The Westtown School has a new farmer to oversee the fields that sprawl across a fifth of its 600-acre campus south of West Chester, one with a new mission.
Christa Barfield of Philadelphia, who serves marginalized communities through her FarmerJawn Agriculture, said the partnership would allow her to “close the loop” — linking this rural setting with her current suburban farming operation in Elkins Park. She said FarmerJawn will operate as “one complete food system for the Philadelphia region.”
With regenerative agriculture at the core of her mission, the 123 acres at Westtown School will become 100% organic, she said, though certification is three years off because the fields had been sprayed with nonorganic pesticides.
FarmerJawn will farm half of Westtown School’s acreage and run the existing market on Route 926, growing for local businesses, co-ops, and chefs. The market, which will hire at least five employees and tap into FarmerJawn’s volunteer network, will eventually include a community-supported agriculture business (CSA), prepared foods, and other locally grown and sourced products.
FarmerJawn & Friends Foundation Fund, as the 501(c)3 nonprofit arm is known, will use the rest of the land as a “farming incubator” — five- to ten-acre cooperative farms operated by Black farmers. This will offer educational-development opportunities and what she calls a “pathway to entrepreneurship” via sales.
This year, FarmerJawn started a farmer incubator for Black and brown people with a goal to create a group of people who practice “agripreneurship” while learning how to farm and create an impact urban networks and food systems. In its first year, ten people were chosen out of 50 applications, and seven have graduated.
Barfield and FarmerJawn take over from Pete Flynn, who retired this fall after more than two decades. (Flynn is not totally out of the farming game: He is the incoming president of the Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association.)
In addition to the usual vegetable crop, Barfield wants to create “seed-to-shelf products,” such as sunflower seeds, potato chips, and a hot sauce line.
Barfield wants to make the farm stand a community hangout, not only for produce but also for takeout food, such as soups, salads and sandwiches.
“I want to create a just food system that perpetuates regenerative and organic health for our customers and the planet,” she said.
Barfield, 34, a lifelong resident of Germantown, quit her job in health-care administration in 2018, just before she turned 30.
For her birthday, she flew by herself to Martinique for a vacation. The first Airbnb at which she stayed was owned by a Thai chef who made her tea with herbs from his garden, and the second was owned by a family of farmers that ran a CSA. She said she had never heard of a CSA before.
» READ MORE: Meet Christa Barfield of FarmerJawn
Impressed with the community spirit surrounding these entrepreneurs, she came home from her trip and wrote a business plan to become an urban farmer.
In summer 2018, she started Viva Leaf Tea Co., putting up a backyard greenhouse to grow herbs and renting plots at a community garden in Roxborough. Meanwhile, she founded FarmerJawn as a CSA. She accepted a developer’s offer to rent his greenhouses in Elkins Park.
Her organization now includes a retail and garden learning center in Germantown, a CSA, and five acres of land in Elkins Park.
With Flynn retiring, Westtown was looking to try organic farming, “somebody that was regenerative-minded and sustainably focused,” Barfield said.
Former Westtown teacher Kevin Eppler, who is affiliated with the land-equity group Jubilee Justice, suggested that the school partner with a farmer of African descent. Barfield said she joined a recruitment call that Eppler held last year. “By the end of the call, I knew that I was going to put my bid,” Barfield said. Jubilee Justice included her proposal among its recommendations to Westtown.
The property is across from Cheyney University. Barfield said she is in talks with the nation’s first historically Black university about starting a certificate program based on agriculture.
Given American farming’s history of farming by enslaved persons and sharecropping, “this is one reason why these partnerships are so historical and thought-provoking, as we are creating serious change,” Barfield said. “We are looking to change the history of Black farmers in America. We are determined to be definitive agents of change.”