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Taking on Food Justice with Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm

As a creative educator, regenerative farmer, writer and activist, Leah Penniman is an exceptional leader for food justice. She is best known for her work at Soul Fire Farm, which she and husband Jonah Vitale-Wolff started as an organic family farm committed to “the dismantling of oppressive structures that misguide our food system.”

Soul Fire Farm is entering its ninth year of growing healthy food for the couple’s former urban neighbors in Albany and Troy, New York. Since coming to the land over a decade ago, they have transformed a patch of marginal mountain ground into rich topsoil, faithfully provisioned a sliding-scale CSA whose members often lack access to fresh produce and created a vibrant, welcoming community of learning and admirable influence.

Nurtured by her childhood connection with the natural world, Penniman got hooked on agriculture as a teenager at a summer job with the Boston-based Food Project and has never looked back. Before graduating from college, she worked at the Farm School, co-managed Many Hands Organic Farm and co-founded the YouthGROW urban farming program. Until this year, she has been a full-time environmental science and biology teacher for which she received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching.

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CSA Creates Community Connection

There is a duality to the benefits of CSA, and nearly every point in the food network receives gains. People in the community are better able to forge strong relationships with the farmers producing food around them, and food is distributed and enjoyed locally.

Sweet corn at Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania.

Spiral Path Farm, owned by Michael (Mike) and Terra Brownback, is a prolific organic farm resting on silt loam and flinty soil in western Pennsylvania’s Perry County. Although neither had deep agrarian family roots, plucking from and merging a dedication to the land from their respective histories, they’ve created robust, fruitful environs on the original 56 acres when the farm was established in 1978. That eventually swelled to the current 255 acres when they were able to acquire adjacent land.

The farm is broken into two sections, making approximately 160 acres of the total 255 tillable and ready to support their meticulous rotational scheme.

“We do tillage on vegetable land,” said Mike, making about 80 acres prime for vegetables. “The rest of the land is in semi-permanent fallow. We have a lot of good buffers that are woodland.” The remainder of untilled acreage is “very important because it’s part of our watershed and helps with infiltration and recharges our aquifer.”

Spiral Path Farm is situated within the Susquehanna River Watershed and is part of the Tonoloway Formation, which houses a limestone aquifer.

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Large-Scale Community Farming — PrairiErth Shares Strategy, Lessons on Organic Transition

Large-Scale Community Farming

The team at PrairiErth Farm includes (from left): Annette McKeown (apprentice), Jon Clayschute (crew leader), Cassidy A. Dellorto-Blackwell (apprentice), Carly Ambrose (apprentice), Leslie Gravitt (harvesthand), Craig Tepen (farmhand and wholesale coordinator), Katie Bishop (farmer/owner) Hans Bishop (farmer/owner), Graham Bishop (“pig guy;” helps Dave with chores and manages the pigs) and farmer/owner Dave Bishop.

by Tamara Scully

PrairiErth Farm’s 400 acres of Illinois fields are home to corn, soybeans, oats, wheat and alfalfa. They are also home to a diversity of livestock, 10 acres of vegetable crops, 10,000 square feet of hoop house growing areas and beehives. And they are certified organic. The farm, nestled within the Big Ag world of the Midwest, promotes a globally local food system. Their stated mission of “working to develop sustainable life systems on the farm,” extends well beyond the farm. Not only do owner Dave Bishop and his family promote sustainable agriculture to local politicians, the family regularly advocates in Washington, D.C. They continually work to develop a food system in which organic agriculture, independent farmers, regional processors and local agricultural systems work together to grow food transparently, fostering lasting connections between farmer and eater.

“I believe a diverse mix of plants and animals is the foundation of a sustainable farm, and the emerging globally local food systems offer the best — and perhaps ultimately the only — real path into a food secure future,” said Dave Bishop. Continue Reading →

A Mighty Big Backyard—Texas Organic Farm Continues Growth

JGG Planting

Now encompassing more than 200 acres, Johnson’s Backyard Garden began in Brenton Johnson’s backyard

by Claire Bontempo

The Johnsons of Johnson’s Backyard Garden, or JBG, can’t seem to grow vegetables fast enough, but they’ve managed to keep up with the demand and remain a successful local organic farm located just outside of Austin, Texas. From the very beginning it has been all about organic. “I never even considered farming a different way. I didn’t have a history of farming so I’ve never farmed anything but organically,” said Brenton Johnson.

In 2008 JBG became certified organic by the Texas Department of Agriculture. Now encompassing more than 200 acres, the farm began in Brenton’s backyard on a cozy 30 x 50-foot plot in 2004. That spring he ventured to the local farmers’ market for the first time with his yield of vegetables. Continue Reading →