Farm and Resource Center connects community with land, food, and one another

On a particularly rain-soaked spring afternoon at the Community Farm and Resource Center at Bartram’s Garden, located in Southwest Philadelphia, curly kale seedlings are going into the ground.

Ty Holmberg, Community Farm and Resource Center co-director, is being assisted by a handful of Penn students who are putting the young plants into rows in the main garden, and then covering the seedlings with a protective layer of hay. It’s hard work—and on this rainy Friday afternoon, it’s muddy work, too.

But that doesn’t stop the dedicated growers—nor one hearty neighbor who braves the rain to plant some turnip greens seeds in her raised bed in the farm’s onsite community garden.

The growing, learning, and engagement happens at the farm, rain or shine, and in myriad ways. It happens both with Penn students who work and volunteer at the farm, and with members of the community who come to the space to connect with their cultural food history and one another.

“[We want] to be a resource for food and education and be a hub for people to learn how to grow their own food,” says Holmberg.

The farm, which Holmberg started in 2011, is in its fourth growing season, and includes an acre-and-a-half vegetable field, an outdoor farm stand and small building that serves as an education and kitchen space, 60 community garden beds, a 130-tree orchard and berry patch, a solar-heated greenhouse, and a distribution center with a walk-in cooler.

The four-acre farm is a joint initiative of the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative—a program of Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships—and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the City of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, and Bartram’s Garden.

Crops are grown chemical-free and are distributed through a small CSA, or community-supported agriculture bag, and are sold at farmers’ markets and an onsite farm stand. Last year, the farm produced more than 10,000 pounds of food, including collard greens, carrots, bok choy, beets, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and cucumbers.

The orchard, which sits across from the community garden beds on a gently sloping hill, is comprised of three rows of blackberries, three rows of raspberries—one golden, one black, and one red—and apricot, nectarine, peach, apple, Asian pear, fig, and cherry trees. The farm also grows elderberry and paw paw, which are native to the area, as well as almond, white walnut, and pecan trees.

Penn students can get involved at the farm through a newly created farm and food fellowship program, an Academically Based Community Service class, or a volunteer day. Last year, the farm hosted more than 1,500 volunteers through Penn, as well as other schools, corporations, and community groups.

The farm has several goals, explains Holmberg. The first is to provide members of the community access to healthy, nutritious, culturally relevant food.

“We talk about access not just in affordability and proximity, but in cultural and culinary access to food,” Holmberg explains. “A lot of foods that are grown, like sweet potato greens or okra or collard greens, are very representative of what people have asked for. … We have a cooking station up next to our market and really encourage our CSA members to donate recipes.”

Second is to build self-reliance.

“We really are invested in honoring and lifting up the knowledge base that is in their community, the traditions and the food legacies, particularly, that already are existing,” says Christopher Bolden-Newsome, the farm’s co-director, who emphasizes that the farm is a food sovereignty-based program.

To this end, the farm hosts workshops for the community on canning and food preservation, building a raised bed, prepping the soil, and preparing for seeding.

The farm also hosts a year-round paid high school internship program, in which students from Southwest Philadelphia work to grow and harvest crops, sell the fresh fruit and vegetables at the farm stand, and cook with the fresh food. Over the summer, students can work at the farm for 30 to 40 hours a week; in 2014, 27 high school interns worked at the farm.

Grace Jemison, a junior in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences who is majoring in health and societies and minoring in nutrition, is a farm fellow, and has worked with high school students in the youth development program.

“It’s work—they get paid to work on the farm to produce the food, [and] they learn so much,” Jemison says. “A lot of them come on the farm for the first time never having known this existed, never having gotten their hands dirty, and by the time they graduate, they know so much more than I do.”

The third goal is to provide a space in the city so people can connect with the land, food, and each other. “I have seen the community garden specifically bring families together,” says Bolden-Newsome.

For Jemison, who grew up in Lancaster County, the farm is a second home and a way to absorb lessons outside of the classroom.

“A lot of what you learn in class is theory and this is putting some of that to work,” Jemison says. “In nutrition class the other day, we were talking about food access problems … and the city of Philadelphia, so this is taking those issues and working with it, getting our hands dirty.”

Finally, Holmberg says they want to build a more community-powered food system by developing replicable and sustainable models. They hope to get a “training the trainers” workshop up and running, in which members of the community can learn how to teach others.

Bolden-Newsome says that the work is important so food traditions are passed down through generations.

“[The farm is] a place where [people] can not just touch their past, but look toward their future,” he says.

Community Farm