Meet Christa Barfield, an urban farmer and owner of FarmerJawn Greenhouses in Elkins Park.
• On the name: “Being from Philly, FarmerJawn was just it for me. Once you hear it you can’t forget it,” Barfield said. “Though sometimes I do have to tell people it’s not Farmer John.”
• Sowing her Wilde oats: “My favorite book is The Picture of Dorian Gray. I love classics, and Oscar Wilde is my favorite.”
When Christa Barfield posted a request to a few neighborhood Facebook groups in June seeking volunteers to help clean up her newly acquired greenhouses in Elkins Park, she didn’t know what to expect.
Perhaps a few people would show up, maybe a couple dozen, she thought.
But as more than 80 volunteers poured onto the property armed with rakes, paintbrushes, and shovels, Barfield realized that her FarmerJawn community-supported agriculture (CSA) business already had the support of the community.
“They came out in droves,” she said. “People were really happy somebody was going to be growing on this site again.”
For Barfield, a 32-year-old mother of two and a lifelong Germantown resident, it’s the type of community she’s wanted to create since experiencing her first CSA during a trip to the Caribbean island of Martinique two years ago.
A graduate of George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science and St. Joseph’s University, Barfield was 10 years into her career in health-care administration when she realized her work-life balance was unhealthy. And so, on Jan. 2, 2018, she resigned from her job, just weeks before she turned 30.
To celebrate her milestone birthday, Barfield took her first trip abroad — solo — to Martinique, an island in the French West Indies. She stayed at two Airbnbs, the first of which was owned by a Thai chef who made her tea every morning with fresh herbs from his garden.
Her second Airbnb was with a family of farmers who took her around their farm and invited her to watch as island residents came to pick up their CSA boxes.
“It was just so cool, to see them packing these boxes with all the fresh produce they’d picked that day,” she said. “You had people from all different backgrounds coming to pick up, there was just such a sense of community.”
When Barfield returned to Philly a week later, she found herself called to write out a plan to become something she’d never considered before — a farmer.
“People ask me when I figured out I wanted to do this for sure, but I can’t take credit for it all because the idea was given to me,” she said. “I am a God-fearing person so I have to attribute it to Him.”
Barfield’s first venture was Viva Leaf Tea Co., which she began in August 2018. She erected a greenhouse from a box in her backyard in Germantown to grow the herbs and began renting plots at a community garden in Roxborough.
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When a real estate developer read about Barfield and her tea company in a March 2020 Inquirer article, he called her and said he had eight greenhouses on Jenkintown Road in Elkins Park he thought would be perfect for her.
“Initially, I thought ‘There is no way I can take this on,‘” she said. “I decided I wasn’t there yet.”
Very few people — including the developer — even knew about FarmerJawn CSA yet. Barfield, who taught herself how to farm, quietly started the program with just 10 families in January, using what she was able to grow on her own and obtain from other farms. She didn’t think she was ready to expand, but the developer was persistent.
“He called a month later and said, ‘You really, really would be welcome in this neighborhood,‘” Barfield recalled.
And so, she accepted. Currently, Barfield is only renting two of the greenhouses, but she often looks to the empty 5,000-square-foot greenhouse on the property, which she calls her “Vision House.”
“I want to end food injustice and insecurity with the revenue from what I’ll grow in that greenhouse someday,” she said. “That’s why I call it my Vision House.”
Slowly but surely, the well-worn greenhouses that once teemed with flowers when the property belonged to Louis Ruzicka Florist are coming alive again with Barfield’s seedlings, fresh vegetables, and herbs.
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FarmerJawn CSA is now supported by 50 families from Germantown to Elkins Park. Jennifer Wasserman, 48, of Elkins Park, was among the volunteers who cleaned up the greenhouses and then became a FarmerJawn CSA member.
“This is fantastic to have this in our neighborhood,” she said. “I love that every week it’s different.”
Barfield partners with area farms to provide a variety of unusual produce (from golden beets to white cucumbers) and she always includes some of her Viva Leaf Tea in each week’s box. On Saturdays, she hosts a farm stand open to the public at the same location from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
While the Philly region may not be the first place many farmers would choose to plant their roots, for Barfield, it was an easy decision.
“I love Philadelphia and if I want to bring food equality and food justice to my region I can only do that if I’m here,” she said.
• BL Shirelle got into a shootout with a Philly cop at 18. Now she runs a record label for current and former inmates.
• Herbert Hawkins is a Vietnam veteran and former Black Panther.