Of many of the makers, artisans and farmers that we meet through PA Eats, there are many who have arrived at their current craft after a career change. Usually, there is a big shift or life change, like being laid off from a job, meeting an influential future-mentor, or being urged by friends and family, that creates the catalyst for the person to take the leap into a new adventure.
For Christa Barfield, the founder and owner of Viva Leaf Tea, a farm-to-cup tea brand and FarmerJawn, a community greenhouse and CSA in Philadelphia, her epiphany moment came in January 2018 during a trip to Martinique. Her experiences there catapulted her out of a career in healthcare and into her new identity as an urban farmer and wellness herbalist.
Just a few years later, Viva Leaf offers a full line of artisan tea blends, honey and simple syrup, which are all blended with organic medicinal herbs, which are mostly grown and picked fresh from Barfield’s own farm. FarmerJawn offers CSA memberships and is poised to grow into a retail farm stand at her greenhouse space in Philadelphia’s Elkins Park neighborhood.
We were able to catch up with Christa, just a few days before she opened the doors to her new space. She shared her story with us, which we are excited to share with you!
PA Eats: Can you tell us a little bit more about how you transitioned careers from healthcare to farming?
Christa Barfield: I worked in healthcare for almost a decade. My last position, working at the second largest opthalmologist in the world was overwhelming. I was very stressed and had low energy for anything else outside work, and that wasn’t fair to my family, my friends and especially to myself. So, I decided to resign without actually having a plan. Well, I had some ideas; one was going back to school to become a Physician’s Assistant. I’ve always wanted to be a clinician, I grew up in a family of clinicians. But first I went on vacation after the last day at my job in January 2018. I hopped on a plane and went to Martinique. I went by myself.
What happened during that trip that changed the course of your life?
The first AirBNB I stayed at in Martinique was with a Thai chef who lived there with his partner from France. Each day he made meals, and in the morning he would take leaves from his garden and he would make these tea blends. He’d put them in a cup and pour hot water over them. I was mesmerized by the whole experience.
The second AirBNB was with a family of farmers. They had properties all over the island. The one where I was staying was more of a resort, and the family was very nice and they let me travel with them out to their their farm and CSA pick-up. They had a team of members who were putting fruit and veggies in boxes, it was the first time I saw up close a CSA in action, and how it all works.
Literally these experiences spawned my two companies. I didn’t have a plan of what I was coming home to do, and I just wanted to do something that I felt good about. Never did I say I was going to be an entrepreneur. I always had the mindset that I would go to school and get another job. [After the trip] I just knew I was going to come home and start growing plants. I saw the way these people on Martinique live, this is their lifestyle of joy and peace and not eating nonsense, and taking from the earth because it gives us what we need.
That’s amazing! When you came back from the trip, what happened next? Did you jump right into starting Viva Leaf and FarmerJawn?
I came back and started to brainstorm what having a tea company would look like. I didn’t have much capital. I had my savings, which I needed to live off of, so I started to do small things. My first idea was to sell tea accessories, I wanted do this while I began growing things from seed. I started looking for some companies that I was able to buy some products from and sell them to customers, so mainly it was friends and family that supported that effort. But I didn’t like that I didn’t have control over when the products were shipped, and I didn’t do that for too long. So then I just had to wait for the herbs to grow.
Before you started the businesses, did you garden at all at home?
I was never a gardener! I’m totally self-taught. I went to a local bookstore and found a few books, and that’s also how I started to learn more about herbal medicine, like what parts of the plants you can and can’t consume. I also educated myself via the internet. That’s pretty much how I found out what blends I wanted.
A friend purchased a small little greenhouse for me, and I put it in my backyard at my house in Germantown. I knew I was going to be able to grow enough in there. Now, I have a large greenhouse — I just actually got that space about three months ago! Our grand opening was on July 18.
That’s so exciting! How did you find the space?
I didn’t actually look for the space at all. The owner came to me. He found the article about me in the Inquirer and he said it would be great if I came to look at these greenhouses in Elkins Park that some florists had used for the past 60 years. Some things are outdated and some are updated, my initial thought was that this would be a lot of work. I’d also been growing on land in Roxborough, and this just felt a lot different. But a month went past and he reached out again and I took a second look.
So many opportunities have just been presented to me. Even the growth of my company, I attribute a lot to DiBruno Bros. and their buyers Scott and Hunter. When I first met them, it was during my very first time selling my product in public at a vending fair in South Philly. They just started talking to me and offered to help me figure out how to distribute Viva Leaf more, and then when they said they worked for DiBruno, it hit me. That experience alone is actually what catapulted my company further, faster.
It sounds like your companies are growing quickly right now, too. What can you tell us about the FarmerJawn greenhouses?
We’re definitely scaling up! We are a food company and we’re also farmers. At the greenhouses, we’ll have fruits and veggies that we’ll sell, and also some seasonal flowers. The FarmerJawn CSA will also expand to 50 families. I’m hoping to hire a few employees!
Congrats to Christa on the opening of her amazing new space in Elkins Park. Currently, they are running “soft open” hours Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. with a farmer’s market selling produce, bread, plants, beer and more! CSA pick-ups are offered on Fridays between 2 and 7 p.m. Viva Leaf products, like LemonBerry Detox Tea, Mindfulness Mint Tea and Turmeric-Infused Honey can be purchased through the brand’s online shop. Viva Leaf’s line of honey can also be found at select DiBruno Bro. shops. Follow along with Christa’s farming adventures and her companies’ updates via Instagram (find Viva Leaf’s here and FarmerJawn’s here). We can’t wait to see what the future holds for her two dynamic businesses!
Find FarmerJawn at 6730 Germantown Ave. in Philadelphia.
- Photos: Viva Leaf/FarmerJawn