Expecting the unexpected: Christa Barfield is changing the food system one farm at a time

FarmerJawn is a pioneering urban farm in Philadelphia, established to create a more sustainable, community-focused food system that educates people and nurtures healthier urban living.

Kimberly Decker, Contributing writer

July 10, 2024

7 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Christa Barfield founded FarmerJawn, the largest Black-owned food grower in Pennsylvania.
  • FarmerJawn operates a hub-and-spoke model, linking urban communities directly to fresh, healthy produce.
  • According to Barfield, a “less is more” mantra is what regenerative farming is all about.

Christa Barfield didn’t expect to quit her job two days into 2018, turn 30 a week later and then hop on a plane to Martinique island in the eastern Caribbean Sea three days after that.

Nor, it’s safe to say, did she expect to receive a James Beard Foundation Emerging Leadership Award roughly six years later for fostering a more equitable, just, sustainable and economically viable food system.

But that’s precisely what Barfield did with FarmerJawn, the 128-acre working farm she built in her hometown of Philadelphia. With help from associated retail outlets, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and a nonprofit foundation, FarmerJawn is “reintroducing farming into the lifestyles of urban people to cultivate physical, social and environmental health,” according to the organization’s mission statement.

And none of it would’ve happened had Barfield not taken off on that impromptu island journey. Because although she didn’t head to Martinique expecting to find agriculture, it was there, she declared, that “agriculture found me.”

A clean break

What Barfield actually expected in Martinique was water, a chance to practice her French and a break from a 10-year career managing Philadelphia-area medical practices that’d left her feeling frustrated with conventional healthcare’s inability to improve outcomes for the people she encountered daily.

“When we think about high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease: These are the most prevalent diseases within our communities,” Barfield said. And what unites them? “They’re all diet-related.”

The lightbulb moment

That realization convinced her that we needed better solutions. But it wasn’t until she took a spin around the island with her Airbnb hosts that farming emerged as the answer.

Those hosts operated a network of farms on Martinique, and seeing as how Barfield was traveling solo, they invited her to visit some with them. The experience sparked one of those lightbulb moments that can change a path forever.

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Making the connection

“I saw Black people farming on that island firsthand,” Barfield recalled, “which was something I’d never thought about in the sense of where food comes from.”

Sure, she’d gone on farm field trips as a kid, “but we were bobbing for apples and looking at the world’s largest pig,” she said. “I’d never touched soil a day in my life — never grew a plant, planted a seed, anything. There wasn’t a connection between food and farming for me.”

And if that connection hadn’t registered with her, she wagered, it surely hadn’t with others in her community.

“To be amazed at where food comes from is absurd,” she said. “So I realized that we’re literally being shielded from how the food system works.”

So she committed herself to doing something about it.

Building bridges

That “something” is FarmerJawn, the largest Black-owned food-grower in the state of Pennsylvania.

And though pioneering urban agriculture in Philadelphia, America’s poorest major city, isn’t an obvious career pivot for a former healthcare professional, Barfield actually situates the two fields on the same continuum.

“My healthcare background primed me to be a farmer,” she explained. “I understand what health is — and what it isn’t — and I understand what we’re aspiring toward.” Fixing a broken food system, she believes, builds the bridge to those aspirations.

In that sense, she still works in healthcare. “We’re showing people how to put food-as-medicine into action,” she said. “What I do is still fundamentally the same: It’s public-health innovation.”

Hub and spoke

That innovation operates via a hub-and-spoke model with the farm to the hub. “That has to be the basis,” Barfield maintained, “because, to me, that’s the basis of health.”

Radiating from that hub is access both to FarmerJawn’s produce through its storefronts and CSAs, and to the deeply rooted connection linking farms, food and flourishing life that so impressed Barfield.

“A reason people in urban communities have no idea where their food comes from is because it’s all aggregated in a warehouse somewhere and then trucked to a store,” she said. “We’re putting it at the forefront. It’s important that ‘farm’ is in the name so that people make the association between what they’re putting in their carts and the farm.”

Inspiring healthy choices

Moreover, by making that connection convenient and affordable — especially in a big-city center — FarmerJawn may well inspire people to choose healthier foods. And that’s something everyone could stand to do.

“People of all demographics and income levels in the United States need to eat more fruits and vegetables to improve human health,” Andrew Smith, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at the Rodale Institute, said. “But underserved communities lack the access and, in some cases, the financial resources to purchase fruits and vegetables. The best way to mitigate these problems is to grow the food in or near the community or urban centers, and have people in the community involved in the food production to increase jobs and access to healthy food.”

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Getting dirty

FarmerJawn’s structured volunteerism does just that, rewarding participants for their 20 hours of monthly service with free CSA memberships that let them literally reap what they’ve sown.

“They officially become members and family of the farm,” Barfield said. “And that’s really been popular. People love the idea of taking something home that they had a hand in growing. And I love that we get to help people see the connection.”

Other honorary members of FarmerJawn’s family include Philabundance, the largest food-bank in the region — which Barfield said “is really nice because they understand how the food system has to change, and that it doesn’t make sense to end hunger without improving nutrition at the same time.”

And school groups ranging in age from K-12 to the university level regularly get their hands dirty in FarmerJawn programs.

Plugging the brain drain

As far as Barfield is concerned, the sooner she helps students make the farm-food connection, the better. “From the last agricultural census to now, we’ve lost tens of thousands of farmers across the whole census,” she warned. And that drain often happens when farm kids start leaning toward non-farm careers.

So by leveraging workforce-development programs and the Agripreneur Academy — a nonprofit that teaches people how to grow ag businesses — Barfield hopes to stem that drain, and to show young, enthusiastic talent that farming can be just as rewarding as more mainstream jobs.

And if the brain drain looks dire among the young, it’s even more alarming in Black farming communities, which Barfield said lost 6,000 farms from 2017 to 2023, bringing those communities’ representation of all farmers in America to just over 1%.

Honoring the past

That loss stings, given how deeply those farmers informed the regenerative practices that underpin everything Barfield and FarmerJawn do.

“Without fail, without exception, I’ve always been a regenerative organic grower,” she explained. “These may be newer terms, but ‘regenerative’ and ‘organic’ just mean indigenous, which is where I come from. That’s my ancestry. So by restoring the land, I first and foremost give honor to the natives before us whose land was stolen from them.”

Added Rodale’s Smith, “Many groups define regenerative agriculture as, simply, ‘forms of agriculture that are better for climate mitigation.’ But the essence of organic farming as modeled by early practitioners always included consideration for the environmental, economic, social and even spiritual considerations of the local community.” While the details may change, “Regenerative agriculture should be defined by continuous improvement of the health of the land and the people who cohabit with that land.”

Barfield couldn’t agree more. “How we grow impacts not just the food we’re eating — that’s the easy brag,” she said. “Even more so, it impacts the air and the soil. Not using chemicals, allowing the earth care for itself, stepping away and saying, ‘Less is more here’: That’s what regenerative agriculture is all about.”

Gaining leverage

But, Barfield conceded, “FarmerJawn can’t do this all by itself. We’re not meant to; we’re meant to explain and educate and create that awareness so that other people can see and want to do differently because of what they saw.”

The James Beard Foundation certainly saw something in FarmerJawn’s efforts. “Christa Barfield and her initiatives with FarmerJawn already embody what the James Beard Leadership Awards recognize,” Dawn Padmore, the Foundation’s vice president of awards, said. “In creating the nation’s largest Black woman-owned regenerative organic produce farm, she’s significantly impacted Philadelphia’s food system and offers a model for urban food justice and entrepreneurship.”

The high profile her award brings may be just the platform Barfield needs to inspire others. “We have a great blueprint that I’m excited for people to get their eyes on and replicate in their neck of the woods,” she said. “And I want to pick people’s brains so that my team and I aren’t the only ones trying to figure this out.”

But she’s still the same farmer she was before. “I’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other to get things done the way I see fit.”

About the Author(s)

Kimberly Decker

Contributing writer

Kimberly J. Decker is a Bay Area food writer who has worked in product development for the frozen sector and written about food, nutrition and the culinary arts. Reach her at [email protected].

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