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A farm for the community

MES in the Community, Johanna Rosen

You might think it would be hard for a farmer to play favorites among vegetables. But Johanna Rosen (Master of Environmental Studies ’13), co-founder of Mill Creek Farm in West Philadelphia, has no hesitations.

“I love okra. It’s so tall and striking,” Johanna says. “It’s an important crop in African American foodways, and Mill Creek always sold out at every market.”

Providing that connection to nourishing local produce is exactly why Johanna began Mill Creek, an urban educational farm, in 2005. But she’s had a passion for farming since high school.

“In high school, one of my friends worked on a farm and got me into it. At first, just the opportunity to do physical work outside was compelling, and then when I learned more about the social, political and environmental impacts of local food systems, I became committed to the work mentally and in a deeply connected way,” she says.

As an undergraduate at Smith College, Johanna’s interest in farming led her to create her own major, which she called “Political Economy of the Environment,” combining social and natural sciences to study the social justice implications of agriculture. The urban farming movement was not exactly the hot topic it is today.

“Now they have a major that deals with food and farming, but at the time, it was not offered by the college,” Johanna says. “The experience of deciding what I wanted to do and having to defend that decision was really formative.”

Johanna took that newfound determination into the AmeriCorps program. She had been farming every summer and applied her experience with the Urban Nutrition Initiative at University City High School. For four years, she led cooking and gardening programs for Philadelphia teens. Then, through her network, she heard about a parcel of land owned by the City Redevelopment Authority.

With a colleague and friend, Johanna proposed to use the land to start a farm. They won the contract and began Mill Creek Farm, building on the legacy of the existing community garden to expand food production onsite.

At the farm, they built green infrastructure, grew dozens of varieties of vegetables and hosted students of all ages to visit and work at the first farm. For many, it was the first farm they had ever seen, much less been able to walk to from their own homes. Most of the food grown was sold directly to the neighborhood, providing a much-needed source of affordable, fresh produce.

After eight years, once the farm had grown into a treasured local resource, Johanna began thinking about her next steps.

“We didn’t want the farm to be founder-led for too long,” she says. “As I thought about what I would do next, I wanted a master’s degree to help keep my options open.” She was introduced to Penn’s MES program through some professors that she collaborated with professionally, and chose to apply because of the program’s prestige, practicality and flexibility. “I saw that I could explore different topics while deciding exactly what I wanted to do—much like creating my own major as an undergraduate,” Johanna says. “And once in the program, I very quickly gravitated to my subject of interest: land preservation.”

Johanna learned about land trusts, easements and other intricacies of land policy, and took courses in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) at Penn Design. She took a few required classes to complete a certificate in Land Preservation in addition to her master's degree.

“The degree felt very practical,” Johanna says. “I was able to earn a certificate in Land Preservation and focus on the urban environment to address the land tenure questions we’d confronted at the farm. For my capstone project, I examined the larger context of land use and tried to make a case for preserving the land that Mill Creek is on for farming and gardening. I was able to articulate how preserving land as open space links back to the food system and issues of social justice.”

Once Johanna completed her degree, she began her transition out of leadership at Mill Creek and began to look for other jobs. The focus on land preservation that she’d found in the MES program led her to her current employment at the Equity Trust, a nonprofit in Massachusetts.

“The degree led very directly to the work I’m doing now,” she says. “Equity Trust hired me because of my background and education, my direct experience and my networks.”

At her job, Johanna is working to secure land tenure for agriculture in urban areas and beyond.

“Urban farming is rewarding work but often is not secure, because land is the basis for the work, and securing use of the land can be tricky. My job is to help farmers gain more security so they can invest in infrastructure and relationships,” Johanna says. “Tenure is critical to making these investments, which in turn are necessary to help these organizations grow.”

While Johanna still makes time to farm part-time, she believes her work at the Equity Trust is assuring the ability of farmers to invest in their businesses in the years to come. “I’m excited about getting to help people who are in similar situations to mine at Mill Creek,” she says, “and helping communities ensure a source of locally grown food for the long-term.”

Now, Mill Creek Farm is led by neighborhood resident Alkebu-Lan Marcus, the Farm Manager/Interim Director whose goal is to teach himself and others how to live more sustainably with each other and the earth—an approach right in line with Johanna’s vision for establishing the farm.