Morgan Hoenig of Mogo Organic
Mt. Pleasant, Iowa
We met Morgan and her mother at breakfast one morning at the 2012 MOSES Organic Farming conference in La Crosse, WI. At only 29, Morgan runs her own organic farm in the heart of traditional-ag country. That in itself is a story worth telling; add passion, purpose and a visit from the president and you’ve got this story, which we urge you to read to the end...
Please tell us a little about your farm -- where it is, what you produce, how long you've operated it...
Morgan: My farm is located in the SE corner of Iowa, in Mt. Pleasant. I started the farm in 2007, after winning a business plan competition. The prize money from that competition gave me the funds to build my first high-tunnel. We grow a wide array of organic vegetables and plant a number of heirloom varieties. Our specialties include tomatoes, lettuce, green beans and wild blackberries. Currently we are farming 3 acres of vegetables and we have 2 high-tunnels, but we are planning on adding another 3 acres to the farm next year.
Did you always know you wanted to farm? And if not, how did you end up here?
Morgan: My parents had a flower shop/greenhouse when I was growing up. In fact, we lived in an apartment above the greenhouse, so I spent a good portion of my childhood transplanting bedding plants and working in the dirt. But Mt. Pleasant is a small town, and I thought I was destined for bigger things (I was pretty sure I was going to be a rock star), so once I graduated I got the heck out of town! After college I moved back home, just for a transition period, but mom & dad needed help at their flower shop so I ended up sticking around... for 6 years! While working as a florist I also started a big vegetable garden, selling extra produce at the farmers market to help with student loan payments. I grew to love my time in the garden and the farmers market atmosphere, and soon I found myself managing the local farmers market. Then in 2007 I moved to my grandmother’s farm after she was moved to a care facility, and I entered the business plan competition, and the rest is history!
What's it like to be a woman farming on your own?
Morgan: It’s hard work, but every day is very rewarding! I’m always learning something new in the garden -- learning what plants grow well in my soil, encountering new bugs, figuring out how to fix my tractor... You become quite a good problem solver when you’re out on the farm on your own! Thank goodness for YouTube, I would have never figured out how to fix my tractor without all of the tractor repair videos! I love farming on my own, because I can step back at the end of each day and say "Yup, I did that!"
What's it like to be an organic farmer in the heart of conventional-farm country?
Morgan: It’s strange that Iowa is such an agricultural state, but we purchase most of our vegetables from California and Florida. I started growing organic veggies because there was not really a source for organic produce in our small town otherwise… selection at the grocery stores was pretty slim. But now-a-days the grocery stores have an ever expanding organic section, so customers are looking for organic products more and more.
I grow my products organically not only because I like to eat clean food, but because I am a strong environmentalist. Big agriculture is everywhere around me and I’m very aware of the harm it is doing to our environment... the Dead Zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the loss of top soil, and the destruction of natural habitats with use of herbicides and removal of fence/tree rows along farm lands. I know I can’t change big agriculture, it’s a major part of our state’s economy, but I feel good knowing that I am not adding to the problem. All I can do is try to show my community how much food can be produced organically, and on a small scale, and try to encourage more farmers to do the same.
As a 29-year-young woman, how do you see the "face" of farming changing? If you were asked to give advice to other folks considering farming, what would you say?
Morgan: I would be happy to see more young people like me in this industry. A number of vegetable growers in my area are getting older and are slowing down their farms. I’d love to see a new generation of farmers so that we can keep the local foods movement going in our area.
I’ve been building my farm for 5 years now, and it’s been a lot of work for not much profit yet... but staying optimistic and passionate is the key to success. Working on the farm and educating my customers about healthy local food has become my passion, so working long hours is a joy. When you love what you do, and you see that you are making a difference in other peoples’ lives, work just doesn’t seem like work. Now if Mother Nature can treat the farm nicely this year, making money will be an extra benefit!
You've had -- or created for yourself -- some wonderful opportunities to "grow" your farm. Please tell us about a few of them.
Morgan: As an entrepreneur I have received a lot of grant funds to keep the farm growing. The business began with a $3,500 grant from a best business plan competition. Then last year I entered an online Iowa entrepreneur contest called “Dream Big, Grow Here,” where I ended up winning $12,500 from pitching my business to a panel of judges. I’m told that I had an edge on other people in that contest because the judges could tell that I was so passionate about my business.
In April 2010, President Obama visited my farm. He was on a “green tour” of our state, visiting a wind turbine factory, a bio-fuels program at a local community college, and my organic farm! My farm is pretty small, so I was really surprised that they decided to visit. But I’m a young, female farmer and the only organic farm in the county, so the President and Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack visited my farm to highlight a new kind of agriculture. It was only a 15-minute visit, but it was an incredible honor that I will never forget. It was also a huge ego-booster -- having the President visit your farm makes you feel like what you do really matters in the world!
What do you think the key or keys have been that allowed you to make the most of these opportunities?
Morgan: I am very vocal in my community about the importance of eating healthy, clean and organic foods. I give talks to community groups and clubs, I organize educational events at our farmers market, and I offer school tours as often as possible. I’m always trying to inspire people in my community to care about where their food comes from and teach them how to appreciate local, seasonal foods. I guess it’s just my passion that has allowed me to make the most of these opportunities. I’m well known in my community for my mission and people say my love for vegetables is infectious.
What is it about farming that "feeds" you?
Morgan: I love the farm because it is enlightening. I learn something new every day that I’m out in the field, I get to hear the birds sing, I get good exercise, and I feel like I am making a difference in people’s lives. It’s a wholesome enterprise, and I live in a small rural community that is very supportive . . . it truly feeds my soul.
Anything else that you would like to share?
Morgan: There is one thing that I don’t tell too many people when I’m talking about my business, but since this is going on a website focused on women, I thought I’d share it. One of the big reasons that I am so passionate about my farm and vegetables is because I suffered from eating disorders when I was younger. When I learned how to eat food that made me feel good (lots of vegetables and whole grains) I was able to overcome my disorder and body image issues. The farm saved me!
-- April, 2012