D.J. Baker has an infectious energy that really comes across when he talks about good food. The former member of the FoodCorps moved to Mississippi in 2015 after growing up in a suburb of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and attending the University of Central Oklahoma.
He worked first for FoodCorps in the Mississippi Delta in Shelby and Cleveland, Mississippi, mostly teaching school kids to garden and learn more about good food. He then moved in Jackson for his second year in FoodCorps, doing similar work in Jackson Public Schools.
That experience led him to start his own business, Esculent, when his stint with FoodCorps was over. Baker says he purposefully is working in a for-profit environment (coming out of the non-profit world), so he can “move to the beat of my own drum” and decide where to take the business as opportunities present themselves.
For now, Baker serves as a consultant on public and private gardening projects. In the public space he’s helping some of the same schools he worked with during FoodCorps, where he’s now paid contract work to help keep up the school gardening programs. In the private sector, he’s working with homeowners to create edible landscapes in their yards. He’s helped them transform their landscaping with herb plants, fruit trees and other edible plants so that more of the plant life around the home can help sustain the people in it with good food.
“That’s something I’m really excited about—creating edible landscapes,” Baker said. Speaking of parks and public spaces, he says “I’m hoping to recreate the urban forest and make it more edible. [We could] plant fruit trees—pears—that would be food for the homeless. If they could walk around downtown and every tree bore fruit, they wouldn’t have to worry about their next meal.”
Baker envisions a storefront for Esculent; he wants to offer cooking and gardening classes, sell related products, and create a space where customers can talk about their relationships with food. He notes that an AA-style “Food Anonymous” group could be a helpful approach for some people who struggle with diet and food issues; being able to share their struggles with food and learn ways to create a healthier relationship with food could be transformative, he says.
“I feel connected to nature more than ever in my work,” Baker says. “Agriculture has allowed us to expand to different heights and ways of life… we have innovation, industry and our economy because we’re able to grow and focus on food.” He says that seeing kids get engaged in tasting good food that they’ve grown themselves, smelling herbs, and relating those positive experiences back to great memories can help with their personal health and their relationship to their community and environment.
“[It’s about] getting people to learn about the craft of food, how to make your own bread again, how to cook—not trying to show off or be a chef—how to do real, wholesome, relaxed food that is healthy for you and gets the family together,” Baker said.
As for running a food-oriented consultancy and trying to grow into retail, Baker says he believes that partnerships are the key to good business. He’s working with and has gotten help from other FoodCorps veterans, and he’s plugged into a community of like-minded business people who are focused on wholesome food and food systems.
“I’m no business expert at all,” Baker said, “But from what I’ve seen, partnership is the best place to start.”