Mid-sentence, Johanna Rosen crouches down and deftly crushes a beetle between her fingers.
The pest has somehow managed to get under a gauzy net intended to protect rows of budding lettuce at Mill Creek Farm in West Philadelphia.
Over the past six years, Rosen has taken this plot of land — once vacant lots filled with trash — and overseen its transformation into a small, but fruitful urban farm that now provides thousands of pounds of fresh produce at below cost to nearby residents.
In this mostly African-American neighborhood, the petite Jewish farmer sticks out like a cornstalk in the middle of a berry patch. Not that the neighborhood children care what she looks like.
On a national scope, though, she fits right in with a growing number of young adults who have taken a renewed interest in environmentalism, sustainability and locally grown foods.
Farming “isn’t quite as strange as it might have been and people understand the value of it,” the 33-year-old said.
Even the concept of a young Jewish farmer is becoming “a little less out there,” Rosen added.
That's helped by the fact that at least four nonprofit Jewish farms have cropped up across the country over the past decade, not to mention a host of environmental groups, educational retreats, community gardens and eco-themed programming at summer camps.
“Our goal is not to produce a whole new generation of Jewish organic farmers, though it's exciting to see that some people are taking on that path,” said Sarah Chandler, 33, associate director of Adamah, a three-month fellowship held at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut. “What's more exciting is someone who goes on to graduate school and then helps their synagogue,” start a garden or Community Supported Agriculture program.
Farming is the vehicle; leadership, spirituality and intentional living the intended by-products, Chandler said.
“What we’re doing is connecting the dots between experiential learning and Jewish tradition,” added 33-year-old Philadelphia native Nati Passow, co-founder of the Jewish Farm School, which runs an immersive apprenticeship at Eden Village Camp in New York as well as occasional programs elsewhere around this region. Farming has proven to be an “effective and transformative way of engaging young people in Judaism and also in the larger environmental movement.”
While Rosen’s farm doesn’t have any explicit connection to Judaism, she and a handful of other Jewish farmers in the area credit their religious upbringing as a major influence on their career path. That’s especially prescient around this time of year as the harvest festival of Sukkot approaches, this season beginning at sundown on Sept. 30. The holiday harks back to some 2,000 years ago, before Jews pulled away from agriculture in favor of jobs as merchants, artisans, moneylenders or other trades requiring education that the Christian majority permitted them to pursue.
Today’s Jewish farmers seem to be increasingly well-educated — better equipping them to make a living from their craft and use it as a tool for community development. The Jewish Exponent sat down with three of them to find out what drew them to the land, and how they manage to support themselves in what many now consider a non-traditional career.
Saul “Skip” Wiener deters crime with a most unconventional “weapon” — vegetables. Rows of produce, in fact, that community volunteers have helped him nurture on vacant lots that used to be prime stomping ground for prostitution, drug dealing, car dismemberment and illegal dumping.
There’s no question, Wiener said, that his upbringing and ties to Judaism reinforced his connection to the land. As a kid, the 70-year-old Wynnefield native said, his parents had a “ragingly wonderful” victory garden. He later lived on a kibbutz in Israel and went on to study science at Temple University, eventually earning masters degrees in plant physiology from Temple and landscape architecture from the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1989, he started the Urban Tree Connection, enlisting children in the Chester and Philadelphia school districts to build nurseries on abandoned properties as community service learning projects. The project was incorporated as an official nonprofit in 1997.
Since then, the organization has focused primarily on the Haddington section of West Philly, where Wiener employed “guerrilla gardening” tactics to repurpose dozens of vacant lots within a 10-square block area.
A .75-acre farm is the largest of 10 separate gardens. Wiener won the right to have Urban Tree Connection named conservator of that property in 2010.
Food production at the farm has grown dramatically in three short years. The harvest doubled from 2,000 pounds in 2010 to 4,000 last year. Wiener is expecting up to 8,000 pounds by the end of this season, which staff are hoping to extend into December with a newly built plastic tunnel that acts as a greenhouse. A Community Supported Agriculture program, known as a CSA, that started out with five shares today serves 68 members, some of whom pay subsidized prices.
The big question for the future, Wiener said, is how to build this model into a self-supporting, or even profitable, enterprise that can generate jobs for people living in a low-income “food desert.” Despite about $50,000 expected from produce sales this year, the agency still relies on grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the city of Philadelphia, regional foundations and individual donors to fund the rest of its $430,000 annual budget.
The goal is “to reattach people to their land roots like I’ve reattached myself,” Wiener said.
“Whatever kind of energy you call it,” he said, “working with people and seeing the sense of despair change to a sense of hope, witnessing that transformation in people over the years and watching that slowly but surely grow and change is a wonderful thing.”
Growing up the oldest of four siblings in Newton, a suburb of Boston, Rosen’s farming experiences were limited to a few synagogue gleaning trips where she and other volunteers dug up potatoes to donate to a food pantry.
But maybe, she said, shrugging, that was enough of a seed. She ended up working on a farm the summer after high school, coming back for three more seasons after entering Smith College to study a self-designed major she called “political economy of the environment.”
Ironically, Rosen admitted, “I regularly kill my houseplants. Container gardens is a different art.” Out on the field, however, she’s in her element.
She came to West Philadelphia via Americorps, which stationed her at University City High School. Through a partnership with Penn’s “Urban Nutrition Initiative,” she taught students how to grow food on school grounds. Her plan to stay two years extended to four, and she began looking for land to expand her community gardening efforts.
She found it through the city water department, which had put out a request for proposals for a plot adjacent to a longstanding community garden at 49th and Brown Streets.
In 2005, Rosen received approval to start Mill Creek Farm there. With help from a contractor and kids in the neighborhood, she built the only shelter on the property — a combination tool shed and sink area with one interior room containing a composting toilet. Rosen even enlisted volunteers to help her plant a living roof on top of it.
It’s the closest thing to a sukkah that Rosen’s constructed in years, even though she counts Sukkot among her favorite holidays “since it relates so deeply to my tradition and my work and my passion.” It would be cool to have a real sukkah on the farm, she said, but “it doesn’t seem like it would get the most use. Mostly, I’m too busy.”
On one particular sultry afternoon, the place is oddly quiet considering that more than 2,000 visitors come through each year for field trips, tours and service projects.
The farm’s only other full-time employee (Rosen just hired a new part-timer) already left to sell produce at a nearby farm stand. Income from those sales account for roughly $6,500 of the annual $125,000 operating budget. The rest comes from donations, grants, foundations and an annual fundraiser party.
Though her operation is limited by the size of the field, Rosen said she’d like to do more to meet increased demand for both food and environmental programs. Already, she said, she gets more requests for tours than she can handle.
“My job isn’t just farming, it’s also education,” said Rosen, who’s currently working part-time on a master’s degree in environmental studies and a certificate in land preservation at Penn.
This place, she said, gives her a platform to discuss nutrition, water and energy use, agricultural workers’ conditions, how to ensure a healthy environment for generations to come and any number of other food-related issues.
Like many urban farmers, Rosen said her biggest challenge will be setting up the farm to outlast her involvement. “It’s tricky because farming isn’t really lucrative anywhere,” she said, “let alone in the city.”
Perhaps the most seasoned and traditional among Philadelphia-area Jewish farmers are Mark and Judy Dornstreich, 71 and 70 respectively. For more than 30 years, the couple made a living growing organic vegetables, herbs and edible flowers at their Bucks County farm.
They started out, however, in the world of academia, meeting as undergrads in Penn’s anthropology department. They continued their studies together at Columbia University in New York, where Mark earned a doctorate in anthropology and Judy a master’s in counseling psychology.
“If at that time you would have told me that I was going to be a farmer with four children, I would have said, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” Judy laughed.
By the late 1960s, they were on their way to New Guinea where Mark had grants to study the indigenous people there.
Living completely in nature over a year and a half in New Guinea probably subconsciously sparked their later career move, Judy said, but they didn’t consider a future in farming until several years after returning to the United States. Mark had been teaching at Rutgers University. During a sabbatical in India, he abruptly announced that he wasn’t sure he wanted to teach for the rest of his life.
“He said, ‘I think I want to grow vegetables,’ ” Judy recalled. “I said, ‘What? You’re from Queens!’ ”
They expected to face resistance from their parents, who had lived through the Depression and made sure their kids all went to college so they would have more secure futures.
Surprisingly, she said, “they respected our wanting to become fulfilled ourselves.” Of course, she added, “they thought we were crazy.”
So they were off to York, Pa., to apprentice on a homestead, then to England for half a year of training in biodynamic agriculture at Emerson College. In 1978, with a loan from their parents, they purchased the 22-acre Branch Creek Farm.
Mark worked temporary jobs at local universities for the first few years as they tried to survive off their new venture.
Judy credits her involvement with a small but active Jewish community for leading them to their first big break. A friend she davened with referred her to an herb grower who needed lettuce to sell to cookbook author and upscale restaurant chef Aliza Green.
To compete with distributers who offered crops almost year-round, the couple built greenhouses, some of them even heated, that allowed them to grow micro greens until as late as December.
Eventually, Judy said, they built up a reputation among chefs at high-end restaurants in Philadelphia. At the height of their business, they had seven employees and sent produce to about 20 restaurants.
Two years ago, the couple hosted a farm-to-table Sukkot dinner as a fundraiser for the Jewish environmental group Hazon. That “was like a culmination of Sukkot,” Judy said, sighing.
If health issues hadn’t forced Mark to retire earlier this year, “I think that we would’ve kept on forever,” she said.
They “lent” most of their Perkasie fields to a friend who ran out of space on his property, but Judy still harvests a few things from a personal garden.
Without the stress of making deliveries, Judy said, she has time to relish the spiritual element of the work.
“Of all the professions that are out there in the world, this may be one of the easiest to feel connected to God,” Judy said, other than “maybe an astronomer who’s peering out at the heavens.”
“The living world is part of the oneness and so are we,” Judy said. “So when you are actually there tending the earth and receiving its bounty,” the activity itself enables you “to experience a connection with oneness.”