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In Salem County, farming links Black and Jewish families — and history

By Kevin Riordan, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

In lieu of rent, the Levins accept a portion of the crops, which they then sell to raise money for ACRe. To move more of what they produce, Joe and Kenny recently set up a stand on the Levin property; Bartee family members are selling tomatoes, greens, sweet potatoes, okra, carrots, beans, and other crops that have flourished this year despite the long, hot, too-much-rain summer.

The Bartees farm according to organic guidelines - a labor-intensive approach that avoids the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides. It's a challenge, but the Bartees have been willing to give it a try.

"The soil is better in some spots than others, but none of it is bad," said Kenny, who remembers sitting on his grandfather's lap as a child and "driving" the tractor on about 100 rented acres that Joe farmed for decades beginning in the 1970s.

Joe, Kenny, and family friend Andrew Swinton, who call themselves "the trifecta," do pretty much everything but the picking, for which they hire seasonal workers. "Joe's the brains, and me and Kenny do the footwork," said Swinton, of Millville.

"William (Levin) is a good guy," Kenny said. "When we first started (K & J), funding was a little crazy, and he helped us out. And when he needs something, we help him out."

Recently, for example, Kenny cleared debris on a vacant field for William, and Malya sought buyers for a quantity of green beans Joe needed to sell quickly, before their freshness faded.

 

COVID-19 has put an end, for now, to the lively schedule of religious services and cultural gatherings the Levins organized through ACRe. They intend to eventually resume the religious and cultural programs, and have spun off the farm as a separate commercial enterprise.

"We are working with the Bartees because they have the expertise to manage farmland on our scale, and are willing to (adhere to) organic regulations," Malya Levin said. "Both of (the partners) need to create something that is economically profitable through this farming operation. That shared goal is the basis of our partnership."

Joe Bartee, 77, earned his expertise growing up in the third generation of a Georgia farming family. After moving to South Jersey in 1960, he worked two full-time jobs - auto mechanic and farmer - for 36 years. He'd been retired for 11 years before launching the new venture with Kenny, a father of seven who had held manufacturing and auto-related jobs and wanted to build something for his family.

"Since we opened the stand, so many people are coming in, and coming from out of town," he said. "We have a vision for the stand, having maybe a second location." As a lively new logo, bright orange T-shirts and a sleek promotional video attest, K & J is building a brand. "We want to see how far we can go with it," said Kenny.

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