“If someone tells you they want to get into farming, tell them not to…if they do it anyway, then they can probably succeed at it.”
–Erik, co-owner of Dicot Farm
The above quote by Erik concisely summarizes many of his thoughts on small-scale agriculture. I sat with Erik one afternoon in his house and watched the summer rains drench the verdant two-acre field outside. The scent of roasting coffee perfumed from the kitchen and the faint pitter-patter of rain tapped the windows. Neither Erik nor his wife Meghan were born into agricultural families and both previously worked in different career fields—Meghan, in fact, still maintains full-time work with the federal government in addition to helping run the farm. They first purchased their small but flourishing property in 2014, but didn’t start formally farming until the next year. Previously a civil engineer, Erik began working at three different local farms and visited various farmers markets to commence his education on small-scale agriculture. He also participated in numerous workshops at Future Harvest CASA, but aside from this had no formalized training on agricultural production. According to Erik, a lack of formal agricultural education is quite common and many newcomers fail because of the financial constraints tied to farming. At present, the majority of accredited agricultural programs are targeted towards large-scale food production, horticulture, and landscaping.
“It will break you…several times,” he told me.
While their first year almost did break them—Erik described it as a “spiritual trial,” they have started moving in the right direction and profiting from their produce. This is thanks primarily to the cropping up of various farmers markets within urban centers in Maryland and Washington, D.C. Currently selling in Northern College Park and Foggy Bottom, both over an hour away from the farm. Dicot Farm has established a community of reliable consumers. The interpersonal connection between producer and consumer is integral in localizing foodscapes. However, these consumers are still restricted to more cosmopolitan areas. We talked at length about the lack of accessibility for localized produce, which at this point is still confined to middle and upper class incomes. Even community-supported agriculture (CSA) systems, a method where consumers can purchase a percentage of seasonal yields upfront, primarily benefit farmers who grow staple crops. For farms like Dicot, it would be nearly impossible to generate the necessary profit from these types of crops, which have much lower margins than commodity crops. A lack of appreciation for seasonality still exists in many capitalist food cultures, where taste is held to relatively uniform standards.
However, Erik believes this is changing. Despite operating on just a few acres, Dicot Farm has greatly diversified its output—keeping in mind the ethos of seasonality—to include a multitude of fruits and vegetables including: micro-greens, cantaloupe, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, okra, rutabaga, turnips, radishes, kale, pea shoots, and cabbage. Diversification, according to Erik, is one of the keys to success as a small-scale producer. In addition to this, he believes many small-scale farmers must innovate to operate more efficiently. While many food and agricultural movements began with principles of permaculture, he believes that in order to make a living as a small-scale producer one must maintain a greater level of agency in applying these principles. In other words, the values of these types of food movements already exists, but one must find a balance between working with nature and cutting out wasteful practices where possible. Since farming is not inherently natural, nature will always try and correct it; thus, farming must be done in a way that does not directly challenge nature but balances it with efficiency.
I was curious to hear Erik’s thoughts on the evolution of local cuisine and he replied that we would more likely see a change in food culture defined by the market. By this, he meant that regional cuisine would come to rely on what could be found at local farmers markets. Instead of cooking the same dishes we grew up with, consumers would instead come without a recipe in mind and purchase ingredients and then formulate what to cook with them. While this requires a greater education for consumers, one which Erik believes hinges on producer-consumer relationships, he hopes to see a reshaping of purchasing habits to adapt to seasonal availability. While I wonder if consumers can bypass certain anxieties of cooking and relinquish some control of their purchasing habits, I’d love to think this we’re heading in that direction.