FRESHFARM at 25 Years: Dodo Farms On Growing With Markets
To celebrate our 25th anniversary, we will be sharing stories throughout the year from our community of farmers, producers, FoodPrints teachers and students, shoppers, gleaners, and beyond about FRESHFARM.
We caught up with Tope Fajingbesi who, along with her husband Niyi, runs Dodo Farms. Together, they grow produce that not only nourishes our bodies but our earth. Dodo Farms was founded as a certified Naturally Grown Produce Farm in Montgomery County, Maryland. They grow a wide variety of seasonal vegetables such as spinach, kale, potatoes, broccoli, carrots, beets, peppers, arugula, raspberries, blackberries, lettuce, and so much more. Tope and Niyi are committed to supplying members of the community with fairly priced, fresh, and naturally grown produce, free of GMO seeds, pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers.
In addition to being a farmer, the Nigerian-born Tope is a Certified Public Accountant, Africa-focused social entrepreneur, University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources lecturer on agricultural business management, and Future Harvest board member.
FRESHFARM: Walk us through your history with FRESHFARM, since you joined the network in 2018.
Tope: We started selling items to FRESHFARM in 2018 when we had already been selling items to Crossroads Farmers Market. A FRESHFARM employee came to ask if we could sell some things for the Pop Up Food Hub. That’s when we started selling with FRESHFARM’s Pop Up Food Hub, just a little bit here and there.
We had heard about the FRESHFARM markets at Dupont Circle and Downtown Silver Spring, but we didn’t try to apply because we heard they were hard to get into. In 2020, FRESHFARM contacted us due to our success at the Pop Up Food Hub, and said “would you like to sell in the Dupont Circle Market?” We were like, “WHAT!” We could not believe this. We were like, “yes, we’re ready!” and FRESHFARM asked us to come that weekend, and we had to be ready!
So we got into Dupont Circle and we also got into Downtown Silver Spring, and those are the only two markets that we go to. They’ve been amazing, not just because of our Pop Up Food Hub business, or because these markets are booming, but because of the tribe we’re building at those two markets. It’s been such a good experience.
We see FRESHFARM as a platform, not just a selling platform, but a way to build a community of people that are willing to partner with us in eating well. Eating well is living well. We never see it as just a market but as a family meeting. We are so grateful for the opportunity to be there and to build this tribe. Thank you so much to FRESHFARM.
We see FRESHFARM as a platform, not just a selling platform, but a way to build a community of people that are willing to partner with us in eating well.
FRESHFARM: How has being involved with FRESHFARM, through markets and the Pop Up Food Hub, helped you expand?
Tope: The first way that FRESHFARM has helped us expand is that we’ve had access to more capital from what we sell. It also helps us because the more the Food Hub grows, the more we grow. We have such a special relationship with the markets and the Food Hub. Our growth is tied to FRESHFARM’s growth. Through the markets and through the wholesale that we do with the Food Hub, I feel like we have a partner that we are growing together with.
We also have new opportunities through FRESHFARM staff. Staff say to us, “do you need a hand? We can come help you.” Somebody, as a matter of fact, just emailed me this week telling me they heard we were hiring. They asked if I wanted them to put it on the FRESHFARM website and to amplify our open positions. This support and partnerships are what helps us to grow.
We got four additional acres of land to lease for our farm, and we sent out an email and put stuff on our social media page that we got this new land, and we’re going to be spending a ton of money to try to develop the land and buy equipment, and a lot of people who have already donated to us are our customers from FRESHFARM markets.
We would not be able to expand, and build a 100-foot well, if not for our donations from people, from our customers at the markets. It’s really exciting.
FRESHFARM: Can you tell us a little bit about your expansion?
Our growth is tied to FRESHFARM’s growth. Through the markets and through the wholesale that we do with the Pop Up Food Hub, I feel like we have a partner that we are growing together with.
Tope: We lease our land, we don’t own it. The politics and economics of owning land in America, as I’ve come to realize, are not for the faint of heart. But we are lucky that we had and still have a landlord that is just amazing. So we had one acre of land, but our landlord, when she saw that we were looking for land, decided to give us four more acres. We will now have five acres.
What that means now is that we’ll be able to do more crop rotation. We’ll be able to cover crop. These are things that will help the earth because we consider ourselves stewards of the land. We are very careful in our practices, not just the fact that we don’t use chemicals, we don’t use fertilizers, we don’t use anything that is GMO, but we farm the way Africans farm. We also think that we have a duty to protect and preserve this land for the generations after us. So having five acres means that we can farm a lot on three acres of land, while two acres of land rest. We can move crops, we can plant them on this acre this time, and something else the next time. This will help us protect the earth.
This also means that we can bring back our CSA next year. We had to stop that because we did not have enough space to grow. But we can bring it back, and we can supply more to the Food Hub, we can bring more to the market, and we can hire more people. So we definitely are excited about this.
FRESHFARM: What’s your favorite part of selling products at our markets?
Tope: My favorite part is when I get to talk to the customers about foods they are not familiar with. For example, I love the fact that people who buy from us at the market now know what broccoli greens are, they know alternative ways to eat our crop, they know about amaranth spinach, which is a Caribbean African delicacy. They know we’re introducing Chinese brassica this season, and I’m already sure there’s going to be interest because people are curious. I love the curiosity of the customers. I love the fact that they want to try new things. I think people can only try new things from you when they trust you. They trust that you’re bringing what you say you’re bringing. They trust that you know that this thing you’re bringing to the market is good for them.
FRESHFARM: We noticed that your stand often includes lengthy explanations about the vegetables you grow — nutritional facts, how to cook and store produce. How do shoppers respond to them? Does it spark conversation? More purchasing?
Tope: We always write the nutritional benefits of our produce on display at our stands. People read those things and ask questions. Maybe it’s because I’m an educator, I love that part of educating the customer and also learning from them. It’s unbelievable how much conversation it sparks with shoppers. When we first started with the signs I said to my husband “I hope people don’t think we are giving medical advice here,” just because so many people were relying on our signs. New people may come to the stand who have not bought with us before, see the signs and read stuff and they always come back. Honestly, I didn’t think it would be important when my husband suggested we make signs, but it has become the signature thing. People want to read about something and then say “oh, I’ll buy five of them.”
FRESHFARM: What does ‘Dodo’ mean?
Tope: My husband and I, we’re from the south part of Nigeria. My husband’s name is Niyi Balogun. Dodo is short for “Dodondawa” which is like a title and alias for people whose last name is Balogun. Dodondawa is the name of Niyi’s farm in Nigeria, he had a farm before he came here.
People will not know how to say Dodondawa, so we shorted it to Dodo.
FRESHFARM: Have you always been a farmer? If not, when did you start? How did you become interested in farming?
Tope: I have not always been a farmer. I was introduced to farming through my dad. He was an engineer and he quit engineering for farming, and I was like, “I’m not about this life that you’re trying to make.” But he always involved me in doing the books of the farm. He wanted me to do more and more on the farm, it just seemed so hard.
You see the irony of life. I got married to Niyi and he was living in Nigeria and I was living here. We were thinking of where to move together and he said if he moved to America the only thing he would want to do is farm. I said sure, why not, but I had no clue how that would happen, I just wanted him to come to America. I did not know a single person who farmed, but I just told this man that it was doable. When he came here, he wanted to go learn from someone who farmed, so he left to do an internship for 7 months. Then we started looking for our own land and the rest is history.
FRESHFARM: What are your plans for the next five to ten years?
Tope: One of our key plans is that we hope that in the next ten years, we will be on our own land that we own and that we live on. We also hope that we can bring something called Dodo Spices to market. This will be herbs, natural herbs. Thyme, sage, cilantro, mint, all of this that we will grow, dry, and sell to people in bulk.
Half of our job as farmers is to sell to people spinach and collard greens, the other half, we want to be selling what to season this produce with. We want to show people alternatives, using herbs to spice the food. It’s better for the body and it’s better for the earth. We hope to give a variety of spices. This form of natural herbs can last, and people can use over and over again.