First Fruits Farm takes its mission seriously and works diligently with distribution partners and thousands of volunteers. (Photos by PK Semler)

By PK Semler, Special to The AFRO

If the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, decided to leave his day job and establish a farm to feed the needy of Baltimore it would probably not even match the 200 acres First Fruits Farm of Pikesville-native Rick Bernstein.

First Farms, located in Freeland in Baltimore County near the Amish and Mennonite farms of Pennsylvania, has provided Baltimore and area faith-based food banks with over 18 million pounds of fresh locally produced vegetables picked by some 10,000 volunteers over the past two decades.

Bernstein, and his wife Carrol, started the farm in 1998 using 1/3 acre on their property before eventually expanding the farm to its current 200 acres and providing 2 million pounds of fresh produce a year to food banks run by Baltimore banks ranging the Archdiocese of Baltimore to from the Freedom 

Temple A.M.E. Zion in the Lakeland neighborhood of South Baltimore.

The farm, harvested by a never-ending flow of ecumenical volunteers, has done truly heroic work during the devastating Covid-19 crisis that forced many thousands to seek out food banks to feed their  families. 

Jenn Gillespie, the farm’s spokeswoman and former Baltimore school teacher, quickly notes that First Fruits mission is to provide the best and freshest food to the needy and not surplus or below prime quality produce as the farm’s mission is to give the best of the best to the neediest.

To further that goal, First Fruits is in the process of establishing a USD 1.2m food distribution and Packaging plant on the farm so that they can deliver individual packets of food.

“If you know Jeff Bezos, we would love to speak with him,” Gillespie says.

First Fruits Farm takes its mission seriously and works diligently with distribution partners and thousands of volunteers. (Photos by PK Semler)

Bernstein, who founded the farm as part of his Christian conversion, is not only feeding the body of the poorest of Baltimore but also the souls of all faiths who join hands in harvest.

“The saying is the most segregated time in America is 10 am on Sunday,” Bernstein said, and that his aim is to bring people together regardless of creed, race or social standing.  

In fact, the farm has an endless flow of groups ranging from 12-year-old school children, youths from Baltimore’s inner city or corporate retreats pitching in from 2 ½ hours to days to reap potatoes to nurturing tomatoes in the farm’s greenhouse.

It is common for members of all Abrahamic faiths to work the farm, with Muslims working with Jews and Catholics with Mormons.

Volunteers huddle while awaiting their instructions for the day (Photos by PK Semler)

The farm also acts as an educational center, with Mr. Bernstein giving lectures to eighth graders while the Italian Cultural Center of Maryland’s Monica Lepenta hosts cooking classes to groups of Baltimoreans to teach the finer points of deliciously healthy Italian cuisine.

An Italian native from Naples, Lapenta expanded her “Be A Chef for a Day” to Walter Carter Govan Elementary, where she taught afterschool classes on cooking making healthy food on budget before adding the program at Samuel F.B. Morse Center, Guilford Elementary and Middle School.

LePenta said cooking on a “budget” means abiding to US food stamp restrictions of a total spend of USD 25 for a family of five.

“Before I came to America, I had the idea of America from television that everyone was wealthy, had  a nice home,” Lepenta said. “The food deserts and level of hunger in these neighborhoods was more than shocking.”

The beauty of First Farms is that Mr. Bernstein, mutual fund manager and Ms. Gillespie are all self-taught farmers teaching what they learned by trial and error to all comers.

Bernstein said the farm is expanding their educational programs and outreach to the many Baltimoreans who find themselves trapped in the city’s inexplicable food deserts.

(Photos by PK Semler)

First Fruits also plans to bring educational body and soul experience to the food banks in the communities they serve.

Mr. Bernstein, who was in fact Baltimore’s Warren Buffett by travelling the world to find undervalued Stocks for then Baltimore’s asset manager Alex Brown before founding Brown Advisors, is bridging the horrible economic disparities of the haves and have nots of Baltimore symbolized by TransAmerica skyscraper overshadowing neighborhoods where a simple a supermarket with any fresh produce is considered a blessing.

Mr. Bernstein said First Fruits is expanding its volunteer program to allow visitors, especially those of depressed areas, to spend days to a week on the farm working the fields combined with a holistic  educational program.

It would not be surprising one day in the future to see the CEO of Dutch financial conglomerate that owns TransAmerica, Aegon’s CEO Lard Friese, picking potatoes with Barilla pasta owner Guido Barilla along with teens from East and West Baltimore.

This is the second article of a multi-media series “Securing the Bag,“ focusing on the most effective responses and solutions to Baltimore’s food insecurity; the series is funded by a grant from Solutions Journalism Network.