Where Fernando Rodriguez grew up, in Sixth and Cambria in the heart of North Philadelphia, there were no trees.
But as he got older, Rodriguez — who had worked as a furniture deliverer, garbage collector, machinist, truck driver, and plumber after high school — still lived in the city but dreamed of big, open country stretches.
Today, Rodriguez lives on 112 acres on the outskirts of town, surrounded by cows, goats, sheep and chickens. He is a full-time farmer at Fox Chase Farm, which is owned by the city and operated by the Philadelphia School District.
How did he get there?
“Divine intervention,” Rodriguez said, laughing. “I never thought I would become a farmer. I wake up in a farmhouse that was built in the 18th century and I visit historical land every day and it’s still kind of weird.”
Rodriguez attended Roxborough High but left town to finish high school in New Jersey because he “got into trouble.” After graduating, he attended Community College of Philadelphia but dropped out after a year when he learned he was about to become a father.
What followed was not a career, but a series of manual activities. Rodriguez is smart and always worked hard, but none of these works made him feel particularly fulfilled.
“Most things I wasn’t passionate about,” he said. “I did it because I needed a paycheck.”
Eventually, Rodriguez became an apprentice plumber for the Philadelphia School District. But it wasn’t a permanent job; Rodriguez and his wife had their eyes on a different life — they moved to Arizona and bought a large piece of land. He worked for the school system but took classes through local agricultural extension agencies and learned as much as he could about farming.
One day, Rodriguez was hired to do plumbing work at Fox Chase Farm, one of three farms the district maintains. (The others are Saul High School, their agricultural college in Roxborough, and nearby Manatawna Farm.)
He was surprised that such a gem was hidden on Pine Road in Northeast Philadelphia. Eventually he began volunteering on the farm. And when the position as a resident farmer opened up, Rodriguez applied.
Mandy Fellouzis, the farm manager, interviewed a number of people, including those who grew up on farms, but Rodriguez stood out.
“Ultimately, I can’t convey motivation and drive,” said Fellouzis. “I can help teach the farm’s cows and plows, but he brought the ambition, drive and courage.”
Rodriguez landed the job in 2020 and moved his family from their Germantown home to Fox Chase’s farm. It was a learning experience for his wife and older children, Elijah, 13, and Trinity, 11. (Elijah will be helping with the farm work, but Trinity hasn’t come up with the idea of using farm scents, and still is stuck at the town’s children’s camp.) Catalina, 2, was a baby when the Rodriguez family moved to the farm; Backyard chickens are all she’s ever known.
When Rodriguez told his extended family that he’d gotten a job farming — in Philadelphia, no less — “everyone was incredulous at first,” he said. “Their first question was, ‘A farm? With animals? Are you a farmer?’”
Rodriguez knows that to many people, whoever holds his job should be “a guy with a white beard,” and he’s not. He’s 33 with a Philly accent and the life experiences to match.
But Fox Chase Farm exists to teach farming to city children; 30,000 visitors come annually and there are many student volunteers. Rodriguez’s job is certainly about work, but it’s also about management and education.
“It’s a kid’s gold mine in town — when you’re from where we’re from it’s like, ‘Aaaaahhhhhh,'” Rodriguez said, taking a deep breath and smiling.
He wonders if he would have become a farmer sooner if he had known about the farming opportunities in the city. He finds it exciting to offer this opportunity to other city kids.
“It’s just showing up and finding out what they want to do,” Rodriguez said. “Even if you come and shovel crap and work and know it’s not for you, at least you’ve got it off your list.”
No question if it suits Rodriguez, who now gets up before the sun every day to start his farm work. It can be overwhelming both physically and mentally—the need to anticipate the seasons, tend to animals, cut hay, stay up all night to see cows calve and goats crack jokes. (Yes, that’s what it’s called when goats give birth.)
“It’s not the same every day and this is my favorite,” said Rodriguez. “There is always something to work towards or do.”
On a brisk Monday, Rodriguez made his rounds through the fields, looking after the herd of beef cows (“that’s a 1,600-pound lapdog,” he said, scratching affectionately under the chin of a brown sweetheart, who gazed at him with soulful eyes). , made notes about moving the herd to another field with a water source that doesn’t freeze when it gets colder.
Rodriguez still picks up as much continuing education as he can, taking online farming classes or attending seminars when he can be away. He and Fellouzis are trying to make the farm better for all of the district’s students who speak 166 languages, adding plants and animals native to all parts of the world. And he’s trying to make the farm fully organic, letting the cows fertilize the fields naturally instead of using chemicals.
“The things you learn as a farmer: There are people who are liquid manure brokers,” Rodriguez said. “They make a career as a Doo-Doo salesman.”
No doubt: Rodriguez has big dreams, both in terms of farming and public relations.
“It’s important, one of the basic things in life; Our food comes from farms,” Rodriguez said. “There’s no reason our neighborhoods should be food deserts. We have enough good land, even in the city, but it’s this dependency mentality, like you can only go to the grocery store to buy groceries.”
As passionate as Rodriguez finds the work, he also finds it peaceful, unlike what any job has ever felt like.
As a machinist, Rodriguez knew he would go to work every day to find the same amount of metal to fasten into screws or bolts as he had the day before. Eventually the things he made would come in handy, but he never saw them or connected to them.
“Now when I see the animals, the country and the end of the season, it’s just very different,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a different life.”