When Daron Joffe dropped out of college to become an organic farmer, his parents cheered him on. “Okay, Farmer D, let’s see where this goes,” his mom said. He apprenticed on several organic farms in the Midwest, picked up biodynamic farming from Hugh Lovel at the Union Agriculture Institute, and eventually bought a 175-acre farm in Wisconsin where he launched a successful community supported agriculture (CSA) program. After several stints in the nonprofit world, Joffe was asked to help design and run an organic farm at one of the first “agrihoods” in the country, Serenbe. A planned community built around an organic farm, Serenbe was the beginning of Joffe’s career as an “entre-manure.”
Appropriating his mom’s nickname, Joffe branded himself Farmer D and launched a farm consulting business as well as a line of biodynamic compost. Eventually, he opened a gardening supply shop in Atlanta, where he still sells compost, gardening tools, seeds, plants, and raised beds. In his new memoir/farming guidebook, Citizen Farmers: the Biodynamic Way to Grow Healthy Food, Build Thriving Communities, and Give Back to the Earth, he tells his story and shares his passion for social justice. We talked to Joffe recently about beginning farm finances, biodynamics, and how to get more fresh produce into under-resourced areas.
How do you define a “citizen farmer”?
Essentially anyone who is committed in some way to improving our food system and the health of our planet through action. You can be a citizen farmer from a classroom, a kitchen, a board room, or the mayor’s office.
You left your own farm in Wisconsin because you wanted to raise awareness about biodynamic agriculture among the masses. How did you go from being a farmer to a farmer-activist?
I loved the CSA model—the farm as a platform for education and community building. But I felt that I wasn’t going to be able to make a big enough impact on my farm. And so, my first inclination was “I need to be more urban.” So I bought a food truck in Madison—it was a farm-to-table food truck (the falafel had heirloom tomatoes and fresh arugula from my farm)—and started doing more urban gardening. That kind of reinforced for me: [Cities] are where change needs to happen. I thought, “I’m going to sell the farm, and come back to farming later in life. But I need to devote this energetic time of life in communities that need it.”
After working at a few nonprofits, you found yourself becoming what you call an “entre-manure.” How did that transformation come about?
I had had this idea for years, of bringing the farm into the Jewish summer camp environment. It would be a way to get better food into the cafeteria, get kids connected to the environment and farming. I presented this idea to a Jewish Community Center, near where I was going to school in Georgia, and I managed to raise the money and build this garden that’s still there. It was a huge success.
One day, this development person from the JCC asked me to apply for a social entrepreneurship grant called the Joshua Venture Fellowship. It’s a two-year fellowship and they pick eight people from around the country. I got it. They gave me a mentor who was this guru of nonprofits. I sat down and had coffee with him. I said, “Here’s what I do: I design and build these gardens, train somebody to run them, and then I check in on them and then I’m done.”
And he said, “That sounds like a business. Why are you doing it as a nonprofit?”
I didn’t even realize it, but for those few years, I had been building my consulting expertise. When I got the opportunity to work at Serenbe, just southwest of Atlanta, I’d been doing it already.
Was Serenbe the first of these so-called “agrihoods”—planned communities built around a farm?
It was one of the first. There was Prairie Crossing, and a few really small things had happened—co-housing communities with small farms. But Serenbe was the first that had clustered, hamlet-style villages around a farm. It was also the first on this scale.
Though you’ve worked as a consultant on private developments around the country, you’ve kept doing pro bono work, building farms and gardens for homeless shelters, youth prisons, and boys & girls clubs. Is that part of your company’s mission?
My bread and butter clients are big developments and high-end resorts and I take on as much of the discounted nonprofit stuff that I can afford. I’m in a position now, in my new role [as ranch development director] at the Leichtag Foundation, where that’s more my core.
Now as a retired RN, I am looking for ways to help improve the biodiversity of our food supply. Or at least talk up the need for it every chance I get.
I've bookmarked this so I can refer to it. I'll look for more articles of yours often.