The Man Behind Washashore Farm: Self-Taught Grower Dan Southey
Virginia Bullington •
You may not know his name but if you have eaten at any of the top island restaurants, or bought produce from Pip & Anchor, chances are you’ve tasted his vegetables.
Dan Southey began Washashore Farm in 2016 with no prior experience farming, and has since grown it to service 10 restaurant accounts and provide Pip & Anchor with the highest volume and greatest variety of produce of any farm on the island.
Southey, like so many others, came to Nantucket one summer with friends and shortly fell in love with it. He became fast friends with Misha Currie, whose family has owned and operated Cliffside Beach Club for generations. Southey returned to Nantucket during the summers throughout college, and then ventured out west, looking for his “forever place.” He tried Maui and Tahoe, and then in 2004 returned east to give his mother away when she remarried. He decided to make his way back to Nantucket for a final season.
“I thought, I’ll go back because I love Nantucket, and spend one more summer, get a job, and then move back west. I was going to sell subprime mortgages,” remembered Southey.
Rather than becoming an extra in that unsavory chapter of American economic history, Southey and Currie’s longtime friendship developed into a romance, and he has lived here year-round ever since.
After a couple of years waiting tables and bartending across the island, Southey began working at Cliffside full time, where he would remain for over a decade. At the beach club he was an everyman, from working the front desk to running the kayak program at the beach during the summers and then overseeing renovations during the winter.
“Basically I got in there and figured out how everything worked,” said Southey. “Misha’s grandfather bought it in the 50s, and with her dad and Chip Cunningham I spent years understanding how everything functioned.”
But after nearly 12 years of working closely with his partner in her family’s business, he decided it was time to seek his own fortune. The inspiration to start a farm came when Michelle Whelan, then the head of Sustainable Nantucket, inquired if anyone at the Galley Beach Restaurant would want to take over a farm plot at the Mount Vernon Farm property off Hummock Pond Road. Southey volunteered “for a summer” to grow produce for a few local restaurants.
Southey had never had so much as a garden in his life, but was drawn to farming for numerous reasons. For one thing, after spending decades in the hospitality industry, the thought of hunkering down in the dirt without needing to talk to anyone was an appealing prospect. More than that, farming allowed Southey to start his own business on an island where opening a brick and mortar location is prohibitively costly.
“I knew after years in hospitality that I wasn’t going to start my own hotel or restaurant so I was like, ‘what should I do?’” said Southey. “Initially, the fact that this farm could be totally my own was a huge part of my motivation.”
That first summer was small scale, Southey made a pact with his roommate and executive chef of the Galley, Scott Osif, that the restaurant would buy anything saleable that Southey grew. He had one little plot, sold to a few restaurants, and went to the weekly farmer’s market. He found measured success, but Southey, ever the problem-solver, saw opportunity and room for improvement, coaxing him into another season. This cycle of trying new things and learning from errors persists, seven years in.
“Every year I am still tweaking and still figuring it out. Of course, it is a lot less now, and some of it is scalability, some of it is getting older and trying to figure out how to not break my body and have younger people helping me or using machines,” said Southey. “But also, I don’t want to get too big. I like my farm to be dense, concise, practical, and managed. There is that German side to me.”
The farm has expanded, though, since he began in 2016, from one small plot on the Land Bank farm, to leasing a significant parcel of 1.75 acres on the property. He has plans for further development into the back section of the lot where as of now, goats graze placidly.
His product has also become bolder and more interesting over the years. At the outset, he planted safe vegetables that he knew restaurants would need, like tomatoes, squash, and lettuce. Now, he experiments with different varietals and heirlooms; his spicy greens mix, Murasaki sweet potatoes, and kohlrabi are notable favorites.
Southey’s openness to trying new things speaks both to his passion for learning and to his desire to provide educational opportunities to the island community.
“I love learning, I love to figure things out, and I like challenges. I found farming incredibly complicated but also incredibly simple. You can make it as much of either as you want to, and I tend to make it more complicated because I like that,” said Southey. “And nobody can ever tell you the right way. Every farmer is going to farm how they farm best based on their personality and the land that they’re on. I love learning from people and talking, but you are taking abstractions from them, not the literal.”
Even so, Southey remarks that he has relished learning from other farmers, both on-island and at conferences elsewhere, and is grateful that Sustainable Nantucket brings farmers and makers to the island to give talks.
“We are on an island, isolated, and there wasn’t a huge farming community when I first started seven years ago, so I attended conferences and took master classes online. Developing a farming community, even with people who work for me, has been important, to solve problems together,” said Southey. “Having Aidan, Dylan, the Larrabees, the Sloseks, Dean Long, all nearby in a community atmosphere has helped me learn a lot by watching them and seeing different ways of doing things. Sustainable also brings farmers over for four-day seminars and talks which are hugely helpful too.”
I love learning, I love to figure things out, and I like challenges. I found farming incredibly complicated but also incredibly simple. You can make it as much of either as you want to, and I tend to make it more complicated because I like that. And nobody can ever tell you the right way. Every farmer is going to farm how they farm best based on their personality and the land that they’re on. I love learning from people and talking, but you are taking abstractions from them, not the literal.
Chef relationships have also propelled his interest in farming, as their feedback helps Southey to direct his business as it grows.
“Those relationships have allowed me to get better at what I do faster, they’re appreciative but they’re honest,” said Southey. “At Cliffside I would be at the front desk recommending restaurants. I love food, and those conversations were natural to me before I was a farmer so I can bring that to the table. The way I grow, I want chefs to be able to use all of it, rather than being like ‘wow, that’s a lot of cabbage.’”
Eventually, Southey’s dream would be to add an educational component to the farm, providing high school students with the chance to learn sustainable farming for credit or as an extracurricular, or creating a farm fellowship program to host farmers from off-island to trade knowledge.
“Someday I hope to have a teaching farm, once I have a system that is not just focused on pumping out as much food as possible and I don’t have to try to maximize everything,” said Southey. “My dream scenario would be to grow food for the school system and have that be a percentage of what happens, and have kids out here to learn in a vocational sense.”
This may be a few years away, though, as with each year and acquisition of more land, Southey must recalculate how he will afford the labor and machinery needed to work more earth and break even. Farming is a long game, Southey notes, and much of the effort he put into enriching the soil and investments he made at the outset are only now starting to pay-off. Maintaining patience and optimism in an industry where improvement is gradual and uncertainty abounds can be taxing.
Some days it is hard, there is just so much unknown. The mental part, the burnout, is a huge part of farming. Some days I want it to all stop, but it never stops!
“Some days it is hard, there is just so much unknown. The mental part, the burnout, is a huge part of farming,” said Southey. “Some days I want it to all stop, but it never stops!”
Southey and Currie welcomed their first child in December, and Southey has likened the experience of being a father to being a farmer.
“People are like ‘you’re having a kid! It is unlike anything else you’ve ever done,’ and I’m like, ‘all I do is keep things alive,’” laughed Southey. “At least at this point, I am just feeding and tending, and making sure the environment is right for him to thrive.”
Just like human children, Southey notes, plants as they get older become more self-sufficient,
“Until something attacks them, like a bully in the school yard, and starts to wipe them out, then you have to come in and take care of them,” Said Southey. “There are no days off. I love farming, but it is something that can be really hard on your soul. You’re not doing it to make a lot of money. You are doing it for the lifestyle, you choose it because it is something that you love.”
On an island where money flows freely across a variety of industries, choosing to serve a public good without a profit incentive can feel unstable.
“I look around a lot and think, why am I doing this? Why am I making life so hard for myself? But it is because I feel there is value in it and it is bigger than me,” said Southey. “Sometimes in the moment it is hard, but when I step away, I am really proud of it all. I am proud of the island and I want it to be a better place. I think this is a piece of that.”