Joshua Farm has been a labor of love from its beginning, and many hands have helped it to become what it is today. The short story: a woman had an idea to start a farm, an existing non-profit organization saw the potential for its youth participants to benefit, and people gathered to bring the dream to fruition and share in the bounty. The first crops were harvested in 2006, and the farm has grown steadily since then.
But maybe you want the longer version, the bigger picture with details? Settle in. . .
The story of how Joshua Farm got started is a very personal one for me, and so it might be best to share a little bit about who I am. I grew up in rural Lebanon County, on a farm but not in a farming family. We rented out most of the barn, pasture, and fields to a neighboring farmer for his heifers and crops. We kept horses, chickens, barn cats, and an array of indoor pets. I remember planting a garden with my parents, but I don’t remember ever harvesting anything—we would usually go away for a weekend in June and come back to find that either the weeds had taken over or the cows had gotten out and trampled everything!
In college, I worked springs and summers at a greenhouse, and enjoyed that break from the mental gymnastics of school. I moved to the city of Harrisburg in 1999 with my husband. A few years later, I joined a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in York County. I had a working share, which meant that I worked 4 hours each week during the growing season in exchange for my food. I did that for three summers, and was introduced to many basic principles of sustainable agriculture by the friendly and knowledgeable folks at Goldfinch Farm.
In the meantime, my parents had divorced and were planning to sell the farm in Lebanon County. There is a lot of development happening in that area, and I was worried that the farm would be subdivided for housing. My husband (who is a social worker and not interested in farming as a vocation) and I talked about buying the family farm. I started reading about farming, and we attended a conference called “Farming with Values that Last” to learn what questions we should be asking. I couldn’t see myself doing commodity farming, but I wasn’t sure what other options there were. At the conference, I met some folks who ran an urban farm in Pittsburgh. I was intrigued by the idea, and started researching and visiting urban farms, traveling to Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Boston to meet people doing amazing projects on small plots of land.
Meanwhile, Darrel and I decided that we weren’t comfortable taking on the financial strain of purchasing a $550,000 farm, we didn’t want to give up our network of support in Harrisburg, and we weren’t ready to trade in our urban life for rural life, so we decided not to purchase the family farm in Lebanon County. (sidenote: the farm was later sold at auction to a conservative Mennonite family with 8 children, who plans to farm it).
Around that time, on one of my walks around the neighborhood with my son, I rediscovered a vacant lot three blocks from our house, in the heart of east Allison Hill. I did some research, and found that it was owned by the Harrisburg School District. Until the mid 1970s, it had been the athletic field for a nearby junior high school. When the school closed and was turned into subsidized housing (what is now Edison Village), the field was put up for sale. It had been only minimally maintained since that time. The school district mowed it when the neighbors complained about tall grass, and at one point had put up a fence along the north side to discourage people from abandoning vehicles and furniture there.
I contacted the school district and asked if I could lease the field (buying it was out of the question at that point—we had no money, and the cost would have been outrageous for farmland, along the lines of $75,000/acre). This was in September 2004. The school district said they had to think about it, but they could say right away I would have to be a non-profit organization, and I would need to work with youth in some way. I began exploring the process of forming a non-profit organization, took a business class, and started developing a business plan.
Meanwhile, a local organization called Joshua Group had been trying to develop some micro-enterprise programs to give the youth they work with some business/work skills. I have a friend who works for Joshua Group; she told the executive director Kirk about my farming vision. Kirk called me up and basically said, “how about you employ our youth and we’ll take you under the umbrella of our non-profit?” We presented our plan to the school district, who finally gave us an official lease in May 2005. At that point it was too late to start growing, so we focused on cleaning up trash and getting to know our neighbors. We planted garlic and various cover crops that fall, with the help of youth from J-Crew (Joshua Group’s after school tutoring/mentoring program). My husband and I moved to a house on the perimeter of the field in the summer of 2005.
In 2006 the farm officially started. We received some money for start-up costs from the City of Harrisburg’s Department of Building and Housing Development. The first year, we offered 12 memberships in our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which were mostly purchased by friends willing to take a gamble on a great idea. Joshua Group applied for and received a grant from M&T Bank to employ 3 youth for 12 hours a week during the summer months. The youth were already involved in Joshua Group’s other programs, and working at the farm was a natural extension of that involvement, an opportunity for relationships to be deepened and character to be developed. We also began a partnership with Messiah College that continues to this day. Students come to the farm weekly and during special events to share in service-learning experiences.
In 2007, we expanded to 24 shares, still with 3 youth working 12 hours a week. M&T Bank again provided the funding to support the youth’s salaries. We also started a small farm stand where we sold our extras to the general public. We were delighted to receive a $50,000 grant from the Lowe’s Charitable and Educational Foundation, which enabled significant improvements to the infrastructure of the farm so that it could function as a educational resource center. Among the improvements–a water line (no more hoses running from my house across the alley!), new fencing, a greenhouse, storage shed, tools, curriculum resources for nearby Rowland School, composting toilet, rainwater collection system (in conjunction with the Collaboratory of Messiah College), and native plantings around the perimeter of the field. The Josiah W. and Bessie H. Kline Foundation and the McCormick Family Foundation also contributed toward the cost of installing the water line.
In 2008, we increased to 32 shares, with 4 youth working 12 hours a week. This was the first year with our own greenhouse, which made starting seeds a lot more convenient (no more running to rented greenhouses in far away places to water, no more potting soil in the basement!). Our initial 3-year license from the Harrisburg School District to use the land expired, and we were able to renew it for a 5 year term. Feeling slightly more secure in our tenant status, we began to invest in perennials such as asparagus, blueberries, and raspberries.
In 2009, we planned to increase to 40 shares, but ended up keeping it at 32 shares and putting more energy into the farm stand. A grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture allowed us to equip the farm stand more fully and provided the impetus to complete the application to accept food stamp (SNAP) benefits. We also began partnering with nearby Paulus Farm to increase the variety and consistency of produce at the farm stand. That summer, 6 youth worked 12-15 hours/week. Cooking lunch for volunteers from Highmark Blue Shield was a highlight for the youth (and eating it was a highlight for the volunteers!).
In 2010, we plan to continue growing a great selection of vegetables, flower, fruit, and herbs for our farm stand and CSA members. We have received a grant from the Community Action Commission to hire 6 youth to work full time for 11 weeks this summer. We are also receiving funding to hire a full time supervisor for the youth staff. We’re really excited about the opportunity to get the youth more thoroughly engaged in the farming process, while also having more time for workshops, guest speakers, field trips, and cooking class. A walk-in cooler, a hoophouse for season extension, and a portable storage unit are some of the projects we’ll be working on.
Along the way, volunteers have been the backbone of Joshua Farm. Students from Messiah College, Elizabethtown College, and Penn State University, church groups, adjudicated youth fulfilling community service requirements, Boy Scouts, individuals, groups from Highmark Blue Shield, shareholders, and many others have planted, watered, weeded, harvested, constructed, and grown Joshua Farm into a oasis of life and beauty. Thank you!