“I thought, where did this turkey sandwich come from?” he says. “I had never thought about it before. I’d never grown anything or known anybody who had. I thought, I need to learn how to grow a turkey sandwich.”
These days Joffe — better known by his nickname, Farmer D — isn’t just growing sandwich ingredients. He’s empowering others to understand where their food comes from through his company Farmer D Organics.
Joffe was born in South Africa and raised in Atlanta, but it was his experiences in college, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, that paved the way for his career in farming and gardening. There, he studied at the Michael Fields Institute Biodynamic Learning Center, attending workshops and working on an organic farm, learning about growing healthy food with intention.
He also started paying attention to major issues in today’s agriculture: the loss of the small family farm and industrialized farming using chemicals and pesticides, to name a couple. “That turkey sandwich went over 3,000 miles to get to my plate, burning a huge trail of fossil fuels, and there were chemicals and preservatives on the tomatoes and bread your body doesn’t want to digest,” he says. “Also, we’re spending money outside of the local community when we could be supporting the local economy.”
He went home to Atlanta his freshman year to tell his parents he was leaving school to pursue a career in organic farming, and it was his mom who came up with his new moniker. “She said, ‘OK, Farmer D,’ as a joke, but she and my friends kept calling me that, and it became my name.”
What followed were three apprenticeships, the purchase of a farm in southwest Wisconsin and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Joffe also held school field trips for kids on the farm. He brought the farm into downtown Madison with his food truck — a falafel cart — using produce he’d grown and trying to interest people in what he was doing. He set up gardens in day cares, summer camps and other urban settings, ultimately starting a nonprofit organization, “Gan Chaim,” meaning “garden of life.”
“Going to summer camp helped me get excited about nature,” says Joffe. “The one thing missing was good food. I thought, how cool would it be if I brought a garden and farm to summer camps, teaching kids to grow their own food? When a child is in a garden and picks something they’ve grown, they have a completely different relationship with food than they would in a restaurant. It fosters healthy eating habits and a spiritual connection to nature — a primitive, rich experience I wanted to share with people.”
Working with kids is still close to Joffe’s heart, and in fact, his company Farmer D Organics evolved from that passion. Farmer D Organics sells environmentally conscious farm and garden products, including raised bed kits for edible gardening and window boxes for urban gardeners. Additionally, the company produces living, organic compost for optimal soil improvement and plant nutrition, along with fertilizer and planting mix for ideal fertility.
Joffe’s mission is to make organic farming and gardening accessible to all people. That’s “no matter how black your thumb might be, even if it’s just one basil plant on the patio,” he adds. “It’s one of the most profound things we can do for ourselves and our planet, to grow something we can eat.”
For Joffe, spreading the word and empowering consumers is the first step to changing the way we approach food. “That’s what excites me so much about this Williams-Sonoma partnership,” he says. “Everyone we impact becomes an ambassador, becomes educated and motivated — we can grow a ripple effect and build communities around good food.”
This summer, Joffe will focus on growing and harvesting vegetables: tomatoes, squash, peppers and zucchinis, along with herbs (he’s partial to oregano). ”People get intimidated by starting things from seed, but once you start you realize how quick, easy and cheap it is,” he says. “You make a little hole, add the seeds, nurture it every day, and when it grows up it becomes strong and resilient and independent. In 25 days you can have a mature arugula plant. It’s amazing.”
And the most important tool, according Joffe, is your hands. ”That’s one of the beauties of raised bed gardening: you can do it all with your hands.” A digging fork, a trowel and a stirrup hoe can make the job a little easier, he adds.
These days, Joffe stays busy managing his business, working with kids and developing products. His newest project? His first son, Tilden, born last month. “It’s a whole new world that’s opened up,” says Joffe. His wife Stephanie is also an entrepreneur, running an eco-friendly consumer products company, To-Go Ware, and his father is a business partner and woodworker who makes Farmer D Organics’ raised beds. He also built Tilden’s changing table.
Joffe also finds time for consulting, helping to envision and design farms and gardens in communities across the country. ”It can be all-consuming, but I love it so much and I feel so much purpose in it,” he says. “Agriculture is the new golf: communities are being developed around it. It’s so much healthier for parents to take children to a community garden than to sit them in front of video games — we can engage families and children around a common interest.”
“The most rewarding aspect of my job are the responses I get from people who have had success in their projects, whether it’s a backyard garden or a farm or community garden,” he says. “Healthy food grows healthy people. When that connection is made, it brings people together and inspires them.”
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