To hear Leah Penniman, Co-Executive Director and Program Manager of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NY, describe the act of farming is to discover an elegance in simplicity and a renewed respect for Mother Earth.
“It was good in the way that few things in this world are,” Penniman says of her first experience with farming 23 years ago. “The producing of food in our community in a way that sustainably took care of the land was an anchor during those tumultuous teen years.”
For Penniman, it wasn’t enough to do. She wanted to learn and, in turn, share the knowledge. After pursuing an MA in Science Education and a BA in Environmental Science, Penniman worked in urban schools and farmed in the summers. In 2006, Penniman and her partner found themselves living in the South End of Albany, New York. Their neighborhood was a food apartheid—a more accurately encompassing term than ‘food desert’, depicting an area that has a lack of access to nutritional food as a result of politics and racial segregation. Penniman describes the neighborhood as one with no supermarket, no farmers markets, and no available garden plots. To counter this, Penniman and her partner began to farm their own soil. When the neighbors discovered this, they began contributing requests that soon outweighed what the small patch of land could provide.
“We started looking for land in the outlying areas,” Penniman describes. “We found this degraded and marginal mountainside property of 80 acres.”
That desolate piece of property has now become a home to Penniman, her family, and eight other individuals who work on the farm. Over the years, they physically built a home (made of clay, straw, and wood of the land with solar aspects), put in a well, and regenerated the soil. In addition to the main house, they also built two apartment houses, out buildings, program spaces, a barn, and shop houses, collectively known as Soul Fire Farm.
Throughout the process, the Soul Fire Farm team made the most of what the community had to offer. For example, the insulation in the buildings all came from a school that was being torn down. “We built everything by hand, bit by bit,” Penniman proudly continues. “Local, natural, recyclable materials.”
Bit by bit, Soul Fire Farm began to feed the surrounding community by providing them with fresh produce. Soon, the requests came pouring in for more than just food. “Some of the parents involved in getting the food were saying that their kids don’t have anything to do in the summer and are getting harassed by the police,” Penniman says. “So we started youth programs.” These programs consisted of daytime field trips as well as overnight seminars. They also began a training in collaboration with the Albany county of corrections for juvenile offenders accused of committing minor crimes. The program, which has now ended, was an alternative to incarceration. Juveniles would come and do leadership training with Soul Fire Farm, earning a stipend and growing from a supportive learning system.
“Our objective is not to make a bunch of new farmers but to help [them] understand that more is possible for them than they might have originally been taught,” Penniman explains.
Since the inception of these programs, Soul Fire Farm has had an influx of urban black youth participation.
“It’s incarceration, death, or toe the corporate line,” Penniman continues, outlining the mindset with which these youths attend the programming she organizes. “But then they come out here and they see muralists and trapeze artists and people who build their own homes and grow their own food. It’s about teaching them, ‘The dreams that I have for myself are actionable.’ ”
As Soul Fire Farm’s mission grew in popularity—with recognition from the Soros Racial Justice Fellowship, the Fulbright Program, and more—people began reaching out from all over the country. They now have established Farmers Immersion and Builders Immersion programs as well as apprenticeships. According to an interview that the James Beard Foundation conducted with Penniman, “Soul Fire Farm welcomes at least 7,000 people per year from the U.S. and beyond from wide-ranging backgrounds, many of them black, indigenous, Latinx, and Asian. Participants learn farming and cooking skills, receive leadership training, and learn about social justice activism.”
Despite the strides they’ve made in training, support, and awareness, Soul Fire Farm and its graduates face systemic challenges daily. The USDA census showed that 98% of farmable land is currently owned by white people in the United States. This is the highest that percentage has ever been. Black, brown and indigenous farmers face tremendous land loss as a result of institutional discrimination. To combat this, Soul Fire Farm is working on national policies to make farm labor laws fairer. “We need fair wages, child protection, rights to days off, access to food,” Penniman enumerates. “We’re trying to change the farm bill to make access to food simplified and more abundant for low income people.”
When they’re not facing external pushback, farmers often grapple with the inherent trauma of land work and ownership. “It’s not uncommon for an African American person to come to the farm and have their first association be slavery and the whip,” Penniman reports. “Noble, dignified agrarian traditions all came from African farmers—worm composting, raised beds, irrigation—but we need to reclaim our story of belonging to this land and this life. We’re part of a returning generation of black farmers.”
Penniman published the book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, to help increase awareness with regards to these challenges as well as to provide a practical guidance. Testimonials from around the country refer to it as their “agri-bible”.
For all the admirable work Soul Fire Farm has done, there is much left to do. Penniman and her team recently interviewed hundreds of current and aspiring black and brown farmers on what needs to happen to improve our food system. Here’s how you can help.
“Eating more lettuce is great,” Penniman jokes. “But creating the future you want is even better.”
This past June, Penniman was a recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Leadership Awards for her work with Soul Fire Farm. “[The Foundation] has made a smart choice in thinking about the folks on the ground doing frontline work on food access and dignity for farm workers. I applaud the foundation for that. For me, it’s not so much about fame or glory but getting more people on board with making the food system just and fair and sustainable.”