FarmerJawn wants to reinvent the teaching of urban agriculture

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FarmerJawn provides a plethora of educational programs to tackle the problem in all age groups.

Barfield and Ritter are studying a home-based program for older people and people with disabilities who may not be able to leave their homes.

They already work alongside groups like PowerCorpPHL to help young adults.

And they also have a school program in conjunction with students from Cheltenham High School who study and work as interns. Project-based learning also allows seniors in the program to come to the Elkins estate twice a week and help run the CSA program.

Thousands of seedlings inside FarmerJawn at their Elkins Estate farm in Elkins Park, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Karen Shaffran has been a longtime teacher in the Cheltenham School District and three years ago made the transition from teaching at Cedarbrook Middle School to teaching high school.

Through conversations with the then-new superintendent, Shaffran realized that the more she discovered about project-based learning, the more it was like her.

So the district decided to experiment with the modified apprenticeship system.

“While we were researching how we could bring project-based learning to the district, we were approached by a donor who had some history with us. He had taught students in high school, and he has a family foundation that was interested in seeing if we kind of went all-in with project-based learning, and he would fund professional development for a cohort of teachers to sort of seeing this as a high school,” Shaffran said.

She was one of this group of teachers, and they were sent to a school district in San Diego that has been using K-12 project-based learning for about 15 years. The staff told them about their experiences and decided to apply it to Cheltenham only for Year 9 pupils.

And as the students progressed through the classes, the project grew with them.

Now, in the fifth year of the program which “operates like a school within a school”, project-based learning is available to all high school students.

“We’ve done all kinds of things, but this partnership with FarmerJawn is definitely a fan favorite,” Shaffran said.

The students were an integral part of the research and design process for the Elkins Estate Farm. They self-selected groups and helped design different parts of the FarmerJawn setup. From greenhouses to the possibility of a goat pen, the students imagined something special.

Shraffran first connected with Barfield in the 2021-2022 school year after reading about her previous farming venture in the area. She was able to fit two students into the space she was in. However, FarmerJawn was going through a tough time and had to move their operation out of Cheltenham Township.

It wasn’t until Shaffran was going for a walk with his son that they found out that the developers in charge of Elkins Estate were open to doing business and sharing the space. So for months unbeknownst to Christa, Shaffran had conversations with the developers and was able to help FarmerJawn find a home there.

“People already love Christa as a human being and her mission and then being able to get fresh, local organic produce, both from a convenience perspective, but also as… a reduction in the environmental impact that our food is going to be grown locally,” Shaffran said. “Having that as an example of entrepreneurship, caring for the planet, a woman owning a business, all about it — it’s such a gift to us and for me as an educator.”

Barfield and Ritter already have a lot on their plate, but they are looking to roll out a full itinerary of school programs in the coming year.

However, Barfield doesn’t want to leave anyone behind.

“When we have our volunteer days for people who just want to come on the days we do them hopefully once a month which will become more regular, those are great opportunities for people who just want to come and see what we let’s and get our hands in the dirt,” Barfield said.

Ritter wants people to know that the motto is “farming is culture” and he hopes that with increased visibility, FarmerJawn’s nonprofit can solve bigger societal problems.

“Our supporters and partners are really helping us make this work happen. And also, we have some amazing people looking to fund this great work because it takes money to keep the lights on, if you will. So I’m grateful to all of these folks, and we look forward to continuing our great programming,” Ritter said.

PowerCorpPHL members work with FarmerJawn at their Elkins Estate farm, performing tasks such as plowing, raking and planting, April 5, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

As FarmerJawn’s Greenery opens on Earth Day in its storefront at 6730 Germantown Avenue, its nonprofit is still in development. Plants are already growing in the greenhouse in preparation for its first CSA set for June 1.

However, Barfield will soon be hosting different events on the property to raise money for the nonprofit.

She is proud to be a black female business owner in a space that she hopes will be a catalyst for other black people to start their own adventures in agriculture.

“Our nonprofit is really, really accelerating and gearing up to make a huge impact in this community,” Barfield said.

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