Envisioning microfarms planted and managed by urban communities—starting with her own. Words and Photos by Johnie Gall.
Someone has constructed a fence around the community garden plot where Christa Barfield is growing garlic. “I have no idea where this came from,” she laughs, gesturing to the hastily made wire wall. “They came in the night or something. I literally had to scale this to trim my plants.”
It’s something of a metaphor for being an urban farmer: you’re always finding your way around unexpected obstacles. This past winter, Christa was forced to break the lease on her greenhouses in Philadelphia after her landlord refused to fix a faulty heating system. She lost her crops and turned to neighboring farms to harvest enough produce to supplement her CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes. It was an especially heartbreaking move considering that the Elkins Park location had been such a grassroots community effort.
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“I posted in a neighborhood Facebook group looking for volunteers and people showed up in droves to help,” she recalls, saying more than 80 people showed up with shovels and paintbrushes to renovate her new growing space. “They weren’t getting paid directly but they knew they were doing something great for their community and they wanted to be a part of it. That was an important moment for me.”
Community has always been the driving force behind FarmerJawn, Christa’s Philly-based urban growing operation and community supported agriculture program. Like many cities around the country, Philadelphia is home to food-insecure families—people who work 40-plus hours a week and lack access to organic, nutritious food. Communities with no grocery store selling fresh food options within a one-mile walking distance are called “food deserts,” though some people take issue with the name because it implies they are somehow naturally occurring. For these families, sometimes the only available food is what’s stocked at local corner stores or bodega—chips, candy and sugar-laden drinks. FarmerJawn offers an alternative: Philly residents can become farm members by investing in her operation and they get guaranteed boxes of fresh, organic food in return.
“The bottom line is I want people to see their food growing and to be conscious of where it’s coming from,” says the mom of two. “Maybe that means they’re growing their own food and we give them the skill sets, or maybe we’re growing it for them but they know where to get it and they know their farmer. There’s so much power in that.”
If anyone knows how the quality of food affects the health of an entire community, it’s Christa. A graduate of George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science and St. Joseph’s University, she spent a decade of her career in healthcare administration before she realized she was totally burnt out and in need of a change. She resigned from her job and boarded a plane to the Caribbean, where chance encounters with her Airbnb hosts would lead her to a new career in growing.
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“The first host was a Thai chef who would make me fresh tea each morning from plants he grew and pulled from the ground,” she says. “The second had his sons pick me up and take me around the island. I went to work with them, which turned out to be on their farm near the beach. We picked the produce and then took it down to their post-harvesting station. Watching them pack up boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables and herbs and then watching CSA members pick up their boxes—people from all races and walks of life—was such an enriching experience. Food is the ultimate uniter. And then when it was done, we got to chill and relax!
“When I got home, I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to explore what I had seen there. I ended up starting two companies in that order: Viva Leaf Tea Co. and FarmerJawn.”
Maybe it’s because she didn’t come from a farming background, but Christa herself admits she doesn’t look the part of a farmer—as she pulls a sprig of mint from the soil of her garden plot, she’s in a bright orange crop top, chinos and colorblocked Teva sandals, a gold nameplate necklace (“Sustainable Shit Only”) swinging gently against her collarbone. More likely, it’s because agriculture in the U.S. suffers from deeply rooted issues of inequity and exploitation that have prevented BIPOC farmers from acquiring and managing land.
“Something like one percent of farms are Black-owned,” Christa says. “But beyond that, there is just a lot of trauma for Black people related to the soil and working the land—it’s the furthest thing from what any Black person wants to do. But I know what I’m doing is healing, not just because I’m touching microbes that are scientifically proven to help heal us, but because I’m reconnecting to myself and to my ancestors and their plight. Food is so powerful for Black people—we love to cook it, to eat it, to share it. It’s historical.”
If the goal for FarmerJawn is to help Black and Brown community members feel inspired to grow and understand food systems, Christa wants to meet them where they’re at. She envisions microfarms being planted and managed by the communities they exist in, creating a scalable solution she can introduce in other cities wherein some of the food stocked at corner stores is grown right in the grass plots outside. And she’s doing it in “lipgloss and earrings.”
“Farming is sexy because I’m doing it!” Christa exclaims, bending over to let out a booming laugh. “I’m capable of doing this job and being me at the same time, very feminine and sexy and a badass farmer who can produce food and bring people together. We’re not farming the same way it’s always been done. You can farm on city corners. Let’s get beautiful Black people back on farms, taking back our history and looking good while we do it.”