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  • Writer's pictureAlicia Shulman

Foresting Philly: Jasmine Thompson

Jasmine Thompson grew up in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. She spent two years working in Northern California with two organizations, Community Food Council of Del Norte County and the Adjacent Tribal Lands. There, she helped build food forests for the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation and the Yurok Tribes. She learned about agricultural justice, pursuing an equitable balance of power within the agricultural system, per the Agricultural Justice Project. When Jasmine moved back home to Philly, she sought ways to connect underserved communities to fresh, healthy, sustainable foods. She began by farming on a small plot at The Farm at Awbury Arboretum in 2020, launching a no-cost CSA.

In 2021, Jasmine converted Philly Forests to a traditional CSA that continues to serve the surrounding community. She hired Bakari Clark to expand the program to include reforestation services. Bakari spearheads Philly Forests’ efforts to plant free trees, shrubs, and perennials within the Philadelphia zip codes where the tree canopy is sparse. As part of Philly Forests, Jasmine is also an organizer/operator for the Germantown Farmers Market.

WinH: Welcome, Jasmine! Since returning to Philly from California, you’ve turned Philly Forests into a successful generator of what you refer to on your website as ‘ecological community development.’ In a relatively short time, your work has been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Grid, Eater Philadelphia, and other local media outlets. What accomplishments are you most proud of, and what is your vision for Philly Forests going forward?

JT: I am most proud of boosting food sovereignty in Northwest Philadelphia. We grow lots of crops that our customers enjoy, and our crop plans are incessantly informed by customer choice! I’m also proud to finally cultivate land and reap the benefits that come from land stewardship. I feel a peacefulness that is unique to farming and forestry all year long! I’m so grateful for that.

My vision for Philly Forests is to expand our amount of land in the Philadelphia region, and incorporate community-based wonder in ecology and CSA programs. There is so much fun to be had in tending plants and in kitchen creations. I’m excited to work with my team to find ways to boost morale and inspiration for plants, local food, and sustainable agriculture.

About Philly Forests: It’s interesting (and maybe unique?) how your organization serves two needs, producing local urban produce and expanding the tree canopy in Philadelphia. How do these two goals intersect? What are the similarities and what are the differences? Is there anything from the West Coast that still influences how you farm here? What do you draw on from science, and what do you draw on from generational wisdom, to do your work?

Both urban farming and urban forestry contribute to the strength and biodiversity of Philadelphia’s ecosystem. An increase in the number of plants improves air quality, soil health, presence and distribution of wildlife, emotional wellness and so much more. Both sectors maintain a powerful symbiotic relationship, offering food & shelter for beneficial insects, lowering dangerous temperatures in the summer, and food for neighbors to harvest, purchase, and share.

Urban farming and farmers market operations place strenuous physical demand on our bodies, while tending a tree or perennial garden bed offers a gentler relationship with nature. Having a wide scale through which to engage the community ensures greater participation in our mission.

I’m incessantly inspired by the permaculture design that my team executed in Northern California. Nutrient-exchanges in soil, pollination attraction, and growing habits deeply informed our plant procurement and placement in the food forests. At Philly Forests, we grow food with the intention to ethically engage our immediate environment. Annual and perennial flower hedges are planted for pollinators, fallen wood is used to fortify beds, and we rotate crops to maintain a diverse nutrient population in the soil.

Gardening has been a grounding force since my childhood. On weekends, I’d plant marigolds, impatiens, geraniums, and tomato plants in my front yard with my mom. It was so fun getting lost in the soil, becoming enamored by critters passing by, and sharing laughs and wonder with my mother.

Motivation: Where and when did your love for the intersections of food, health (health of the people, health of the land), and advocacy begin? Who or what have been your greatest influences? Was there a seminal moment that led you to choose this path, or did you always have interest in these things?

I began in this field with a great interest in community nutrition. I had a passion to alleviate the effects of institutional racism in our food system. Large corporations toting fast food, high salt and sugar plague Black and Brown neighborhoods. I began by educating communities about nutrition and advocating for healthy food access points in low-income communities.

Through heightening food sovereignty for Native tribes, I began to realize how a direct relationship with the land can bring healing from prejudice, a deepened understanding of whole foods, and a strengthened community bond. Philly Forests is a blend of all missions; we hope to create and sustain sovereign food systems that bring nourishment to our neighbors.

I’m a classical pianist and I began playing at 4 years old– I always thought I’d play for the Philadelphia Orchestra or otherwise perform professionally! I’m pleasantly thrilled to have found a career path in farming that I equally enjoy (if not more)!

Education: How did you learn how to farm? What was your most valuable education? What would you have done differently on your learning path, if anything? Are there degrees or certificates you’d still like to pursue related to horticulture/ecology/agriculture, etc? How would you advise young people today if they’re interested in farming, but don’t know where to start?

My farming education has been acquired over the years through working in various farm manager and horticulturist positions. I played intern and support roles in the early years and the experience allowed entry to more farm management positions later on. Agricultural education is never-ending and exciting! I attend conferences, classes, and learn valuable experiential lessons each year.

I would advise aspiring farmers and gardeners to volunteer at a local farm or grab a bed at a community garden. These avenues offer fun, low-stake learning opportunities to get your hands dirty!

About you: What does a typical day look like for you? How do you juggle multiple responsibilities? Are there particular organizations that you partner with? What is your favorite part of your work, and where do you struggle or need support? How do you make it fun? How do you sustain your energy and enthusiasm? What do you do when you aren’t working?

A typical day in the height of the growing season begins with me waking up at 6am, drinking coffee and accomplishing tasks scheduled on the previous Sunday evening. I usually head to the farm early to check on seedlings and finish strenuous tasks while the sun is still low in the sky. Then I usually check in with Bakari and we cheer each other on as we split up and tackle farmers market or tree nursery tasks. On weekends, market prep days start early to transport and package crops for the market day. Our team drinks coffee (of course) and shares favorite songs while cracking jokes, making signs, and bunching carrots!

Tree planting days are usually scheduled for Thursdays or Fridays. Bakari and I load up materials at the tree nursery and push off to the destination. We occasionally pull over, grab a snack, and share our wildest daydreams!

We partner with a wide range of community partners including Tree Philly, Awbury Arboretum, Historic Germantown, the Germantown United CDC, and more. They play crucial roles in our programming coming to life.

My favorite part of our work is deepening bonds between staff and community members. We become so familiar with their projects, thoughts, veggie likes/dislikes, and it truly strengthens the resilience of our neighborhood. I also love having fun and stimulating conversations with my crew. Weeding is often paired with thought-provoking questions and harvesting food is paired with dancing– the best!

Because we are still pretty nascent in this field, I’m spread thin a lot. Before and after a full, physical work day, I’m unable to finish (or start) admin tasks. Email response times are longer than average, but a larger team in 2022 will alleviate this.

When I’m not working, I’m cooking. Cooking soothes me beyond measure! I love spending hours creating beautiful dishes and feeding my family. I also play the piano and watch cooking competition shows!

Community: These are strange times, but there’s a lot to be hopeful about, too. What are some things happening in Philly (or the country, or the world) currently that really excite you? How can people who are interested in these same issues, but perhaps come from different perspectives (horticulturists, ecologists, activists, community leaders—women in particular!) network, listen to each other, and support each other in shared goals?

I am hands-down so excited about the global Slow Food Movement. There are so many facets of professional activism in the food system, and I’m most excited about one’s nourishment. Nourishment can be nutritional, emotional, cultural, and so much more. I want to increase desire in people to build nourishing, thoughtful food systems that cater to the whole person. Maintaining a connection to whole foods and intentionally pivoting from fast, convenient food options will bring holistic satiety. Slowing down, and connecting to gardens, meal preparation, and local food systems empowers folks to develop agency in food relationships on all tiers.

I encourage farmers, ecologists, horticulturists, and folks from similar disciplines to learn of the work that’s happening locally and find ways to ethically engage with each other. Having a pool of skills, strengths, and passions will round out offerings to the community and environment. Biodiversity is necessary for humans too!

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