Five questions for Red Moon Farm’s Jessica Bullock on food and farming around Tyler

Justin and Jessica Bullock with the latest addition to the Red Moon Farm family

In these startling days of honest-to-goodness winter in East Texas, I’m sure I’m not the only one dreaming of spring—and the return of my Red Moon Farm delivery. I’ve started to mark the seasons by the contents of my farm box on a given week, much of which I didn’t know you could grow around here, like this spring’s peppery arugula, summer’s golden beets, and fall’s Japanese eggplant.

Red Moon Farm is a small, scrappy organic farming operation on 38 sun-kissed, hilly acres in Van, forty minutes northwest of Tyler. It’s owned and run by Jessica and Justin Bullock, partners in life and business. They apprenticed for several years on farms in Pennsylvania, India, and elsewhere in Texas before starting their own four years ago. They offer one of the only community supported agriculture, or CSA, farm memberships in the region. The way it works is simple: Red Moon Farm grows seasonal produce following holistic and organic guidelines, and you sign up for a boxed portion of their harvest every week during the year’s three growing seasons. The boxes are delivered to three spots in Tyler and several more around the Dallas metroplex, going as far as North Arlington. Depending on how many people sign up each season, the farm sends out between 80 and 125 boxes each week.

I wanted to talk to Jessica for The Loop’s Food, Drink, and Farming issue not only about Red Moon Farm, but also about the wider world of food in Tyler. As small farmers who play an outsized role in the local food ecosystem—Jessica recently became a lead organizer of the Rose City Farmer’s Market—they’re experimenting with farming and business practices more often seen around bigger, denser cities. So, how’s that working out for them? What would they need from the rest of the community to take their business to the next level? Is there plenty more work to go around—and what advice do they have for other East Texans looking to get into the small-scale farming game?

My conversation with Jessica—who, full disclosure, is a personal friend—has been lightly condensed and edited for length and clarity.

What do you think is working well when it comes to food, farming, and Tyler—and what do we need more of?

Right now, for a lot of people in our area, the idea of local or organic food is still rather novel. It’s not necessarily worked into their norm. But that is slowly changing. People are starting to look for it at grocery stores and seek out farmer’s markets, and wanting to support restaurants that are marketing some kind of a local focus. That’s exciting. But now it’s about going to a deeper level, and taking the next step to really educate ourselves. For instance, yeah, local food is great, but there’s a difference between local organic food and local nonorganic food. We’re not yet truly discerning about these sorts of things.

That’s reflected in our restaurant climate right now, as well. A lot of restaurant owners and restaurant chefs like the idea of supporting local food, because it benefits their business, and you see more and more restaurants market themselves that way. But local farms haven’t seen more sales. We’re not making more money, even as restaurants are starting to make more money off of this concept. There needs to be a commitment to the farming community in real and meaningful ways, beyond putting a farm’s name on your menu.

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What would a real commitment from local restaurants look like to you?

It would mean a restaurant owner saying, “We’re gonna buy from this farm every week or every month, and adapt our menu to their produce.” For that to happen, chefs need to have the creative freedom to work with whatever we’re harvesting at a given moment, and the financial backing to purchase from us on a consistent basis.

This has worked really well for us with Texas Spice, the restaurant of the Omni Hotel in Dallas. The restaurant owners give the chef so much freedom, and they pour a lot of resources into cultivating relationships with local farmers. On a given week, that might mean they have to buy a whole bunch of cabbage from us, even if they weren’t planning anything with cabbage on their menu that week, because that’s what’s in season and growing well right now. This restaurant is willing to take the time—and it can take a lot of time—to experiment with things like fermentation and other creative things you can do with cabbage, or any crop.

Here’s a recent example: their chef recently made a demi-glace using our abundance of turnips, radishes, and other roots, roasting and then cooking them down into a reduction with really intense flavor to use in sauces and such. They’re putting energy into research and development in their kitchen, and it’s really fun to watch. We recognize that not every restaurant can do that. But that is what real commitment to working with local farms looks like.

Taking off your farmer hat for a second, as a consumer of local, seasonal produce in our region, what else would you like to see more of here?

Well, we need more young people getting into farming in the Tyler area. We don’t have very many farmers. And so few of them are committed to organic growing practices. We have a lot of hobbyists who are doing some backyard cultivating, which is great, but we don’t have enough people doing it on a large-enough scale. I think that is limiting what our restaurants are able to do, how our farmer’s markets can thrive, and what’s available in local grocery stores.

I’m sure that anyone who might consider getting into organic farming in East Texas is going to want to know whether you can really make a living doing this around here. What would you say to them?

We need to be cultivating business sense as part of our art and passion for farming. If you want to pay your bills, you need to bring some business acumen. The Small Business Development Center at Texas Junior College is really helpful if you want learn how to write a business plan and develop a marketing plan, and it’s a free service. I used them when developing my doula business model, and they showed me how to think through the structure of the business, what my products would be, and how I would package things for the consumer. I used what I learned there when we started Red Moon Farm.

We worked for a year on a business plan. Then we started researching how to produce food in way that would generate enough income for us to live on, not just in terms of farming, but in terms of a whole business model. We landed on the CSA model—community supported agriculture. We also benefited from a low-interest U.S. Department of Agriculture loan program and a wonderful grant through Texas Department of Agriculture called the Young Farmer Grant. That grant is available to folks under forty who have been farming for less than ten years and are starting something new. We had been farming elsewhere for five years before starting our own, so it was a great fit for us.

I know there are a lot of folks in the Tyler community who are trying to do micro-businesses and pop-up projects that are so promising and so exciting. For instance, there’s a group that’s doing quail and quail eggs in the Latino area on the East Side. So far, they’re all very small and fragmented, and not big enough to make good money at a farmer’s market. There are of course other models to sell your product, like selling from your own home. But I’d like to see more public resources for teaching more people how to have long-term financial success as small food producers. 

Registration for Red Moon Farm’s spring CSA is now open.

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Tasneem Raja is the Executive Editor of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history, and demographics in Tyler, Texas. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and led a team that built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of digital journalism, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in Tyler with her husband, her stepson, and two imperious terriers.