Currently’s Editor-in-Chief, Abbie Veitch, chats with Christa Barfield, a recipient of the “Black Women, Green Futures” award from New Voices for Reproductive Justice. This award recognizes Black women who are leading in the environmental justice space.
Barfield is a founder of FarmerJawn, a Philadelphia-based farm that cultivates accessible and healthy food for marginalized communities and it’s sister company Viva Leaf Tea. She works to ensure the Philadelphia community has access to healthy fresh food and runs a training program focused on cultivating a community of Black and brown urban farmers.
Outline of Chat
- Can you Introduce yourself?
- Can you talk about why you think it’s important to take that moment to celebrate Black environmental leaders?
- Can you talk a little bit about the community you’ve been building in Philadelphia around your farm and around the environmental justice movement?
- Can you talk about the importance of this recognition?
- What else are you working on that you’re excited about?
(All conversation has is paraphrased unless in direct quotes)
Abbie Veitch: Can you Introduce yourself?
Christa Barfield: I’m the CEO and founder of FarmerJawn Agriculture and Viva Leaf Tea. These are two sister companies that help to address the reintroduction of farming into the lifestyles of urban people. Through equity and education, we increase access to organic food for all people, with a focus on decreasing health disparities for communities of color.
Abbie: When did you start doing this?
Christa: I came up with FarmerJawn in 2018 when I went on vacation after resigning from my job. I was looking for a way to get back to myself and while on this trip I encountered agriculture in a different way. I saw how people integrated agriculture into their lifestyle — as just part of how they live.
It led me to herbalism and herbal medicine. My background is in healthcare and medicine, but I walked away from healthcare after being burned out in 2018. I encountered people, who were of Indigenous descent, using plant medicine. One was a Thai chef that I met when I was in Martinique and the other group of folks I met were Black farmers.
I learned from both of them, literally just by experiencing and watching. Not necessarily by engaging in any educational workshop. It was really just by living. This experience drove me to start a tea company, Viva Leaf Tea, in 2019 and a farm, FarmerJawn, in 2020.
Abbie: This award takes a moment to moment to celebrate Black woman leaders in the environmental space. Can you talk about why you think it’s important to take that moment to celebrate Black environmental leaders?
Christa: It means a lot on different levels of validation. As a Black woman, I do truly believe that we’re among one of the most unprotected species on the planet. Our health disparities are higher because in our society, we are really gatekeepers, and there’s a time deficit that exists. We’re always in charge of getting things done. There’s never enough time to do it all, so we tend to take a backseat with our own care, including physical exercise, eating, and just taking time for ourselves or having a moment to appreciate ourselves — that’s something that we focus on in our [Black] culture.
I appreciate being able to do this work, but I am very heavily invested in rest. A huge thing I always like to say is, “rest is the only way to have ROI” (return on investment). If I’m not taking care of myself, I can’t be what my community needs me to be.
From a farmer’s perspective, farmers are not often validated. Chefs get all the love and glory. And as a Black farmer, the community definitely gets even less credit despite all that Black people in agriculture have given to America and society as a whole.
I really do appreciate being a trailblazer in this space because all I’m doing is bigger than me. I believe that I’m making space for all the people that are going to come behind me. I hope they feel even more so empowered and have a guidebook for how to kind of get this work done in a way that is sustainable and profitable, so they can take care of themselves of their families.
Abbie: Can you talk a little bit about the community you’ve been building in Philadelphia around your farm and around the environmental justice movement?
Christa: Cities often don’t get looked at as places where urban agriculture makes sense. It’s often looked at as a hobby. FarmerJawn seeks to dispel the mindset that urban agriculture can’t be a true business. By picking all of the resources that I have, all the people that I know, all the know-how I’ve gathered, and the land that we have access to — we created an urban “agropreneur” cohort that focuses on training Black and brown people who have an interest in agriculture but have never had an opportunity to learn how to do it.
I always ask people to tell me what their passions are, and I promise them that I can find a way to integrate their passion with agriculture. I show people that agriculture really is the culture because it’s the genesis and the foundation of all things — what we eat and drink, what we wear, the houses we live in, the cars we drive — there’s an ode to agriculture in everything.
We’re building awareness and reintroducing people to agriculture so they know how to run an agriculture operation or business, if they so choose. On a wider scale, we want every person in the city to have an opportunity to know who their farmer is.
I can’t do it all, which is why education is so important and why our nonprofit must exist. We teach farming operations, but also the business and financial literacy side of things. We do this to make sure other businesses can exist, flourish, have longevity, be able to withstand generations, and build generational wealth within agriculture for Black and brown people.
Outside of that, there is our garden center that we opened last year, which was all about making sure that people know how to grow their own food on a smaller scale. Even if they have a small space, they can now feel empowered. They can be the person in the office or within their household who has that green thumb. All a green thumb is, is competence, confidence, and faith. It’s just knowing that you can take seeds and soil, pour some water on it and expose it to the sun — and have faith that a plant is going to come up.
My goal is to instill this confidence in people, so they can be one with nature and have control over their food supply by growing it themselves or having the knowledge of who their farmer is.
Abbie: What is it like building this in your hometown?
Christa: That’s where it has to begin for me. I started in my own neighborhood right in Northwest Philadelphia. And starting in Philadelphia — the fifth largest city by population in the country, means a lot, as we now have proof of concept. Once I can do that, it means that it can work for any other metropolitan. The majority of people in our nation live in an urban city, so if that’s the case, and we’re fighting hunger, all I need to do is fine-tune this concept of FarmerJawn, so that we can figure out how we can apply it to other cities. If we can do that, we can end hunger. And while we’re ending hunger, we also have to ensure that the food that our people are eating is high in nutrient density.
Abbie: There are so many incredible Black women leading in the environmental justice space. Can you talk about the importance of that recognition alongside these other women?
Christa: I think that it’s important for the people that are interested in being a part of the movement of environmental justice to be intentional about getting things done. There are so many different issues when we talk about environmental justice, it’s not just one thing. It’s not just agriculture. It’s not just climate. It’s how all these things work together. They are intertwined. It’s a really beautiful thing to see other people putting their brainpower together in a way that impacts the entire world. I’m just really happy to be a part of it.
Abbie: What else are you working on that you’re excited about?
Christa: Our CSA — if people are interested in learning more about us, joining our family is always something we welcome people to do. If you’re local to our area, let us feed you. Come to us for your fruits, vegetables, and herbs that you’re going to be consuming anyway.
If you’re not around the area, we would love for you to find whoever your local farmer is and support them because small farmers are literally going to save the world. Especially the ones that are doing regenerative and organic agriculture.
We have the power to truly impact every issue as it pertains to the planet — our water, our soil, and our air quality are all heavily impacted by agriculture. Support the small farmers because we really going to make sure that our planet and people are safe.
Abbie: What would you say to folks in other cities who don’t know where to start but are interested in doing something similar or want to plug in with their local farmers?
Christa: Most cities, especially large urban cities, do have local farmers, so I think it’s just a matter of doing some research.
For folks who have interested in starting something I say, start small, and just do it. I didn’t have any knowledge when it came to growing, I had not touched soil a day in my life. I just decided that I was going to be intentional about solving the problem, and I think that’s where people need to begin. Learn as much as you can on your own and when you feel ready, go talk with people in your community.
If you really don’t have a community of growers in your space, there are many free national and international agriculture conferences that are great for education, even for beginners.
Every city is different and every climate is different, so the needs of each city are going to be very specific. But we’re more than happy to help people learn, which is what our cohort is about. People can join our cohort from all over and then they can take away what they learn from us and then go back to their city.