For this week’s episode, I asked my longtime friend, Daron Joffe, to join me. Since early adulthood, Daron has been driven by the belief that the world is a better place when our everyday lives are enmeshed in the act of interacting with the soil through gardening and farming. Through hard work and fortuitous opportunity, he’s crisscrossed the country building farms and gardens and contributing to the agrihood movement, while cultivating food and community Along the way, he’s stacked up an impressive list of far-reaching agricultural accomplishments through his efforts.
I first met Daron – or Farmer D as he’s known to most – while I was working on a new community garden installation in the Edgewood area of Atlanta, Georgia. Together, with a large group of volunteers and neighbors, we built a massive raised bed garden to serve the residents of that struggling urban neighborhood. It was a garden designed to build community, and looking back, it’s easy to recognize that this was the most natural place in the world that Daron’s path would cross with mine.
Daron grew up in Atlanta and became interested in gardening at a young age. That spark caught flame when he discovered the principle of biodynamic farming while attending college at the University of Wisconsin Madison. In fact, he was so eager to get in the “trenches” that he dropped out of school and moved back to Georgia, beginning an internship on one of the first biodynamic farms in the state.
It was there that he learned the value a CSA business model farm can bring to a community, along with the hard work it takes to run such an enterprise.
A true CSA or Community Supported Agriculture farm is a concept built around a symbiotic relationship between farmer and consumer. Local residents commit to a regular fee and, therefore, take on some of the risks of the farmer. The farmer is responsible for the long hours necessary to care for and produce a bountiful crop.
With solid financial support, the farmer is able to grow more diverse crops for the customers who have invested in the season. Customers reap a share of the harvest, develop a stronger connection with the source of their food, and have confidence in the quality they are putting on their table. As a result, farmer and consumer build a relationship with each other and with the land that provides for them all.
After his internship, Daron was inspired to return to Wisconsin where he purchased a 173-acre farm in hopes of building his own CSA. However, the cost of land pushed his dream a long two-hour drive from a populated area.
To make ends meet in spite of the distance, it became necessary for Daron to focus on growing cash crops – those most likely to sell out at the farmers market – rather than the diverse crops of a biodynamic method. He was driving four hours, round trip, to bring the farm to his customers. When what he wanted was to bring the customers to the farm, so they could connect with the experience. He knew the farm could feed their souls as well as their bodies.
Building Community Around the Farm
Around the turn of the century, Daron realized that he needed to go all-in on his dreams to enrich communities through gardening. That opportunity came from an unexpected quarter – an offer from the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners. He sold the Wisconsin Farm and moved to the West Coast where he managed a farm program for imprisoned youths while also being mentored by the League’s Executive Director, Mohammed Nuru.
Mohammed, a landscape architect, was working with the city of San Francisco to turn abandoned lots into amazing food gardens. In time, Daron was so inspired that he enrolled in the landscape architecture program at the University of Georgia. Never one to rest on his laurels, Daron simultaneously built the Full Moon Coop farm and began a non-profit organization to create gardens at Jewish summer camps and community centers.
All these seasons of Daron’s life converged a couple of years later, when his college dean introduced him to a new suburban real estate project. The developer was in the early stages of building what would soon become one of the most successful agrihoods communities in the U.S.
I featured this community, Serenbe, in one of my television episodes too. Its design – a cluster community built around an organic farm – was exactly the type of story I had in mind when I created my show. At Serenbe (located about 30 minutes south of Atlanta), the experience of growing food permeates the daily lives of residents.
Daron became responsible for assessing the property, designing how to build the farm, staff it, manage it, etc. It was such a success that real estate developers across the country began asking for his help in emulating the model. So after 3 years at Serenbe, Daron went solo – consulting for large agrihoods around the U.S.
Daron is quick to point out that not all agrihoods are created equal. Serenbe is a conservation community, but not all agrihoods incorporate a conservation aspect to the design. Ideally, an agrihood features an integration of farm, homes, and small businesses – creating a walkable, agrarian economy. The agrihood model doesn’t follow traditional development norms; so government planning commissions, city engineers, zoning laws, etc. aren’t typically equipped to embrace this holistic approach to urbanization.
Fortunately, more counties every year are encouraging and incentivizing this type of development. Word has spread that the agrihood approach reduces pressure on congested urban spaces, creating a fully walkable, village-style environment.
When you think of all the subdivisions built around golf courses over the past few decades, you realize that developing around a working farm makes so much more sense. It’s more eco-friendly in so many ways and beneficial to all nearby residents – not just the few who happen to enjoy a round of golf.
Personally, I’m so encouraged to see this growing interest in developing real estate around organic farmland – instead of traditional amenities like a golf course, swimming pool, or tennis courts. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy each of those activities, but of course, those experiences don’t hold a candle to the way gardening feeds the soul.
Sharing the Passion
Daron says that the agrihood actually begins in our own backyards. It starts with growing something and sharing it with a neighbor. By doing so, we’re each playing a role in growing our community as we grow our food.
One of the reasons that Daron and I hit it off all those years ago is that we both believe passionately that every individual has the ability to make a difference. We all make lots of little decisions each and every day that ripple out into the world around us. When we embrace that and seek small ways to do better – while also striving to inspire others to do the same – the positive impact will be significant.
That belief is just one of the reasons I began this podcast nearly 3 years ago – and wrote my books and host and produce Growing a Greener World. It’s been in hope of inspiring you. So, it came as no surprise to me when Daron published his first book, Citizen Farmers – or when I learned that he’s launching his own podcast as well.
In fact, Daron’s podcast series will initially follow the framework of his book. Using the natural cycle of gardening as his inspiration, the chapters of the book marry each stage of gardening with a virtue or principle that the subject matter feeds in us.
You probably know how much I love compost. Well, Daron feels that same keen appreciation. He likes to say that gardening is a circular journey that starts and ends with compost. So naturally, it’s the focus of the first chapter in his book – Compost = Stewardship. The act of composting is taking materials which are considered waste and repurposing them into a nutrient-rich amendment to feed our soil, which in turn feeds our plants.
This subject and virtue theme continues throughout Citizen Farmer, as Daron (and the garden experience) moves the reader through planning to soil preparation, to sowing and growing, the gratitude of harvest and on to sharing and preserving what has been grown.
This year more than ever, the interest in gardening has exploded in our culture. The realization that grocery store convenience isn’t necessarily guaranteed has come crashing down on many. At the same time, an appreciation for taking more control over our health and the quality of the food eaten has converged with spending a lot more time at home. As a result, more people are trying to grow food for the very first time, and gardeners of every level are diving deeper into the experience.
My daughter, Amy, and I certainly saw that firsthand. As we sold seedlings (from a safe distance) to so many neighboring Atlantans, many of our customers had no idea how to grow the tomato plant they held in their hand. It was a real joy for me to help them get started. It’s also been exciting to hear from so many students and new members of the joegardener Community who are eager to learn and grow. I hope this invigorated desire to grow food at home is here to stay.
Daron is excited to share his knowledge with this new wave of gardeners as well. He hopes that the difficulties of the past few months will lead to a grassroots revolution of citizen farmers who will continue to learn, grow and share with others. In fact, he envisions a future where there’s a garden on every home property and a farm in every community, and I couldn’t be more on board with that dream.
During our talk, Daron shared lots more on his journey and his approach to community farming, so I encourage you to scroll to the top of the page and click the Play icon in the green bar under the page title. Be sure to check out his new podcast series too. I, for one, am looking forward to watching his work continue to bear fruit.
Links & Resources
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