Food businesses experienced one theme this past year: change. For FarmerJawn’s Christa Barfield, there was more than enough change to go around. During the pandemic, FarmerJawn, a Black-owned farming community supported agriculture business, decided to leave its greenhouses behind due to differences with the landlord and infrastructure issues.
“I really didn’t want to leave the greenhouses,” Barfield says.
Last summer, everything was going well for FarmerJawn. Produce was growing and the group was paying their rent on time. But when the team found out the heating system was broken, growing became complicated. As a result, Barfield lost crops in the colder months of 2020, but insisted on staying in the greenhouses. A greenhouse with dying plants became stressful to the farmer.
“My team actually helped me realize that this was an unhealthy situation, and it was okay for me to depart,” Barfield says. “My staff, notably, were just like, this, isn’t it,” Barfield says. “Cause you’re not happy here.”
A decision to leave Elkins Park was huge. Although Barfield’s greenhouses were only in the Elkins Park community for one year, her impression was memorable. In 2020, FarmerJawn filled the three Victorian-style greenhouses in Elkins Park and provided a CSA program for surrounding neighbors and Northwest Philadelphia.
Barfield originally began renting the greenhouses after the Philadelphia Inquirer published a profile about her companies, Viva Tea Leaf and FarmerJawn. After reading the article, the Elkins Park Greenhouse owner reached out to Barfield and suggested expanding her business by renting the property. After two offers, Barfield accepted.
Her move-in day in 2020 brought out more than 60 volunteers — most of them strangers — to help her move into the greenhouses.
“When she moved there, I wanted to support it right away when I found out it was a Black female business,” Elkins Park neighbor Lisa Guy-Britt says. “But the other thing was, you know, it was a really nice atmosphere. Of course, you want fresh fruit and veggies, but I also liked the educational aspect of it.”
Guy-Britt has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years and lives two blocks from the property, and enjoyed having produce within walking distance.
“I’m really upset about it,” Guy-Britt says. “I had friends that were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, my daughter loves going there. And we try to get around there whenever we can. It’s really great.’ She was planting roots in the community.”
Leaving the greenhouses was maybe the only option, Barfield says.
“We didn’t have heat, and that’s really where it started,” Barfield says. “Once it got colder, things stopped growing. Then when we were attempting to start seeds, nothing was germinating.”
Barfield notified her landlord of the broken heating system in the late summer of 2020. She says the landlord promised to fix the heating system, but little did Barfield know, this wasn’t going to be an easy fix. While her landlord sent out maintenance workers to resolve the matter, she says most were inexperienced with the system, and eventually Barfield says the landlord stopped replying to her requests. As fall growing season began to surface, FarmerJawn was without heat.
Barfield’s crops for winter were mainly lost, and she was forced to pull produce from other farmers to complete her CSA season. After losing a growing season, Barfield faced financial insecurity and began seeking out other income streams. Barfield created a GoFundMe to meet her rent deadlines and started hosting events to pull in money.
Three days after launching the GoFundMe, FarmerJawn raised $12,000 for rent. Additionally, FarmerJawn hosted educational events and dinners. But after careful deliberation, the FarmerJawn team decided to leave the greenhouses anyway. Barfield says she had to revisit her mission after months of financial insecurity and stress.
“If your mission is to help people, you don’t have to do that here. This is not the place,” Barfield says. “Because you’re not doing it now. Like you’re in this space because you’re physically here — but nothing’s happening here.”
In April, FarmerJawn packed up and left Elkins Park with little knowledge of the silver lining waiting for her down the road.
The Kennett Square Roots Collective was that silver lining: A Chester County group of local businesses, the Kennett Square Roots Collective works on projects that grow the Kennett Square township. Their work focuses on socioeconomic solutions, local farming, gathering spaces, and otherwise.
Barfield was initially invited to consult on an edible garden project for Star and Lantern, a restaurant located on the Underground Railroad trail in Chester. The Roots Collective asked Barfield about her CSA, and she informed them of the move. She says the group asked how much land she needed, and within minutes was offered temporary land to grow and finish her spring CSA season.
“They were like, ‘Oh, yeah, we have that,’” Barfield says. “That very day, they took me to all this property that they had all around Kennett Square and told me to take my pick.”
The Roots Collective donated land in Chester County for Barfield to use and finish out her growing season. Although the group did not give the farmer a time limit on land use, she is exploring future growing options for FarmerJawn. While her former greenhouses were located in a township outside of Philadelphia, Barfield is taking this opportunity to grow more in the city limits.
She recently built a greenhouse at her tea shop, Grow Sip Repeat in Mt. Airy, and hopes to start neighborhood micro farms throughout the city. As FamerJawn has endured many changes, Barfield says its mission is still the same: getting organic and local food to Philadelphians.
“That’s the bigger picture,” Barfield says. “People need to have more of a connection as to knowing where their food is coming from, how its grown, and who’s growing it. That’s what FarmerJawn can do.”