When I spoke to co-founder Cynthia Hall last week, Lawnside’s Free Haven Farms was finishing their sixth week of distribution for their CSA program. But the farm is an educational and consulting operation, too, not to mention they’re one of the state’s few black-owned farms—in a Camden County community founded as a refuge for former slaves and, for a time, called “Free Haven.”
It’s been a busy year for Free Haven Farms, but it’s nothing husband-and-wife team Micaiah and Cynthia Hall can’t handle. When they first bought the Lawnside acre that would become the farm, the couple knew they were going up against a challenge. (At its most basic level, urban farming assumes contamination by industry, and a certain amount of political neglect.)
But their business model is built on the premise of change for the better, and the pair is uniquely outfitted (with help from their three kids) to take on the various direct and indirect challenges of urban farming: owner and head farmer at Free Haven, Micaiah’s been farming for 14 years, and prior to Free Haven worked as the farm director at Mill Creek Urban Farm in Philadelphia. Cynthia holds a PhD in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences from Georgia Tech, and when she’s not consulting on soil health for Free Haven, teaches in the Earth and Space Sciences department at West Chester University.
She’s no doubt a busy woman, but we caught up with Cynthia, who’s about to record all the virtual lessons for Free Haven’s 2020 Summer Science Camp, with lessons about getting started in urban farming, why “soil health” should be in every gardener’s vocabulary, and what she and Micaiah are making of their role at the helm of an organic, black-owned farm in a season of near-seismic cultural and political shifts.
Table Hopping: How did the two of you end up starting an urban farm?
Cynthia Hall: My husband had been involved in urban agriculture for around the last 14 years, the same age as our son. We started growing food in Atlanta when I was still in grad school, just to eat healthy on a tight budget. But it turned from hobby into a career. Micaiah saw the need for access to fresh and healthy food in urban areas. When we relocated to Philadelphia, we saw the same issue even more pronounced. He got involved in urban agriculture there. We realized we wanted to do something ourselves, combine the agriculture and the science. I was a new professor and I changed my research from what I’d done in grad school to studying soil in urban areas. We found this property [in Lawnside] and made it happen.
TH: 2020 is an intense context for many reasons, but urban farming seems like it’s up against some institutional prejudices in general?
CH: There is that historical record of environmental injustices that have happened in urban areas. Though the big picture is it isn’t specific to one area. It’s widespread. Though you see the same issues in rural areas, wherever there’s industry. Either people didn’t know or did and covered it up. I got into lead contamination specifically because in Philadelphia there was a very particular issue of lead smelters in the city. You were already seeing these high lead levels in the soils, then you had these hot spots that were just really dangerous. That’s really where the idea for research came from. All urban soils should be screened. In fact, any grower, rural or suburban or urban, should have their soil screened.
TH: That’s a unique service you guys provide, which you don’t see it many places. How does it work?
CH: It’s pretty simple. And the good news is we usually see the soil is healthy and viable and yes, you can grow! We always preface by saying it isn’t a scare tactic. Knowledge is power and you should know. The instrument I use, an XRF [for X-Ray Fluorescence analyzer], it’s a point-and-shoot instrument. It’s pretty much instantaneous. It’s a pretty common tool among environmental consultants and more urban farms are starting to get them, too.
TH: Speaking of “knowledge is power,” was education always part of the model at Free Haven Farms?
CH: Yes, that was always there. We had our first Summer Camp that first summer in 2017. We do farm tours. In previous seasons we’ve had schools come out, individual classes, a lot of preschools. It’s a really fun activity for the really little ones. They’re all excited to be outside!
TH: I saw a video of New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Doug Fisher visiting Free Haven last September. Is there state support in general to be had? Do you feel visible on an infrastructural level?
CH: Recently there’s actually a brand new office in the USDA to support urban agriculture. But really just being black farmers made us visible. We attended the New Jersey Growers Convention for the state two years ago and people noticed us. That’s really how we started to make connections at the state level; there are very few actually black-owned farms here. And the Philadelphia Inquirer did a piece last year that brought attention. We haven’t directly sought out support. Just being seen has brought support indirectly. Our CSA this year sold out. We have a lot more visibility than when we started the market.
TH: Considering the increased exposure, and your natural growth as a businesses, do you plan on upping your acreage? Where is the farming done?
CH: We have one acre here in Lawnside—that’s our home base—but last year we began a lease for five more acres up on an existing farm in Pemberton. Our partners up there are older farmers, mentors, really. They have a 75-acre farm. They’re winding down a little bit. So we were able to get five more acres, which allows us to grow things that require more space. My husband goes up there several times a week and maintains crops. We had strawberries up there, asparagus. Really, though, the vast majority of our herbs, our leafy greens, the backbone of what we’re producing, all comes from this one acre [in Lawnside]. It’s really productive for the amount of space we have.
TH: I guess that’s a central tenet of urban agriculture—using space efficiently, creatively?
CH: Yes. I mean, one acre, for a farm, is like nothing. Of course it was a lot for us, coming from a row house in Philly to one acre! And Micaiah’s really learned a lot in urban agriculture, how to maximize space—group cropping, using one space for multiple crops that grow different ways, vertical towers, all sorts of creative ways to grow and maximize the space. When I see our harvest, I’m like “How did you do that?”
TH: Earlier this year, we spoke to farmers who said demand had gone up because of the pandemic. Is that the case for Free Haven’s CSA program?
CH: Demand definitely went up. We were able to sell out, commit all our produce to our CSA. Whereas before we did a blend of farmers market and CSA sales, the impetus this year was to go full-steam with CSA sales. Now that’s all we’re doing.
TH: I saw you’re going along with your Summer Camp this year, but virtually?
CH: We decided to modify that a bit and not do the Zoom sessions, just pre-record. My own children, who are in middle and elementary school, they’re Zoomed out! So in a casual conversation with them, I realized it might be preferable to have pre-recorded lessons and kids can do it when they want.
TH: Do you think adjustments, these so-called pivots, are going to be the way of things for a while?
CH: This hasn’t really gotten better. There’s still risk. I don’t want to be running around outside with a mask on. I don’t want to make the kids do that. Maybe in the future, we can bring that element back. There are advantages you can’t replicate, being on the farm.
TH: Speaking of things changing, systemic pivots, there’s obviously a lot going on, and a lot that will continue, with the current historic protests. As you said, you’re one of a very few black-owned farms in New Jersey. Do you feel an opportunity to use your position within the community more at a time like this?
CH: We’ve always felt a responsibility to empower our community with what we’re doing. And not only providing access to produce. Micaiah especially has been really intentional about trying to grow the next generation of farmers, actually talking to the kids, even working with our own kids. Just providing that example, that’s been huge for us. Being a black scientist, I’m in the same situation. I’m a geo-scientist, and that’s even more of a rarity. So I’ve always felt that responsibility.
But yeah, right now there’s a lot of attention on the contributions of black businesses to our communities. We have been getting a lot of attention, a lot of people contacting us and wanting to do business with us. We have a donate button on our website that’s always been there, and we’re getting donations in the past couple weeks which we couldn’t have expected. We really haven’t pushed it. But there are people seeking those opportunities to give back.
TH: Are there ways the public can engage more with Free Haven?
CH: Right now, our dilemma or challenge, is we filled our [CSA] capacity before the season started. But we have restaurants trying to place orders! Moving forward, we see opportunity. People are paying more attention to the contributions our farm has already made. Being able to help us to sustain and grow in the future, that’s huge. And for us, the goal is to be able to see more black-owned farms, more young people wanting to farm.
We really appreciate being seen and allowing kids to be able to see: I can be a farmer. When our children tell their friends “My dad’s a farmer,” it’s like their faces go wide, like “What do you mean?” But anybody can be a farmer. Same thing with me as a scientist. By day I’m a geologist, a geochemist. But I get “What? You’re a black woman, a geologist?” I mean it’s really a white male-dominated field. So it’s something to showcase and publicize—allow kids to see that they can do it, too.
You can donate to Free Haven’s sustainable urban farming and education operation here. You can register for Free Haven Summer Science Camp (sessions are entirely virtual and run 1 week, starting June 29 and July 27). Free Haven Farms, 105 Williams Street, Lawnside; 609-332-4892Click here to leave a comment