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Farming - Fulfilling a Legacy of Community Building

Ruth Bennett Community Farm, Chester, PA

Farm Visit: April 11, 2022

Natania Schaumburg, Farm Manager

Bella Korfmann, Youth Coordinator & Farm Assistant

Malik Savage, Grounds Manager & Farm Assistant

For More Information:

On a beautiful, cool April morning, we found our way through the rowhomes of Chester, PA to the Ruth Bennett Community Farm. It is located inside the Bennett Homes lower-income housing development of over 260 brick homes. In its over ten years of operation, the farm has become a small hub for food access and community growth and education.

Fulfilling Ruth Bennett’s Legacy

One hundred years ago, Ruth L. Bennett championed the cause to improve the quality of life among black residents of Chester. Over decades, Ruth took in African Americans looking for shelter during the Great Migration. Her work continues to inspire activists, organizers, social workers, and community advocates – especially women and girls. Members of the Ruth L. Bennett Improvement Club worked to provide clothing to the needy; classes on hygiene, sewing, cooking, dressmaking, and suffrage; and religious instruction. As president of the Chester Improvement Club for more than 30 years, Ruth Bennett passed away in 1947.

Nary Rennie, Director of Membership Services for Eden Streets, a Cambodian refugee who came to the US in 1970, joined me on the tour of the farm built in Ruth Bennett’s honor. With a big smile, Grounds Manager & Farm Assistant and Food Security Activist, Malik Savage came to greet us and share his life, which has been changed by his experience on this farm.

The Farm

Protected by two sides of a hill, the 2.5-acre farm consists of an orchard of various fruit trees on the hill, 250 raised beds each 4’x 12’, a greenhouse, two shipping containers, a pavilion and a toolshed. The eight-foot tall deer fence helps to keep the unwanted animals out. A coolbot controls the temperature in one of two 8’x24’ storage units used to keep produce cool until it gets distributed to the community. The other container is used for tool storage. On the east side of the farm, a greenhouse roughly 30’ x 24’ serves as the nursery for all the plant life we saw around us.

Goal of the Farm

A large 50’ x 25’ pavilion serves as the farm education center where youth and adults alike gather for gardening instruction. The Amish were instrumental in constructing a large implement shed which houses their new Kubota tractor that they use to keep the grounds mowed. “We actually use the tractor to teach tractor maintenance online.” Malik said. YouTube has been a real blessing to post educational “how-to” videos of farm-related activities including tractor repair and tree pruning. “Our goal is to give people an experience here on the farm that makes them feel good - to create a memory they’ll never forget.” Malik shared.

Even this early in the season, the growing beds were bursting with green, vibrant, healthy plants. In the greenhouse I spotted tomatoes and amaranth already growing tall. Natania was busy taking advantage of the recent rain to weed the beds of borage, careful not to disturb their roots. Garlic was bursting up in bright, strong stalks. Several medicinal herbs like borage were also growing. “We do medicinal herbs like dandelion, sage, and oregano.” Natania shared. I also saw beehives along the fence line with bees actively arriving with their pollen-laden legs.

Each Year Brings A New Addition

When asked how she has been able to build such a functional farm, Natania explained her step-wise approach. “Year one was all about establishing infrastructure. We needed the power, the water lines and the deer fence just to get started. We are so grateful for the Amish from Lancaster county.” Malik explained, “Y’all need to learn from the Amish. An eleven-year old boy came with a small toolbox, and within a few hours, he had taken down our huge, old greenhouse. Boy, they know how to work!” The Amish also came to put up the 16’ x 25’ tool shed together. “Every year it seems, we have a new addition, a big project.” Natania continued. “After the infrastructure came the greenhouse and the produce cooler. Two years ago we got this Kubota tractor thanks to the Chester Housing Authority and it is hugely helpful in maintaining the farm grounds. We have over 250 raised beds currently in production.”

An Education Hub for Youth

Working with the younger generation has been at the center of Ruth Bennett Community Farm(RCBF)’s mission. To do that first required the staff to train three adult farmers who could assist with running the farm and running the youth summer camp. The Youth Employment Program starts mid-June and runs for eight weeks. RBCF employs ten youth between the ages of 14 to 18 from the surrounding community paying them a starting wage of $10 per hour. Each year they return, they get a $1/hour raise. “It’s amazing to watch the life-awareness of these youth grow over the season!” Natania exclaimed. They get involved in almost every aspect of running the farm, bed preparation, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, produce-washing, and even selling products like cut-flower bouquets. She added, “Kids quickly learn what is ‘real’ and what is ‘not real’. We’ve done things like watch praying mantis hives open. There’s 300 babies in one egg sack! We also observe the many types of bees that pollinate our plants.”

The youth enrolled in the farm’s employment program come two or three times per week for the whole summer. Youth not only work directly with plants and the soil at the farm, but also help with workshops for the community where participants pot-up vegetables and flowers to take home.

Engaging Youth In Growing and Selling

Natania continued, “We show participants how they can grow greens like kale and collards or flowers on their front porches or backyards. Malik loves showing people how Luffas, a gourd, grow and how they can be used to make sponges. Workshops are a great way to share the successes the farm has in small-scale gardening with others.”

Flowers are Natania's favorite crop to grow. They are also one of the highest grossing crops per acre. Bouquets from RBCF are sold through Philly Foodworks, an online local food market. Natania shared, “The youth love selling products from the farm to the public. It’s fun to see these young people bring their brothers and cousins, their parents to the farm and hear them proudly share what they have accomplished.”

Supplying the Community with Fresh Organic Produce

Getting wholesome, healthy food to Chester community members is a primary mission of the farm, which is committed to giving food away for free to those who need it. Natania explained, “During COVID, we were awarded grant money through the CARES act which enabled us to prepare relief packages and give away boxes of eggs, fruit, and other produce. Thankfully, we have continued to receive funds enabling us to continue with our produce distributions this season.”

Natania and Bella’s Journeys

While weeding and prepping beds, Natania shared her story. Having lived in Philadelphia for almost a decade and working in various food-system jobs, she wanted to study agroecology at the University of California in Santa Cruz. They have a 30-acre farm where the farm interns live for six months to learn the technical, environmental, and social aspects of farming. Natania was a bit concerned about living in California with the now commonplace drought and fires, so she decided to come back to Philadelphia and began working at RBCF, a site she has now managed for six seasons.

Bella, Assistant Farm Manager, came to farming through WWOOFing. (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). After she graduated from college, she worked on a small production farm. While she enjoyed working with nature, she was disturbed by a lack of sustainability and accountability. She explained, “As I farmed alone, I also felt a lack of community. I knew I wanted to be growing my own food. That’s when I decided to come back to Philadelphia. I found this position as assistant farmer. It’s a perfect mix of work experience that gives me all those things I was missing.” She added, “I get to work with 14 to 18 year olds, enjoy their personalities, and really make a difference!”

Continuing the Legacy

As the influence on the lives of both young and older neighbors expands, so does the impact of the farm continue to enrich community life. Indelible memories are made. People come to grow and learn together. The food they grow serves as a natural connector that brings opportunity to so many who don’t have access to fresh, local produce. Certainly, Ruth would be proud of the The Ruth Bennett Community Farm staff who continue to carry out her legacy every season.

Author: Farmer Karl

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