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‘Agriculture is the culture’: FarmerJawn wants to reinvent agriculture education

“We focus on being able to teach people how they can do this, how to integrate agriculture into your everyday lifestyle, not just by being mindful of what you eat, but also the act of doing if you so choose"

  • Kenny Cooper/WHYY
Shown is a farm in Stroudsburg, Pa., Monday, April 19, 2021.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Shown is a farm in Stroudsburg, Pa., Monday, April 19, 2021.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Christa Barfield (right) Farmer Jawn founder, and Chief Operating Officer Brandon Ritter (left), help members of the Power Corps learn prepare soil for planting at the Elkins Estate.

The year was 2018 and it was an ordinary day. Unexceptionally ordinary. Christa Barfield, who was 30 at the time, arrived at her job in health care administration, sat down at her desk, and felt crestfallen about her career choice.

She wanted a switch and resigned. Shortly afterward, she took a trip to the Caribbean that would change the course of her life. Barfield saw Black farmers — farmers who looked like her — and decided that act of “community” was the life for her.

Barfield went home and researched agriculture, looking for specific gaps that she would excel at filling. Her first farm got started right afterward in the form of a 4-foot by 6-foot greenhouse in her backyard in Germantown.

The seeds Barfield sowed in 2018 have since grown and sprouted, both literally and figuratively.

Now in full bloom, Barfield is the founder and chief executive officer of FarmerJawn Agriculture, a culmination of projects with the goal of “reintroducing farming into the lifestyles of urban people.” Most notably among those projects, finding a home for FarmerJawn at the Elkins Estate.

The five acres of the historic property in Elkins Park, just minutes outside of Philadelphia, have recently become the “biggest part” of Barfield’s operation. She moved her operation onto the property in October 2021, where they will be using the greenhouses and land to farm a wide variety of crops like lettuce and radishes.

“Farming should not be this obscure idea and feel like it’s a journey that you have to go to. You eat every single day. So there’s a farmer that’s responsible for that food that you’re partaking of. And I really want our community to be more mindful of what we’re putting into our bodies for the health of not just ourselves, but the people that come after us,” Barfield said, standing next to a recently tilled plot of land.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Members of the Power Corps Trust program work with Farmer Jawn at their Elkins Estate farm, doing tasks such as tilling, raking, and planting, on April 5, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

While FarmerJawn makes its money from its community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm set up and other business ventures, it has recently jumped into the fray as a nonprofit that seeks to educate people about how to farm and where their food comes from.

The FarmerJawn & Friends Foundation Fund is looking to serve as an educational platform with a focus on school programming and workforce development.

“We focus on being able to teach people how they can do this, how to integrate agriculture into your everyday lifestyle, not just by being mindful of what you eat, but also the act of doing if you so choose. Being able to get your hands dirty, starting a farm from scratch, like literally taking a piece of land and saying like I want to farm — this is what that’s all about,” Barfield said.

PowerCorpPHL, a workforce development program that seeks to engage young adults ages 18 to 30 and formerly incarcerated people, is one of FarmerJawn’s first partner organizations. Every single Tuesday, about 25 members from the group’s The Road to an Ultimate Successful Transition (TRUST) program come to the farm to get their hands dirty.

Dominic Speach, 30, is the project manager for the TRUST program and his job usually entails helping young people with legal, housing, education, and employment issues. The workforce program pays its cohorts and it also involves trauma-informed community building sessions.

“We talk about a lot of things that are going on in the city as far as gun violence, the murder rate, COVID, to things like that. We give our young folks a safe space to unpack those different things,” Speach said. “What we’re trying to accomplish is to keep our young folks engaged and out of trouble. TRUST started back in February 2021 and we had a zero recidivism rate so nobody got incarcerated. Throughout that time, nobody died.”

As laughter and the purring of a garden tiller filled the air, Speach said that the young people in the TRUST program had a lot of fun working on the farm.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Dominic Speach is a Power Corps Trust program project manager, focusing on urban agriculture.

“Getting that education around what [healthy] food is, helping our community as well as educating them on food insecurities, and making sure that they have access to healthy foods, our young people taking that back into their neighborhoods all around the city, and giving that information to their neighborhoods has been great,” Speach said.

Speach got connected with FarmerJawn at Elkins Estate through Brandon Ritter, the chief operating officer for the FarmerJawn & Friends Foundation Fund. He said they’ve been coming to the Elkins Estate for about three months, assisting them with clearing out the greenhouses and getting the ground operational.

Ritter has been tasked with handling a lot of the responsibilities of the nonprofit.

He also has a history with farming, dating all the way back to the age of 12 when he was helping out on a small production farm. He has enjoyed his time working alongside Barfield “basically starting from the ground up.”

“I’ve always stuck with the nonprofit part, because it’s really critical for us to have access to fresh and healthy foods and to usher in organic food pathways into the city. And that happens when you have a lot of people who live in places and look like the people that you’re trying to work with doing the work,” Ritter said. “As a community organizer, I look at work that we’re doing as critically important to a lot of the other issues that we’re dealing with in the city regarding gun violence and other situations.”

He added that communities of color face the brunt of food scarcity issues in the city, which is why they are trying to increase the number of people who know how to grow their own food.

“What we’re trying to do is to alleviate some of that pressure by building a system that is truly built to get at the root of those issues. This being a capacity issue where people don’t know how to grow their own food and don’t have access to the people who grow their own food,” Ritter said.

 

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