allow me to spend my days with our son. He and I tend to the homestead side of things here, feeding the chickens and collecting their eggs and milking the goat. I also manage our CSA, squeezing in work during our baby's nap and sometimes late at night: designing posters and brochures, dreaming up creative ways to advertise, maintaining our farm website and blog, staying in touch with our members, and organizing farm potlucks and tours.  

But in the main my days are pretty calm and simple, very much one thing at a time. I don't try to get a lot done. As a mom, I spend less time doing actual “farming,” but I have to say, I really feel I've found my niche, in our business and in our home. It feels really good.

chickens
We've always got a few rogue chickens who fly the fence and spend their days hither and yon. They always head home to the coop at night.
Tell us about one DIY project you have taken on recently on your farm and love.

Well, I love when we're able to re-purpose materials in useful, meaningful ways. We have some lumber that used to be the back deck of my childhood home outside Philadelphia. When my family moved to North Carolina a couple years ago, they replaced the deck and passed the old lumber on to us. That year we had a flock of 800 pastured laying hens, and we used the wood to build the frames of their coops. We decided not to stay in the egg business, and now that lumber and the rest of the coop framing is the framing for our hoop house! It was really nice to save money in this way, and I think of my childhood summers almost every time I'm near the hoop house.

goat
Luanne is ready to be milked!
When it comes to our home, I find myself really delighted by the ways we can provide for ourselves, and I love that my decreased involvement in the fields means I have more time for our homestead. I don't know how much money we save by keeping chickens for eggs and a goat for milk, but I find it all enormously satisfying. I make yogurt with our goat milk, and I've recently been experimenting with kombucha and water kefir. I'd love to keep us in bread, but that day is a ways off. Perhaps someday we'll have a cow -- I'd love to have our own butter and cream! But maybe not -- our families don't live close and we like being able to visit them in the off-season, and that's more difficult to do with a family cow. We'll see.

washing lettuce
Washing lettuce.
For new vegetable gardeners, do you have a great tip to share?

It's funny. Ali and I both say we dream of having a garden one day! What I mean by that is that when we choose what crops to grow for our CSA, we aim for a balance of deliciousness, diversity, and productivity. There are some foods we love that we don't grow because we don't have enough land (corn), because they take an enormous amount of time to pick (beans), because they just aren't very productive (loads of amazing heirloom varieties), or because they're very hard to grow without pesticides (corn again, and perennial crops that we can't rotate). That still leaves us with lots to choose from -- but we do dream of being able to grow things simply because we love them.

Red Ace beets
Owen samples some Red Ace beets and declares them to be quite delicious.
I also dream of being a food preservationist extraordinaire, but the times during our farm season when we have the most bounty are also of course our busiest times -- so I'm getting there in fits and bursts. Something I've learned is that lots of vegetables freeze really well; this is super-fast and also preserves their flavor in a way that canning sometimes can't.

Tomatoes are a great example. Ideally you blanch them first for a few seconds in a pot of boiling water, slip their skins off, chop them coarsely, and plop them into plastic freezer bags. But we've also learned that you can just throw whole raw tomatoes into freezer bags and be done with it! When you thaw them they don't have the same texture as fresh tomatoes, of course, but their flavor is wonderful for soups and stews and braises. Roasted tomatoes freeze great too!

picking tomatoes
Here's Shannon picking some Early Girls! You can see a bit of early blight on the plants, which eventually spells the end for almost every tomato planting. But we expect it, and deal with it by planting four generations of tomatoes, which see us from early July until the first frost.
What are some of your favorite vegetable/fruit varieties that you grow?

Cherokee Purple is my favorite tomato. It's on the Slow Food Ark of Taste and for good reason: it's juicy and meaty and has this great balance of sweetness and acidity. A dead ripe Cherokee Purple will blow your mind. I'm also crazy about Red Russian kale, fresh broccoli, Asian cucumbers, Ambrosia muskmelons, and Sunshine kabocha squash.

onions
The onions are ready!
What is your most important everyday ritual on the farm?

Really the most important daily ritual for me is nursing my baby to sleep. He's not even nine months old and yet everything changes so fast at this age (sometimes I swear I can see him grow) but this ritual of ours has stayed remarkably constant. He and his dad have their own end of the day ritual (a bath and a new diaper and quite often their own changing-table Tom Waits renditions) and then he comes to me and we settle into the bed in the darkened bedroom. I can feel all the excitement and energy of the day draining away from both of us, and in its place is just this deep sweet comfort and stillness.

tomato beds
Katie rakes in some pearl millet between our tomato beds as green manure.
You offer a CSA program on your farm. Tell us more about why you decided to offer CSA shares and what you like most about offering this program.

We got our start farming on rented land outside Washington, DC, and there we sold only at farmers markets. When we bought our own farm, we knew we were moving away from the population density of metro DC, and it made good business sense to diversify.

We expected that lots of folks would find the CSA model of buying and eating food to be outside their comfort zone, because it does require more flexibility and creativity and a stronger sense of adventure than shopping at farmers markets. We were surprised and delighted by the eager reception we got.

farm tour
Farm tour!
We love it. When you know how many people you're growing for there's so much less waste, both at the beginning of the season when you're seeding and later when you harvest. Because members pay before the season starts, there's a lot of financial security as well.

What I love most though is the CSA model depends on real relationships. Everyone is a regular. We see the same people every single week, and exchange stories and recipe ideas. We have several farm potlucks every season. Coming together, for good food and warm company, is just about the best thing there is.

potted herbs
I find keeping some potted herbs on the back steps an easy way to grab some for dinner.  They also make me stop and smile every time I walk past, which might be the best reason for having them.What garden blogs/websites do you enjoy? Where do you turn for inspiration?

For regular farming and marketing information and inspiration, we always turn to Growing for Market and the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (which also has the most comprehensive listing of sustainable farm apprenticeships and jobs). 

Most of my blog reading these days is not about farming or gardening, but about parenting and food. My friend Wesley writes at Mountain Mama and is a constant source of inspiration to me. I hope that I will learn to mother with half her grace, humor, compassion, equanimity, and wisdom.

My friend Molly Irwin and I have had some amazing conversations about the ways that social media can connect us deeply and the ways it can take us away from people who need our time and love, and about how satisfying it can be to find ways to really put your passions to work in the service of a family business.

greenhouse
Autumn in the greenhouse.
For reminders that everyday life is beautiful and aching, and that we're all carrying a lot, habit cannot be beat. I feel calmer and more grateful in my own life when I take in Tara's images and words at public :: bookstore, and I really wish I could take photographs like hers."

3191 is so calming to look at, always a wonderful breath of fresh air. And as I explore more traditional, nutrient-dense, probiotic foods, Nourished Kitchen and Cultures for Health are terrific and accessible resources.

farm baby
The farm is full of awesome baby toys!What would you like to add to your farm in the upcoming year or so?

We're hoping to put in a giant blueberry patch! We're trying to weaken some very aggressive weeds first, but we hope we can put the plants in next year. We're also really looking forward to scattering a few family plots about the farm in funny nooks and crannies where we can't fit our full crop beds, places to plant some things just for us: corn, rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, maybe some beans. As soon as we can afford it we'll install a high woven wire deer fence.

I really, really love welcoming families to the farm. When our business is more established and when we're not such new parents, I'd love to add some family projects: a discovery garden, parent-child cooking classes, perhaps, and ways to welcome families who are having a rough time.

Lisa Moussalli spent a wildly happy childhood outside Philadelphia reading books well past her bedtime, inventing games with her brother, wishing for summer thunderstorms, and avoiding fresh tomatoes like the plague. Sometime in her mid-twenties, while working with a small creative family support organization in New York City, she came to her senses about the tomatoes.  She left her beloved New York in early 2006 and, after volunteering on small farms in France and Ireland for a few months, returned to the United States to work on a vegetable farm near Washington, DC. She thought she'd return to New York to work with a school or community garden project, but she fell in love with a farmer and changed her mind.  Today they own Frog Bottom Farm in central Virginia. They run a large CSA and also sell at farmers markets.

 

Images via Lisa Moussalli

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