Leah Penniman | Photo: Samantha Isom
Leah Penniman | Samantha Isom

The Community Farm That Is Changing the Food System, One Seed at a Time

Farmer and activist Leah Penniman on how Soul Fire Farm is working to end racism and injustice in the food system in upstate New York.

When the quarantine first began, there was a lot of anxiety about food access among people who rarely think too much about such things. If the economy slowed, where would food come from? Circumstantial green thumbs emerged. If the future was unknown and all bets were off, maybe it was best to start growing things. But we cannot talk about food access without talking about divisions of class and race that have existed long before the pandemic came into play.

Food deserts, or urban neighborhoods where residents have a hard time finding affordable and quality food, exist disproportionately in historically underrepresented communities. More often than not, Black and brown neighborhoods have fewer large, well-stocked grocery stores than white neighborhoods, and the smaller options that do exist rarely offer healthy food. Food access is deeply entangled with race, poverty, and the history of slavery in America. Furthermore, white Americans not only have access to better quality food, but they also largely have access to the land that produces that food. The history of American racial injustice is inextricable from our contemporary food system, and many food justice activists and farmers are working to revolutionize and overturn the systems that uphold white supremacy within food production.

One such farmer and activist is Leah Penniman, author of Farming While Black and Co-Director/Farm Manager at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York. Soul Fire Farm describes itself on its website as “a BIPOC-centered community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system.” On their land in upstate New York, Soul Fire farmers use Afro-indigenous agroforestry, silvopasture, wildcrafting, polyculture, and spiritual farming practices to grow produce and nutrient-rich food for nearby communities affected by food apartheid. While the farm is very busy at the moment, undergoing expansions and renovations (click here to donate to their expansion efforts), Leah graciously spoke to me about food justice and Soul Fire’s mission.

Photos: Samantha Isom

How did Soul Fire Farm begin? 
Soul Fire Farm was born out of the yearning of a family in the south end of Albany back in 2005 to be able to feed their family fresh, ancestral, life-affirming foods. Living in a neighborhood under food apartheid -- with no farmer’s markets, supermarkets, or available community garden space -- it was very difficult to access that food. When their neighbors realized that this family had farming experience, they started to clamor for the farm for the people, and so Soul Fire Farm was born out of that community.

We found the land in 2006 -- the land found us -- and opened the farm in 2010. It started with doorstep delivery of fresh produce to families living right in that neighborhood, which expanded to many neighborhoods under food apartheid over the years. Over time, we’ve added youth programs, farmer training for Black and brown folx, building gardens, and training families experiencing food scarcity in how to grow their own food. We’re also organizing for racial justice in the food system, which means rights for farm workers, land access for farmers, fair prices, and so forth.

How would you describe the connection between food justice and racial justice?
Racial inequity is really built into the DNA of the US food system, from the genocidal theft of land from indigenous people to the kidnapping and forced labor of African-Americans on plantations to generate agricultural wealth, morphing into convict leasing, sharecropping, the migrant guest worker program, the list goes on... And so right now, we have a situation where being a farm manager is one of the whitest professions in the United States whereas being a farm laborer is one of the brownest professions in the United States. Ninety eight percent of rural arable land is owned by white people, which is the highest that it has ever been, and Black and brown folx are 3-4 times more likely to experience food insecurity and diet-related illness as compared to the population at large. We have huge systemic inequities in farming and food that need to be addressed through redistribution of land and through fair policies to support farm workers. Right now, farmers are not protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act, so they don’t have the right to a day off or to unionize many other standard worker protections. We need to address that as well as on the consumer side in terms of who has access to that food.

Photos: Samantha Isom

What are some recommendations you have for someone who wants to start growing their own food?
The good news is that the seed wants to become a plant. That is its destiny, and so all we need to do is help it a little along the way and there are lots of right ways to do things. For people who are just getting started, it is best to start small. You can start with just a jar of sprouts growing on your kitchen counter or a takeout container that you’ve turned into a mini salad garden on your windowsill. And as you build confidence, you can work up to container gardens and raised beds, and so forth. 

Another recommendation is, very likely there is an experienced gardener or farmer in your community who would like to share with you how they do it, so reach out to others for mentorship, and learn as you go.

What are some ways to get involved with and support Soul Fire?
To get involved and support Soul Fire certainly you can check out our website and there are a list of action steps to try to make a more racially just food system, including policies that you can advocate for, like H.R. 40 and the Fairness for Farm Workers Act. There’s also a list of organizations that are led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color working on food that you can donate to or reach out and offer your volunteer support. So definitely check out the “Take Action” page at Soulfirefarm.org.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

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Ned Riseley is a New York-based writer and performer.