Organic Broadcaster

Soul Fire Farm founder talks farming strategy, vision for future of food movement

By Molly Rockamann

Leah Penniman, the author of Farming While Black, will present a keynote at the 2020 MOSES Organic Farming Conference. Photo by Capers Rumph

Leah Penniman presents the Friday keynote, “Uprooting Racism; Seeding Sovereignty” at this year’s MOSES Organic Farming Conference. A true farmer-hero to me and many others, Leah recently talked with me about her farm, her experiences, and some exciting changes she’s collaborating on in the organic farming movement.

You lead a very full life and seem to be constantly on the move speaking and leading workshops. When you’re home on the farm, goodness knows the work never ends. Can you tell us about “a day in the life of Leah”?

There really is not a typical day for me here at Soul Fire Farm. The past couple days have included a lot of policy work which characterizes the winter. For example, I had a meeting with the commissioner for ag for New York State, Richard Ball, to discuss the needs of black farmers, and just finished up a meeting with Susan Zimet who is the Hunger Policy Coordinator for New York State about food justice, so there’s quite a bit of that type of work. I’m getting ready to head out to Philadelphia tomorrow to keynote the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network Conference. In the summer, of course, it looks more like hands-on farming and teaching farming; in the wintertime, a lot more policy, advocacy, and coalition-building.

I was struck by the story of your farm’s beginnings. You were living in a part of Albany, New York, considered to be a food desert. Your neighbors found out that you and your husband had farming experience and asked whether you’d start a farm. So you did. We know that land access is one of the greatest hurdles for young farmers. Can you tell us how you overcame this major hurdle?

We were living in the South End of Albany where it was very difficult to get fresh food for our children, despite our educational privilege and our knowing of how to farm. We did want to start a farm that embodied the principles of “to free ourselves, we must feed ourselves” and to take responsibility for our community food security.

Land certainly is a challenge. The way we overcame that is that we purchased land that is marginal. The USDA ranks land in terms of its suitability for farming on a scale of 1 to 13 with 1 being the best; ours is 13, being least suitable and that’s why it cost $2,000 an acre. It’s also quite far from markets. But that’s what we could afford and we were able to purchase the land with the savings from my public-school teaching job.

I love the name of your farm. Can you tell us why you chose that name?

The name Soul Fire Farm actually comes from a Lee “Scratch” Perry song called “Soul Fire,” and it resonated with us because we really do the work from a place of commitment to spiritual activism, of soul force, and the fire refers to the passion we have for making positive change in the world.

Can you tell us more about your farm?

It’s in Grafton, New York (about 3-1/2 hours north of New York City). We have 80 acres, of which we intensively manage about 7 acres in annual and perennial crops, and the remainder is managed woodlot. The soil is Buckland gravelly clay. It is very dense and difficult to work. It does retain water and nutrients very well, so that’s a blessing. However, there are always issues with flooding and waterlogging, and heavy equipment doesn’t get along too well with the soil we have here.

What crops do you grow and what animals do you raise?

We have about 5 acres of silvopasture, a herd of Katahdin sheep, 50 layer chickens, about 300 broilers (Freedom Rangers), honeybees and 30 hogs. We also have a couple acres of perennial agroforest—an intercrop of crops like hazelnuts, apples, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries together with perennial herbs. And, then another acre of annual crops—vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, onions, and so forth, and two 80-foot high tunnels that also have hot-season annual crops.

What do you consider to be the most important soil-building practice of your farm?

No-till. Instead of using heavy equipment to till, we use a combination of tarping to manage the weeds as well as building up the soil over time instead of digging down. We’re adding heavy mulches, cover crops, compost, and then managing that with our tarps or paper mulching as a weed barrier.

What are some of the greatest insect or weed challenges you’ve faced on your farm, and how have you handled them?

We definitely have our share of insect challenges, but I would say that they’re not so bad because we have a very diversified operation with a lot of intercropping and crop rotation. Our past challenges have been pretty manageable; occasionally we’ll lose the chard to leaf miner. We had a problem with root rot nematode in the alliums a couple years ago, but those seem to be isolated and then manageable.

Weeds are definitely a huge issue because we’re committed to no-till. We’ve lost some whole beds of crops to weeds when we don’t get the timing quite right with the tarping. We just continue to refine our methods and we’re confident that next year will be a good year. It’s just never, ever letting that soil lie bare and exposed; it’s got to always be in some type of opaque mulch, and then we’re good to go.

From what I can tell, your farm’s main distribution model seems to be a sliding-scale CSA. This is something that I think, for many farmers, seems great in theory but difficult in practice. Can you tell us how you’ve made it work? What are the biggest limitations and greatest opportunities of such a model?

Yes, in 2019 our farm’s main distribution model was the sliding-scale CSA. We did this for nine years. We are shifting out of it, not because it didn’t work—it actually works great. We’re just shifting focus to better meet the needs of our community. We had 110 members with doorstep delivery; people paid what they could afford.

What’s great about it for the farmer is with 100% CSA you can really predict and manage the amount of crop you need to grow, and there is almost no waste. Everything is bought ahead of time. Also, we found that doing doorstep delivery actually is less time-intensive than doing something like a farmers market, with more guarantee that you’re actually getting your crop out there.

So a lot of the things work really well; I think one of the challenges is that for very low-income people, who are maybe less familiar with the CSA model, there’s quite a bit of communication necessary and back and forth and modification to make the program work, which can be labor-intensive on the administrative side. So that’s something that needs to be taken into consideration. One of the ways we surmounted that is we made relationships with some institutions in the community that support distribution—organizations like the Refugee Welcome Center that will take 10 or 20 boxes and go ahead and distribute those to their patrons.

In the intro of your book Farming While Black, you share your background as a person of color in mostly white spaces like farming conferences, and how that affected your view of what type of work and activism you were “supposed to do.” With Soul Fire Farm’s programs and with your book, you’re helping to change that for other young people of color who might also find inspiration and their life’s work in agriculture and the food system. Are you seeing changes in those same spaces and conversations? Do you see more leadership and voices of people of color reflected?

Absolutely, things are certainly changing. One of the most powerful things is that I’m seeing more visibility of the powerful black- and brown-led farming organizations that have existed for a really long time. When I was coming up, I didn’t know anything about the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. I didn’t know anything about Operation Spring Plant, which is a food hub in the South. I didn’t know about the Land Loss Prevention Project. So, it’s been really powerful to see some of these organizations getting more visibility and us as younger farmers coming into the market being able to connect with these elders to learn from them.

There are also a number of newer organizations that have sprung up, including BUGS (Black Urban Growers) and organizations like the Black Farmer Fund in New York and Northeast Farmers of Color. It’s been great to see spaces where our leadership and our voices can really be heard and we can make sure that projects really benefit our community.

Last year, you led a workshop at the MOSES Conference that was my favorite one. Your way of weaving together history and acknowledgment of ancestral practices with how we can do better for each other right now was incredible. Most especially, I was very moved by where you said you were headed afterwards—to meet people who are from the tribe whose land you are on. Can you share more about that?

Yes, right after the conference I went up to the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Reservation in Bowler, Wisconsin. We are collaborating in a number of ways with the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican people who are the original stewards of the land that is Soul Fire. One of those ways is by growing some of the seeds that they originally domesticated such as bee balm, which they call #6, their medicine, and the Calico popcorn. We grow out the seeds and when we sell the seeds all the proceeds go to the reservation. We also are in the process of drafting a cultural respect easement which will allow tribal members to use the land of Soul Fire Farm for wildcrafting and for ceremony. So that’s a negotiation that we’re having right now.
Acknowledging that the U.S. food system was built on stolen land and stolen labor, you are part of the Northeast Farmers of Color Network claiming your sovereignty and calling for reparations of land and resources. This seems to be a pivotal step in American agriculture. Do you have any advice for groups interested in working on this in the Midwest?

This is very, very exciting. The Northeast Farmers of Color Network, and specifically the land trust, are working very hard on land rematriation, which means land returned to indigenous people and also to black farmers. Right now, we have a map that actually covers much of the country that matches up people of color doing land-based work with folks who have resources. It’s called Reparations Map. And we’ve had over 30 successes, matching people in that way to resources that they need.

The land trust is still in the process of getting its paperwork approved by the government so that it can actually hold land. But, we have a number of donors lined up who want to give their land back so that’s very exciting for us. And, we are certainly open to sharing all of our founding documents and strategic work with anyone in the Midwest who might be interested in doing something similar because our vision is a network of these community-based land trusts all around the country. I recommend also checking out the work of the Agrarian Trust, which is a collaborating organization that provides a lot of technical assistance.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

To remember that when we talk about justice in the food system we need to be thinking about the fact that the vast majority of the labor that’s done on farms is done by people of color and around 85% of farmworkers are Latino or Latinx, while only about 2% of managers are people of color. So, a big part of justice is going to look like how we support these really expert farmers—who sometimes have decades of experience—in becoming producers and entrepreneurs that have the autonomy associated with running their own businesses. And also, to make sure that laws are in place to treat farmworkers well, so supporting the Fairness for Farmworkers Act.

Molly Rockamann is Founding Director of EarthDance Organic Farm School in Ferguson, Missouri. She serves on the MOSES Board of Directors.


From the January | February 2020 Issue


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