For Joe L. Bartee, who has farmed South Jersey’s sandy soil for 40 years, finding steady customers has long been the greatest challenge.
But this spring, the 79-year-old Elmer farmer will have a fresh market for his snap beans, sweet peas, and peppers, his yellow, summer, and butternut squash, “all kinds of greens,” and everything else he grows.
Through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, entrepreneurs Omar Tate and Cybille St. Aude-Tate, who own Honeysuckle Provisions in West Philadelphia, will curate boxes of Bartee’s produce for CSA members at the Germantown Jewish Centre and other local synagogues.
“It’s a good opportunity in a new market,” Bartee said.
Honeysuckle has a retail grocery, takeout, and catering operation, and sells goods produced by Black farms in Pennsylvania and South Carolina. The couple, who also operate a small farm in Montgomery County, have spent time with the Bartees in Elmer.
“Joe and his family have become part of our family,” Tate said.
» READ MORE: In Salem County, farming links Black and Jewish families — and history
Harvests with a history
Bartee’s crops also include radishes, cabbages, and kale grown on land that once was part of the first Jewish agricultural settlement in America. The Alliance Colony was founded near Vineland in 1882 by immigrants fleeing Russian persecution. In 2014, William and Malya Levin established the Alliance Colony Reboot (ACRe), a nonprofit that aims to steward and build upon that legacy.
“We consider ourselves partners with the Bartees,” said William, whose great-grandfather Moses Bayuk was a member of one of the 43 original Alliance families. ACRe owns about 70 acres, including fields farmed rent-free by the Bartees.
“They’re in charge of production — what’s grown and when,” said Malya, a lawyer who is William’s wife and the mother of their four children.
Tate met Bartee during a visit to ACRe two years ago with his friend Alexis Rosenzweig, a manager and adviser with Philly’s own Roots drummer Questlove. She had brought along her friend Simone Friedman, of EJF Philanthropies, which is now backing the new CSA project.
“What I love about this program is that it supports the partnership of ACRe, the Bartees, and Honeysuckle, and builds bridges across communities,” Friedman said. “Food creates opportunities to have conversations.”
Supporting Black farmers is important because of the history of discrimination, including in lending, she said. “And having reliable buyers for one’s crops is incredibly important for farmers. So is access to new markets.”
The New Jersey Farm Bureau, an 8,000-member trade association, estimates that there are at least 60 CSAs in operation statewide. In 2017, The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of New Jersey farms listed 88 of the state’s more than 14,000 farms as Black-owned or operated.
Having a certain number of subscribers “assures a base level of income for a farmer,” farm bureau research associate Edward Wengryn said, adding that a CSA can be a management as well as a marketing tool.
“Farmers can predict how much seed they need to buy and how much work they have to do,” he said.
“Every farm is struggling with high energy costs. higher input costs,” Wengryn said. “Expanding the CSA [model] so that a minority farm gets the benefit of it is a good thing.”
A new market
A community member familiar with ACRe started a conversation about the CSA with leadership of the Germantown Jewish Centre, said Kate Lawn, program and membership director.
“We already have initiatives such as food justice, climate justice, and racial justice, and this partnership is a way to bring all of these together in a way that is practical and helpful to our members,” Lawn said. “It feels like a win-win.”
Honeysuckle opened its West Philly storefront two months ago and will build on its existing model of Black Farmers Boxes and Breakfast Boxes, which already have found a market.
For $75 per week, “subscribers get about four meals, as well as staples like eggs, protein, dairy, and prepared products,” Tate said. “We pickle, we ferment, we smoke. We do everything here.”
At some CSAs, “it’s like, here’s your box of raw vegetables,” he said. “But Cybille and I are chefs. When people come here to pick up their box, they can talk to us.”
St. Aude-Tate said: “The intersection of food, culture, ancestry, and religion doesn’t have to be exclusive. We want Honeysuckle to be a welcoming place. We’re waiting to see how folks interact with this project because it will be educational for the consumer — and for us.”
A farmer’s hands tell a story
As farmers themselves, Tate and St. Aude-Tate have a tactile understanding of what it takes to coax food from the earth.
“I’m fascinated with farmers’ hands, with the work that they do,” Tate said. “A farmer’s hands are weathered. They have spots, they have wrinkles and scars, and in Joe’s case, missing pieces. They tell a story of the farmer’s life in relationship to the earth.”
Bartee, who came north from Georgia to New Jersey as part of the Great Migration from the South during the Jim Crow era, is matter-of-fact about missing the tips of his index and middle fingers, as well as the damage done to his pinkie — all on his right hand.
There were three separate mishaps with equipment “years ago,” he said. “They sewed them back up. It doesn’t bother me.”
He prefers to talk about the work that needs to be done when February comes and the earth dries.
“I’ll be out there planting sweet peas and fava beans, about two acres each,” said Bartee, who works with his grandson Kenny.
“Two other things I’ve got to get done are deer fencing and irrigation [improvements]. That’s a must because I can’t be feeding the deer. And I’ve got to water when it gets dry.
“With this new market all lined up,” he said, “I’m encouraged by what’s going on.”