By Kristy MacKaben
For the Mirror
WILLIAMSBURG - There was a time last winter when John Favinger wondered whether he would have to sell his farm.
The 57-year-old carpenter by trade, had farmed the 22 acres in Williamsburg known as Friends Farm, since 1993 with his wife of 35 years, Christine Wise, 60.
Favinger and Wise raised their two daughters, Rita Biddle, 29, and Lila Corle, 26, on the farm, which has been offering Community Supported Agriculture for almost two decades. Their grandchildren, Makayla Corle and Keith Biddle, both 3, knew how to pick ripe raspberries from a bush and collect eggs from under a laying hen before most kids their age could say the word "chicken."
"We think we are called to do this. This is where God wants us to be," Wise said.
Farming was ingrained in their blood and they couldn't imagine life any other way.
But on Feb. 9, the day before their 35th anniversary, Favinger was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
There was chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, medications and hospital stays. The treatments and the cancer left Favinger drained and unable to work on the farm.
"I thought we were going to have to sell the farm because I couldn't do anything," Favinger said.
It pained Favinger and Wise to remotely consider the possibility because their life and livelihood were tied to Friends Farm, where they grow all organic, pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, and raise cage-free chickens and free-range cows and pigs without using growth-inducing hormones or antibiotics.
Little did they know Friends Farm would truly live up to its name over the years.
When Favinger and Wise bought the farm in 1992, it was unnamed.
"We could have named it after a person, but we wanted to name it Friends Farm because so many people have helped us from the very beginning," Wise said.
From the day they bought the farm, friends, neighbors, fellow farmers and community members have showed support and helped the family succeed.
"We just had all this amazing help and it continues. Here we are all these years later and it's still happening," Wise said.
After Favinger's diagnosis, there were fundraisers, volunteer work weekends and above all else, no one gave up on the farm.
"I didn't keep it a secret. The cancer fight really slowed me down," Favinger said. "We had lots of volunteer help and lots of customers."
Despite the risk of a poor crop season because of Favinger's illness, all the CSA shares were bought and customers, neighbors, friends and community members helped farm the fields and raise money for the family.
It has been eight months since the diagnosis and Favinger likes to say he's "cancer free."
He no longer needs radiation or chemotherapy treatments, the cancerous lumps in his esophagus are gone and the family is in full swing of the fall crop season.
How they got here
There's no doubt Favinger and Wise are farmers.
They look and act the part of the simple, down-to-earth land toilers.
But, they weren't always farmers, and they didn't always dream of owning a farm.
Favinger and Wise grew up in the same town - Royersford - but they didn't know each other growing up and probably wouldn't have crossed paths if they didn't end up living in the same apartment complex as young adults.
Wise, who had graduated from West Chester in 1972, was working as a nurse at a state hospital. After graduating from a vocational-technical high school in the area, Favinger was working as a carpenter.
"There were two apartments on the third floor and we both had one," Wise said.
As neighbors, Favinger and Wise gradually got to know one another and enjoyed going on bike rides.
They lived in the apartment building for five years until they got married and bought a little place with two acres in Chester Springs where Rita and Lila spent their young childhood.
Wise worked as a nurse while Favinger worked as a carpenter. They dabbled a little in organic farming by growing vegetables and fruits on raised garden beds, and eventually in a greenhouse Favinger built attached to the house.
Everything was grown organically because Wise and Favinger have a strong family history of cancer. Favinger's parents died of cancer and Wise's father battled lung cancer twice. With the family history, Wise and Favinger decided to do everything they could to help their children live healthy.
In the 1970s and '80s, organic farming (called homesteading back then) wasn't too popular, but Wise and Favinger researched and subscribed to magazines dedicated to the topic.
"I started growing these things in the greenhouse and he started taking them to work. Next thing you know people would say 'Do you have anything to sell?' I started selling plants and strawberries," Wise said. "Whatever it was we grew, people kept trying to buy it."
Farm gets makeover
The farm where they live and work looks nothing like the farm they bought in 1992.
The house, built in 1818, was gutted and remodeled by Favinger. A barn on the property was in such disrepair it was demolished and Favinger built the market building. Nobody had lived on the property for years, and the land had been farmed chemically for many years, so Favinger and Wise had to start from scratch.
While the house was being remodeled, Favinger and Wise attended a conference for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, and began to learn more about CSA, which involves locals buying shares in the crops. These customers pay a certain amount each season and in return receive produce every week. They share in the bounty and also the risk of farming.
The first year of growing fruits and vegetables, six families signed onto the CSA, which has grown to about 43 families, still one of the smallest CSA farms in the country, Wise said.
Long-time customers like Joan Fox of Hollidaysburg appreciate the efforts to farm organic. Fox and her husband, Tim, met Wise and Favinger because they also home-schooled their children.
"We did some organic foods. We were involved in natural health, but we didn't have a lot of resources," Fox said.
When Friends Farm opened, Fox immediately signed on.
"It's become a habit, but the closer to the way God made things, the happier I am to eat them," Fox said.
CSA customers visit the farm every Tuesday to pick up their fresh produce and baked goods, and Saturdays are for farmers' markets when the community is invited to buy produce, meat, baked goods and gifts.
Wise and Favinger might not have been born farmers, but the family is in it for the long haul.
"Farming organically is really important to us. It just seems like the right thing to do," Wise said.
The best part of farming is enjoying the harvest, Favinger said.
"I enjoy the finished product, the food on the table," Favinger said. "I don't want to be buried in a church cemetery. I want to be buried on the farm."