Taking a break, Micaiah and Cynthia Hall show me around the half-acre farm in their backyard.
Under the sun, along the fences, in rows or in raised beds, sugar snap peas and Swiss chard from seed, red Russian kale (“better for juicing,” says Micaiah), collards, okra, cucumbers, and Caribbean hot peppers flourish in the sandy South Jersey soil.
The lush mustard greens have a sneak-up-on-you taste of sweet summer heat.
“Straight out of the ground," says Cynthia, offering me a freshly cut and just-washed leaf. "These greens have that flavor.”
Cynthia grew up in this cozy Camden County borough of 2,900, and it’s where she and Micaiah are raising their three children — while using artisanal agriculture to make a living, share their considerable knowledge, and build community.
“My father tells me people in Lawnside used to grow blueberries, and had hens and even hogs,” Cynthia says.
“A lady carrying fresh eggs in an apron would go door to door. People used to barter. It’s sort of an undocumented history our farm connects to."
Free Haven Farms has no chickens or livestock, but does have five more acres under cultivation in Burlington County. The farm is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) cooperative, delivering fresh produce weekly to more than 20 shareholders, or members, in South Jersey and Philadelphia.
The Halls also sell their goods at farmers’ markets, including those in Haddonfield, Haddon Heights (where I first met them), at 22nd and Tasker in Philly, and beginning in July at the city’s Cherry Street Pier. Back in Lawnside, they offer educational programs for schoolkids; a summer science camp is set to begin July 8.
Their motto is “sustainable and attainable,” says Micaiah, 42, a plumber by trade who hails from Connecticut and grew up working on a neighbor’s farm. He also worked for seven years at the Mill Creek Farm in West Philly.
“Waste nothing, recycle, and reuse as much as possible," he says. “We want to teach people about this, and about health and wellness. We want to bring our kids up in this lifestyle, and have them be able to come out into the backyard and not be afraid to put their hands in the dirt."
Says Cynthia, 38, who earned a Ph.D. in geochemistry at Georgia Tech and is an associate professor at West Chester University: “All this started out of necessity. We were living in Atlanta after we got married, had a kid, and wanted to eat organic but couldn’t afford it. He said, ‘I can grow food,’ and I said, ‘What?’”
Cultural and political movements around locally sourced food, urban agriculture, ethnic foodways, farmland preservation, healthy eating, food justice, and sustainability have grown dramatically in recent years. Millennials and other urban and inner-ring suburban dwellers have become eager to patronize farmers’ markets and learn about formerly arcane topics such as rain gardens.
“Our timing is good,” says Micaiah.
With their eclectic interests and backgrounds, the Halls — he teaches a Brazilian form of martial arts called capoeira, and she’s a yoga instructor — seem ideally suited for their mission. They’re easygoing and hardworking; farming may well be a “spiritual” activity, in Micaiah’s description, but for much of the year it’s also long hours, seven days a week.
And because Free Haven uses organic techniques, meaning no pesticides or herbicides, the need to weed is constant. So are threats from insects, such as the cabbage moths fluttering white and bright under the sun on the morning I visit.
“We cover the rows so they can’t lay their eggs in the plants, but they’re pollinators,” says Cynthia. “They serve a function," Micaiah says. "We don’t want to kill them.”
Surrounded by fences and dense woods, the Lawnside farm has a picturesque look and a rural quiet even on a busy harvesting day.
“Tending to the plants out in the open takes you away. It gives you some peace of mind,” says part-time employee Jabari Higgs, 44, who grew up in Lawnside.
The Halls feel the same way. “Farming can be very meditative,” Cynthia says.
“There’s an energy force to it,” says Micaiah.
Having grown up taking care of my family’s half-acre yard in Western Massachusetts, I know what they mean. Just ask any gardener, whether the crop is melons or marigolds.
There’s a special satisfaction when something you’ve nurtured takes root, grows, thrives — and is shared with others. As the Halls are doing at Free Haven Farms.