There were no trees where Fernando Rodriguez grew up, at Sixth and Cambria in the heart of North Philadelphia.
But as he got older, Rodriguez — who’d worked as a furniture delivery person, a garbage collector, a machinist, a truck driver, and a plumber after graduating from high school — found himself still living in the city, but dreaming of large , open swaths of land.
These days, Rodriguez lives on 112 acres at the edge of the city, surrounded by cows, goats, sheep, and chickens. He’s the full-time resident farmer at Fox Chase Farm, which is owned by the city and run by the Philadelphia School District.
How did he get there?
“Divine intervention,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “I never thought I would farm. I wake up in a farmhouse that was built in the 1800s, and I go to farm historical land every day, and it’s still kind of weird.”
Rodriguez attended Roxborough High, but left the city to finish high school in New Jersey because he “was getting into some trouble.” After graduation, he attended Community College of Philadelphia, but left after a year when he learned he would soon become a father.
What followed was not a career, but a series of manual jobs. Rodriguez is smart and always worked hard, but none of that work 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 forever job; Rodriguez and his wife had their eye on a different kind of life — moving to Arizona, buying a large plot of land. He worked for the school system but took classes through local agricultural extension agencies, learning as much as he could about farming.
One day, Rodriguez got assigned plumbing work at Fox Chase Farm, one of three the district maintains. (The others are Saul High School, its agricultural school in Roxborough, and nearby Manatawna Farm.)
He was surprised that such a gem was tucked away on Pine Road in Northeast Philadelphia. Eventually, he started volunteering at the farm. And when the resident farmer job came open, Rodriguez applied.
Mandy Fellouzis, the farm administrator, interviewed a number of people, including those who had grown up on farms, but Rodriguez stood out.
“At the end of the day, I can’t teach motivation and drive,” said Fellouzis. “I can help teach the cows and plows side of the farm, but he brought the ambition and drive and grit.”
Rodriguez got the job in 2020, moving his family from their home in Germantown to the Fox Chase farm. It’s been a learning experience for his wife, and older children Elijah, 13, and Trinity, 11. (Elijah will help with farm chores, but Trinity has not come around to the idea of farm smells and is still firmly in the city kid camp .) Catalina, 2, was a baby when the Rodriguez family moved to the farm; chickens in the backyard are all she’s ever known.
At first, when Rodriguez told his extended family he had gotten a job as a farmer — in Philadelphia, no less — “everybody was in disbelief,” he said. “Their first question was, ‘A farm? With animals? You’re a farmer?’”
Rodriguez knows that to many people, someone who holds his job should be “some white-bearded dude,” and that’s not him. He’s 33, with a Philly accent and the life experiences to go with it.
But Fox Chase Farm exists to teach city children about agriculture; 30,000 people visit annually, and student volunteers abound. Rodriguez’s job is about labor, certainly, but it’s also about management and education.
“This is a gold mine for kids in the city — when you come from where we come from, coming here is like, ‘Aaaaahhhhhh,'” Rodriguez said, releasing a big breath of air and smiling.
He wonders if he would have ended up a farmer sooner had he known about agricultural opportunities in the city. He finds providing that opportunity for other city kids to be exciting.
“It’s just about exposure, figuring out what they want to do,” said Rodriguez. “Even if you come and shovel manure and do labor and know it’s not for you, at least you knocked it off your list.”
There’s no question whether it suits Rodriguez, who now rises before the sun to start his farm work every day. It can be overwhelming, physically, and mentally too — the need to think seasons ahead, to care for animals, cut hay, stay up all night when cows are calving and goats are kidding. (Yep, that’s what it’s called when goats give birth.)
“It’s not the same every day, and that’s my favorite,” said Rodriguez. “There’s always something that you’ve got to work towards, or do.”
On a brisk Monday, Rodriguez made his rounds through the fields, checking on the herd of beef cows (“this one’s a 1,600-pound lapdog,” he said, affectionately scratching under the chin of a brown sweetheart looking at him with soulful eyes) , making notes to himself about moving the herd to another field with a water source that won’t freeze as it gets colder.
Rodriguez still absorbs as much continuing education as he can, taking online agricultural classes or attending seminars when he can get away. He and Fellouzis are attempting to make the farm more reflective of all 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 completely organic, letting the cows fertilize the fields naturally, instead of using chemicals.
“The things you learn being a farmer: there are people who are manure brokers,” Rodriguez said. “They make a career selling doo-doo.”
No doubt: Rodriguez has big dreams, both in terms of farming and outreach.
“This is important, one of the fundamental things in life; farms are where our food comes from,” Rodriguez said. “There’s no reason for any of our neighborhoods to 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 for food.”
As passionate as Rodriguez feels about the work, he also finds it peaceful, different than any job he has ever felt.
When he was a machinist, Rodriguez knew every day he would walk into work to find the same amount of metal to fasten into screws or bolts he had the day before. Eventually, the things he made would be useful, but he never saw or connected to it.
“Now, seeing the animals, the land, and the end of the season, it’s just totally different,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a different life.”