MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year

This award recognizes organic farmers who show a strong commitment to organic principles, use innovative practices on their farm, and share their experience to help other organic farmers succeed.

The MOSES Board of Directors selects the farmer/farm family to honor from your nominations. They present the award at the annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference.

Nominate a Farmer

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Congratulations to the 2021 Organic Farmer of the Year:
Liz Graznak
Happy Hollow Farm
See her story below.

 

Past Winners

 

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2021 MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year

Liz Graznak
Happy Hollow Farm

Liz Graznak grows organic vegetables for CSA, farmers markets, and wholesale accounts at Happy Hollow Farm in Moniteau County, Missouri. She is the 2021 Organic Farmer of the Year. Meet Liz at the Growing Stronger Collaborative Conference during the kick-off Feb. 22.
Photo by Leanne Tippett Mosby

Organic Farmer of Year builds community while growing vegetables in Missouri

By Jason Montgomery-Riess

From MOSES community nominations, the MOSES Board of Directors has selected Liz Graznak to be the Organic Farmer of the Year. Liz runs Happy Hollow Farm, a certified organic vegetable CSA and market farm in a sea of conventional row crop production in north-central Missouri. Liz has earned this honor by raising outstanding organic vegetables while expanding the borders of organic food through her CSA and market stand, her community-building efforts, and her engagement with other farmers.

If you just think of Happy Hollow as Liz Graznak’s organic vegetable farm, you need to think bigger. Her farm in rural Moniteau County, Missouri, is her business, to be sure. But, it’s so much more.

The easiest way to describe what she does is Community Supported Agriculture. Honestly, though, CSA doesn’t quite capture it. A better description is community-centered agriculture.

Of course, the farm does belong to Liz and her wife, Katie. This is their homeplace. They own the land and have lived here for 13 years. This is where they made their life commitment to each other in 2010, and where they have raised their two daughters, Sylvia and Ellowyn. They have invested time, talent, and treasure in barns, wells, soil, a pack shed, and more.

“This farm is my baby, and it’s my life. It’s just about all I think about,” Liz said. Without flinching, she added, “I will be buried here.”

At the same time, the farm belongs to lots of other folks. Through hard work, vision, and magnetism, Happy Hollow is a gravitational force of good food and good community to employees, rural neighbors, the wider community in Missouri, and fellow farmers.

Career Path
Like many folks running organic vegetable farms, Liz didn’t arrive here on the “career path.” A visit to her younger sister at Cornell in 1998 led to working on the field crew at the university and, soon after that, enrollment in a graduate program. While working towards her master’s in plant breeding, she joined a CSA, and some new interests emerged: food sources and farm work.

A lecture at the university by Elizabeth Henderson pushed Liz further along. Henderson painted a picture of farming Liz could internalize. “I thought, ‘Well, I can do that.’ I could be a farmer.”

After completing her master’s degree, Liz set about working on other farms and attending conferences. As her vision began to coalesce, she turned her gaze back to Columbia, where she grew up. She worked for a season at The Salad Garden and figured she really wanted to run her own place but needed to build savings.

Liz went to work at The Superior Garden Center in Columbia for six years, and, while socking away seed-money, acquired some other valuable experiences like managing people, marketing, and advertising. She also met Katie along the way.

Vision combined with discipline weaves through Liz’s unique story. The seeds of Happy Hollow were planted long before she could realize the dream. To bring about all this abundance and belonging, she had to put in time.

By 2005, Liz and Katie started looking for land. The two-year search culminated in finding a farm in Jamestown that would become Happy Hollow. Still not in a rush, Liz didn’t start the farm operation for another 2 years. She kicked off their CSA with 18 members in 2009.

Fast-forward to today. Liz and her crew deliver 85 shares for a 32-week CSA season. Happy Hollow is a cornerstone vendor at the Columbia Farmers Market, where they blow out two tents with gobs of produce and flowers. Their produce also goes to local restaurants and natural foods grocers.

The Business
The bedrock of Happy Hollow is the CSA. Unlike many subscription-style CSAs, though, they require members to work two half-days a season. Far from a burden, the work requirement bonds the farm and its members, who cherish the workdays.

Liz is adamant about raising certified organic. Of course, the label indicates third-party accountability, and customers have confidence they are following the rules. It opens up wholesale markets, and importantly, it forces Happy Hollow to do the paperwork that is so valuable for tracking performance.

While the diverse streams look familiar to many in her community, what really sets Happy Hollow apart is season extension. They’ve been selling produce 52 weeks a year in zone 5 since the beginning. In the summer months, they are delivering the very best versions of peak-season veggies in a crowded marketplace. Winter sales of fresh greens out of the high tunnel offer a unique and valuable product that is in high demand.

“No one else has fresh, local, organic produce in December,” Liz reported with a joyful sense of being the farm that is filling in the gaps.

There’s something else about the business, too. When it comes to local restaurants, there’s just about no order that is too small. If they want Happy Hollow produce, Liz’s team delivers. As employee Clint Shannon said, “Liz cannot say no to a restaurant. Even though it doesn’t make sense to say yes.” On the surface that seems undisciplined, but he explains the no-limit approach, “is rooted in Liz’s desire to be feeding people in her community.”

The last 10 years at Happy Hollow have been a flurry of construction, connection, and people management. The market expansion has coincided with building out the farm infrastructure. With help from her neighbors and employees, they have raised barns, greenhouses, and lots of high tunnels. Not one to just leave the work to someone else, Liz has also been a construction worker.

Liz’s magic, though, is drawing people together to share in the work. She brings vision, grit, and hard work, and offers amazing food, meaningful work, and connection in return.

Liz is ready to take care of her crew, too. She pointed out with pride how pleasant her employee accommodations are. That commitment and cost is based on a promise she made to herself after seeing the meager conditions many farms offer the help.

Every aspect of the farm presents Liz an opportunity to activate her vision. She wants to raise the best vegetables, using the best land practices, being the best boss and best possible neighbor she can be, all while building a community of ethical eaters and organic producers in her region.

The Crew
For Liz, being a farmer-owner-boss is a combination of awesome vegetable grower, team leader, empowerment coordinator, quality control manager, and true friend to her employees. It’s challenging to accomplish this while holding employees to high standards. Ask the crew and they’ll say she’s doing it.

Take Brad Fisher, Liz’s farmhand, who has worked at Happy Hollow for nine seasons. “I love the people. I love the work and it’s good therapy,”  he said. That’s the fruit of Liz’s efforts.

Brad’s story of Happy Hollow is bigger than just showing up every day to do what a good farmhand does. He credits Liz for helping steer him into the undergrad Ag Science program at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “After my second season, Liz threatened to fire me if I didn’t go to college. She was joking, I think, but I went to school.”

According to Megan Reid, Happy Hollow’s pack shed and greenhouse manager, Liz delivers as boss, mentor, and friend. She admires how Liz “is doing a lot of things at once. She shows up for people and herself so beautifully.”

Liz is known for being out with the crew, too. Any new employee can expect a thorough training. Clint Shannon noted that when she is in the field, she delivers wicked speed, quick thinking, high energy, optimism, and friendship. She’s always connecting professionally and personally.

It hasn’t always been easy finding good help to make Happy Hollow run. Liz admitted with gratitude, though, that she has always had at least one team member who helped make the magic happen. This year, though, brought a new chapter. With returning workers and a solid crew, she was able to focus much more on the business and give the crew more responsibility.

The Neighborhood
You won’t get too far into Happy Hollow history without hearing about the neighbors. They are part of the inner ripple of community the farm draws together.

There’s the time in their first year living in the country that Liz’s pickup blew a tire on their gravel road. Rather than fix it, she called her mom for a ride to work in Columbia. When she rolled in at the end of the day, she found her tire fixed and a note from neighbor JT Cassil saying, “I hope it’s okay I fixed your tire.”

The Graznaks expressed their gratitude with a cherry pie and visit up to JT and Mary. A friendship was born, and a seemingly unlikely one at that.

JT’s family has history in these parts, going back to the 19th century. At one time, his father and, later, his brother owned the land that is now Happy Hollow.

In rural Missouri, there aren’t a lot of lesbian couples settling down to farm. And in conservative communities, openly LGBTQ folks are a new minority. While neighbors may not always roll out the welcome mat, Liz has a way of building bridges.

The first surprise for the Cassils was seeing two women move onto the place, and the second one was that they were planning to “run a truck patch” on that land—something JT figured wouldn’t work. After seeing what Liz put together, though, he said, “She’s got a product that anybody would want. Her produce is beautiful. They take pride in it.”

He also was taken with Liz, who, he said, “works as hard as any man I’ve ever known.” That work habit has been a cornerstone of Liz’s ability to “fit-in” with a community that often has different expectations for who farms and what women do, and is unfamiliar with openly lesbian women.

The mutual affection between JT and Liz has only grown over the years. JT noted that Liz’s commitment to treat the land right stands out to him. “Liz takes care of the land. It means a lot to me.”

Liz has gone to JT for advice on all sorts of things—when to turn the soil, how to manage cover crops, whom to call if the well is broken, and what equipment is worth buying. JT has learned all about what vegetables a professional grower can raise in Missouri, especially under hoop structures.

The Membership
Happy Hollow members are happy CSA members. To ask them about Liz’s work is to invite expressions of deep gratitude. The food is the first thing you’ll hear about. Jeanne Heuser and her husband, Mark, have been members since 2010. They are also Liz and Katie’s neighbors. Jeanne gushed about the freshness, quality, and flavor.

Jeremy Root, who lives in Columbia, was quick to point out that the quality of the food is connected with the care Liz “brings to everything she presents.” He and his wife, Amanda, have raised their two daughters on Happy Hollow produce. They love the exposure to new varieties, and to the rhythm of seasonal eating.

Members also shared about their connection to the farm. When she learned that Happy Hollow would be set up on neighboring farmland, Jeanne said, “I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

Jeremy described his farm membership this way: “It’s the quality of produce and the quality of the connection. It’s the relationship with the farmer that is precious to us. It strikes a lot of different notes on the xylophone of values.”

The membership project goes even deeper, too. Jeanne and Liz are working together to lay the groundwork for a regional food system with the formation of the Moniteau County Neighborhood Alliance. The goal is to support community health and economic wellbeing through education and advocacy. Their first project with university extension is to promote access to safe food, and build up the community of food growers in their region.

The Farmer
It’s clear Liz loves to farm. When Chris Blanchard launched the Farmer to Farmer Podcast at the 2015 MOSES Conference, his first episode was “Liz Graznak on the First Five Years.” Liz also appeared on Episode 100, where Chris invited Liz to interview him.

Ask Liz about farming, Happy Hollow, and organic food, and you will connect with her profound inner fire. It is a passion for the work, farm, and community she has stitched together. While she doesn’t hide or downplay the difficulties the work or business of farming bring, she also sees the beauty that comes from building a community around good food and shared health. This inner fire appears outwardly like joy in action. It leads Liz to erect high tunnels and teach classes, to deliver the best food to her CSA members in handmade cedar boxes, and to check in with her employees while they are harvesting lettuce.

This Organic Farmer of the Year points the way to a brighter food future. She lives out the reality that good agriculture requires community,. She exemplifies the role that affection for people and place play in making our communities healthy, whole, and prosperous.

 

Jason Montgomery-Riess has owned and operated Steady Hand Farm, a 100+ member CSA and market farm in Amery, Wisconsin, since 2015.

 

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