Food | Home & Garden | Local

Felicia’s Farm honors memory of founder’s wife by feeding hungry Tucsonans

Felicia CutlerThe late Felicia Cutler was the inspiration for Felicia’s Farm in Tucson. (Courtesy Felicia’s Farm.)
A young volunteer works with the chickens at Felicia’s Farm, located on River Road in Tucson. (Courtesy Felicia’s Farm)

Showing kindness to others is the best feeling in the world. So says David Cutler, founder of Felicia’s Farm in central Tucson. All of the farm’s fresh produce and eggs are donated to organizations that provide for people who might otherwise go hungry. Staff and volunteers regularly reap the benefits of kindness.

Cutler started this farm about six months after his first wife, Felicia, died in June 2009. “I wanted to do something to honor her memory. She loved to take care of people and feed people and have guests in our home,” he recalls.  “One day I woke up and immediately had the idea to start a garden to feed the homeless and others struggling to put food on the table. For everything bad that happens something good can come out of it, and over the years the success of the garden has been pretty emotional for me.” Cutler’s three children, all adults now, are either on the Felicia’s Farm board or help out in the garden. Cutler’s second wife, Leah, also helps with fundraising, publicity, and looking for ways to run the farm more efficiently.

The farm began with one greenhouse on four acres behind Cutler’s house. It has had its ups and downs, including a $5,000 bill from Tucson Water before switching to well water. Along with another property Cutler owns, there are about seven acres under cultivation. Attracting volunteers to do farm work has never been a problem.

David and Leah Cutler with a photo acknowledging Felicia’s Farm’s support of Tucson Cancer Conquerors. (Courtesy Felicia’s Farm)

“So many people from across the Tucson community have come out to help, and have told us what a great thing it is to volunteer at the farm,” says Cutler.

Cathy Lolwing started in 2010 as a volunteer, and eventually was hired as the outreach and education director. “I love it that the volunteers come out and really work and sweat,” she says. “The volunteers do whatever needs to be done that day — it could be anything from harvesting a crop to shoveling manure. But no matter what work we have for the volunteers, they keep coming back.”

Before Judy Schreffler and her husband retired to Tucson in 2018, Schreffler had her own garden and volunteered at a small farm in Pennsylvania similar to Felicia’s. She discovered Felicia’s Farm online. “I would work at Felicia’s about five hours a week, and it’s great to be outside, and you meet nice people,” says Schreffler. “I did whatever was needed — harvesting, weeding, cutting branches, or helping with the chickens.

“It is a prime focus in my life to give back and working on the farm is rewarding, and there’s instant gratification when you see the produce bagged up for delivery and you know it’s going to help people,” she says.

Cabbage and other greens grow at Felicia’s Farm. (Courtesy Felicia’s Farm)

Normally, up to 300 people volunteer each month at Felicia’s Farm. They just show up during designated hours. But since the coronavirus pandemic, the situation has changed, and the farm is currently closed to volunteers. Lolwing says the board is re-evaluating how they will run the farm. They are trying to decide when to allow volunteers to return, and if volunteers will need to sign up beforehand or go through a training program. The staff members who now handle the produce and eggs wear masks and gloves, staying at least 6 feet apart from each other, and Lolwing says volunteers also will need to take these precautions.

Felicia’s Farm, a 501(c)(3) charity, usually donates up to 1,000 pounds of produce and 170 dozen eggs weekly to non-profit organizations in Tucson, including Casa Maria Soup Kitchen, Casa San Juan, Our Place Clubhouse, Little Chapel of All Faiths,  and Lend A Hand Senior Assistance. Even with the reduced crew, the farm is delivering up to 700 pounds of produce per week. The farm’s 600 chickens produce 25 to 30 dozen eggs per day.

“Felicia’s Farm has been a huge help to us,” says Brian Flagg, manager of Casa Maria. “We serve up to hundreds of people per day and many families, and Felicia’s is our main source of fresh produce.” Casa Maria receives produce including tomatoes, peppers, radishes, melons, onions, and garlic, as well as fresh eggs. They hand out packed lunches and soup every day. Flagg says that people especially appreciate the hard-boiled eggs because many times it is their only source of protein for the day.

“I am very grateful to David, he is a really good guy, and he is doing something cool to help the community,” says Flagg. “There is a certain amount of dignity in growing food and giving it away to those in need.

“Felicia’s provides us with top notch tasty and nutritious food. We have no specific recipes but we creatively throw together a soup with whatever is on hand — we cook with love and spirit.”

Marvin Kirchler, the new executive director for Felicia’s Farm, has a long history of working with nonprofit organizations. He and his wife, Joyce Feickert, own Hem and Her Bridal and have been business owners in Tucson for nearly 40 years. Friends with the Cutlers, they knew Felicia, and have helped with the farm since its inception.

“As a Jew, I live each day with the intention of doing mitzvahs,” says Kirchler. “”What greater mitzvah is there than feeding the hungry? When performing a mitzvah you are not looking for reciprocal gifts, but you do reap rewards.”

Eggplants, peppers and squash from Felicia’s Farm are ready for delivery to Tucson nonprofits that feed the needy. (Courtesy Felicia’s Farm)

“The farm is dear to me not only because it honors Felicia and the work she started,” says Cutler, “but also because of how important providing food to people in need ties in with Jewish concepts.” He adds that his father, a seventh-generation rabbi, taught his children to give not only money, but time — to give of themselves — and that the more you give the more you get in return.

“It is important for Jews to let the rest of the world know about the amazing things we do to help others,” Cutler believes. “When we work with groups representing different faiths we can accomplish so much more. The organizations we have worked with have made everything bigger and better.”

Flagg, who is Catholic, says interfaith cooperation is important because “people have way more in common than they have differences, and we need to do everything we can to help each other live good, dignified lives.” He is impressed that Rabbi Billy Lewkowicz brings Tucson Hebrew Academy students to Casa Maria to make sandwiches rather than preparing food somewhere else. People of different faiths should not be isolated from each other, he adds, and should put their faith and values into action.

“It is a natural fit that we became involved with Casa Maria because my kids attended Tucson Hebrew Academy and went to Casa Maria to prepare sandwiches,” Cutler says.

What does the future, considering, COVID-19, hold for Felicia’s Farm? Kirchler says it is hard to anticipate exactly what the future will bring, but the farm will continue to donate 100% of its produce and eggs.

“It is important for us to convince people to be partners in our mission,” Kirchler says. “The pandemic has created more need in the community [with lost jobs], and we want more friends who will donate whatever they can. The people who need our help are not just statistics, they might be our neighbors.”

The farm has typically offered tours and educational opportunities to business, school, and other groups. These also are now on hold, but both Cutler and Kirchler feel that this important aspect will still be part of the farm.

“We are looking forward to continued growth at the farm,” Cutler predicts. “There may be a ‘new normal,’ with social distancing and proper medical precautions, but we will always do a lot of good, providing food and education. We will find new, better ways to do our work.”

Cutler insists that if someone had told him at the beginning how successful the farm would be, he would not have believed it. “It is what it is today with help from G-d and a lot of wonderful people,” he says.

For more information, visit www.feliciasfarm.org.