Q&A: Daron Joffe, Director of Agricultural Innovation and Development for the Leichtag Foundation
September 14, 2015 | Trish Popovitch
This November’s Seedstock Conference keynote speaker is Daron Joffe. As director of Agricultural Innovation and Development for the Leichtag Foundation in Encinitas, CA, founder of Farmer D Organics and author of “Citizen Farmers,” he has lots to say about innovation in the community and local food sector.
In advance of the fall conference, Seedstock spoke with Joffe about his work at the Leichtag Foundation and his plan to develop community farms.
Seedstock: What is the most important thing you want Seedstock readers to know about Daron Joffe?
Joffe: I’m involved in a community farming initiative with a focus on social justice, social entrepreneurship and education from youth to farmers, and it’s a 20-year passion. I’m humbled and inspired by the amount of positive stuff going on in the movement. I’m especially excited about the role that a new nonprofit farm I’m helping to incubate here in Encinitas, CA has to play in the movement as a new thought partner and innovator in this broader context of community farming. What I’ve discovered is the power of farming to build community.
Seedstock: How did you find your way to the Leichtag Foundation?
Joffe: I got interested in this idea of bridging my passion for sustainable agriculture and my Jewish heritage. I launched a nonprofit to develop farms and gardens in faith-based venues. I stumbled across the Leichtag Foundation partly through my work in the Jewish community farming field. They were looking for someone to help them develop the vision for their farm, and so they hired me as a consultant. After about two years of helping develop a vision, they were trying to hire a director to come in and implement the vision. I was looking to get back on the farm and not do as much traveling, spend more time with my kids, and raise my family in a nurturing environment on a farm. This was the perfect platform for my life’s work.
Seedstock: Tell us more about this incubator farm project?
Joffe: The overall property is 67.5 acres. We lease out 20 acres of greenhouse space to nine different growers. The nonprofit community farm is on roughly 20 acres of the site. There’s an educational farm, a farm stand, a U-pick garden, some handicap-accessible and third-generation gardens, some retail nurseries and some educational spaces.
There’re three acres of beautiful gardens that are designed to be educational with some production elements to them. There’re a food forest heritage farm, a restoration agriculture-type food forest and a village where we’re developing housing for farm apprentices. We have a 2.2-acre biodynamic vineyard. Next year will be our first harvest.
Seedstock: What are the defining qualities of what you have termed an “eco- entrepreneur?”
Joffe: Brave, courageous, passionate, dedicated, willing to take risks and motivated by a higher purpose than profit. I think eco-entrepreneurs need to have patience and perseverance and believe in what they do. It’s a tough thing to be; I’ve got to be honest. I think one of the most challenging things is how to run a business when you’re driven by values. I think anyone you talk to who is a founder or CEO of an eco-company probably shares a lot of the same stories. I think it’s a very humbling path. You aren’t talking about nine to five. You are talking about putting in the endless hours that are required not necessarily when you are planning or wanting to put them in. That’s what it takes. It takes that kind of commitment, that kind of dedication.”
Seedstock: How is education factored into your work at the foundation?
Joffe: We’ve partnered with the local school district basically from pre-school through college. We’re working with high school interns and college interns. Our year-long program that we’re launching this fall is an apprenticeship farmer training program focused on developing the next generation of community farmers. We’ve been helping develop a teaching farm for the school district. It will be a wonderful opportunity for our apprentices to learn how to grow food for a school district.
Seedstock: How are you building community in your area?
Joffe: We’re looking at how we work in our neighborhood to share expertise and resources to benefit our neighbors so they can develop programs that have longevity and impact beyond what we could do alone. This is about building a community around food and farming. How often do you find an amazing canvas like this, an agricultural canvas in a somewhat urban/suburban setting a mile from the beach? There’s an incredible growing climate. We’re nestled in the middle of a YMCA, a senior retirement village, a botanical gardens and a public school. It brought all my interests and passion together in one project. ”
Seedstock: Now that you are with the Leichtag Foundation, what’s happening with your company Farmer D Organics?
Joffe: It’s still around. The retail and wholesale business and the online business are still going. I have a great staff. My father is my business partner. My father’s been key in holding it together as I’ve been transitioning into this new position. I’m still involved but in an advisory and support role.
Seedstock: How are traditional agricultural practices realized in your work?
Joffe: There’s a whole string of holidays throughout the year that are tied to the lunar and agricultural cycle. Our big one coming up in October is Sukkot, which is the harvest festival. Then there’s Omer, which is the counting of the barley harvest; and then there’s Tu B’Shevat which is the birthday for the trees, so we’re going to develop a food forest festival. There’s another one called Pe’ah ; it means corners. The idea is that you leave the corners of your field un-harvested for the stranger and the poor. It’s this ancient food justice strategy, and it’s built into the law on how you farm. So in support of our food forest and our food donations strategy, it’s rooted in this idea, this kind of ancient Jewish value that is deeply rooted in agriculture.
We’re just finishing the Shmita year that is an ancient Jewish agricultural cycle that every seventh year is a year of rest. Many of the Jewish community farms have been using the Shmita year as a year to reflect, rest, let the land rest. It means release. We needed a year to take really it in and put some roots down before we got too carried away.
Seedstock: Is there another book on the horizon?
Joffe: I’ve been thinking about it for sure. I’ve got a couple of ideas and this project genuinely inspires me so much. I think there’s so much to learn, there’s so much we’re going learn that can be shared in the work that’s coming over the next five, ten years. I’ve been thinking about how to tell that story in a way that is compelling and accessible and can have some impact.
Part of the reason why I wrote my book “Citizen Farmers” was really to inspire communities across the country of different faiths, public community projects, private community projects, to really look at the benefits of incorporating agriculture, especially community-based farms, into where they are. When you can apply the principles of community farming and sustainable agriculture with a social mission, an educational mission and economic mission in different venues, there’s just so much that can happen.