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.
At Soul Fire Farm, Penniman takes the lead with farmer training, youth educational programming, and international solidarity with Haitian farmers and food justice organizing — all while continuing to be engaged with “anything that involves heavy lifting, sweat and soil.”
Dismantling Oppressive Structures
ACRES U.S.A. At Soul Fire Farm your commitment to social justice goes far beyond making the food you grow accessible to people with limited resources. Could you start with an overview of what you do?
LEAH PENNIMAN. First off, we’re restoring degraded hillsides. The land here ranks as the worst in the USDA Agricultural Soils Classification. By using regenerative and ancestral farming practices, we’ve brought our soil back into full health and production. Our Farm Share, a version of a CSA, predominantly serves low-income people in inner-city neighborhoods. We use a sliding scale system where people pay according to their income and wealth. Every year we host hundreds of youth at Youth Food Justice Empowerment programs. By teaching farming, cooking and leadership skills we are helping youth find a home here on the land and in the wilderness and a sense of belonging in the food system. We also train farmers — mostly black, Latinx and indigenous — from beginners up to folks getting ready to manage their own farms. Finally, we support activists and movement builders. Activists come here for strategic planning retreats and use the land as a basis for organizing and activism, and we support movements for food sovereignty internationally.
ACRES U.S.A. Your website describes Soul Fire Farm as a family farm committed to dismantling the oppressive structures that misguide our food system. What are a few of these oppressive structures and how do they negatively impact people?
PENNIMAN. From the early colonization of the Americas, our food system has been based on exploited labor and stolen land. The long history of oppressive systems goes back to the genocide of Native Americans, to the enslavement of people to the takeover of Mexican territory and murder of Mexicans by the Texas Rangers, to black codes, convict leasing and sharecropping. Without looking at that history, it’s hard to understand why huge disparities in food access exist right now. These disparities aren’t so much in the quantity of food or number of calories as in food quality. Diet-related illnesses like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, some forms of cancer, asthma and poor eyesight disproportionately affect people of color due to lack of access to fresh food. There are similar disparities with land. The 2012 agricultural census found that about 95 percent of farmland is in the hands of people of European heritage, a figure higher than 20 years after slavery ended. In some ways we’re sliding backward.
ACRES U.S.A. You’ve said, “If we’re not acting to change the system, we are complicit, casting our vote for the status quo.” Could you elaborate?
PENNIMAN. Americans really appreciate cheap food. According to the latest statistics, as a percentage of our income, people in the United States spend less money on food than any other country in the world. If we only look at the dollars, and ignore the story of what it took to get the food on our plates, then we’re participating in pushing down commodity prices, putting rural dairy farmers out of business and so on. The food system has the largest environmental impact of any industry, and it’s the number one driver of climate change. And labor isn’t fairly paid. All of us are complicit, and we also all have the potential to be agents of change.
ACRES U.S.A. I’m not aware of any other family-run farms as infused with community connections as Soul Fire Farm. Why and how did these relationships develop?
PENNIMAN. I really don’t think of the community as separate from the farm. We’ve been living in this area for about 12 years. When we first moved to the south end of Albany we immediately got involved in service of community. We helped start the Harriet Tubman Democratic School. Most of the youth that go there had dropped out of Albany High. We got involved with urban gardens. There was clearly a community need for fresh food delivery and for safe rural spaces for people of color. In starting this farm, we were responding to what our community, friends and comrades were asking for. It continues to be based on those relationships. We’re deeply involved with the Albany, Troy and Schenectady activist and black and brown organizing communities and also regionally and even internationally with Freedom Food Alliance, the National Black Farmers Conference and La Via Campesina. It’s an illusion to act as an independent agent without those community connections. We really need each other.
ACRES U.S.A. Participating in The Food Project when you were 16 seems to have opened up a world of possibilities for you. What about that experience made it so important and formative?
PENNIMAN. As a 16-year-old — like many teens — I was confused about my identity and my place in the world. I took the Food Project job because I needed to save money for college. It turned out that farming could be the intersection of the two things I loved most: social justice and the earth. We grew food that we sold in farmers’ markets in low-income neighborhoods. We worked in homeless shelters, did leadership development and learned about fairness in the food system. I found so much richness in this work. The simplicity of planting the seed, harvesting a carrot and making sure it got to people who needed it was very compelling.
ACRES U.S.A. After that you worked on organic farms. What was that like for you?
PENNIMAN. From The Food Project I went to work at the Farm School in Athol, Massachusetts, for a year. From there I went to Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, Massachusetts. I learned so many farming skills, and I was able to move into a co-managerial position in Barre. The challenge was that after The Food Project, organic farming was a white-dominated world. At NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) conferences the speakers that I saw and the books that I read presented the white narrative of organic farming. I began to feel that I had to make a choice between organic farming and being connected to the black community. That false dichotomy caused me quite a bit of doubt and internal strife. It wasn’t until I got back to urban farming in college that I found a home place that engaged both worlds.
ACRES U.S.A. While you and your future husband Jonah were in college you started YouthGROW. Describe the program and how it came about.
PENNIMAN. Jonah and I were going to college in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the Regional Environmental Council hired him as the community gardens coordinator. He had a critique of the organization as being focused on the environment separate from human need. We brainstormed ideas to change that and decided to create a version of The Food Project in Worcester. YouthGROW would engage young people in reclaiming vacant lots and growing food for the community while they earned money. What I feel so proud of is that YouthGROW actually became their flagship program. Some of the young people who started out with us are now leaders in the program.
ACRES U.S.A. You’ve had the opportunity to spend time in farming communities in Ghana, Mexico and Haiti. What was the occasion for these travels, and how has this exposure influenced you?
PENNIMAN. Closest to my heart at the moment is Haiti because my family and friends there are reeling from and working hard to recover from the recent hurricane. We’ve been doing quite a bit of organizing to get support to them. Since 2010, Soul Fire Farm has been collaborating with Ayiti Resurrect. It’s a collaboration of Haitian and Caribbean heritage folks working in solidarity with farmers, artists and healers in Komye, Leogane, Haiti. We’re responding with a number of exciting projects — reforestation, compost development, small-scale solar, a well, planning out irrigation, herbalism and healing clinics and work with children in the schools. The farmers in Haiti are incredible. I’ve learned a lot from them. Kombit is a collective work model where all the people support each farmer in turn to get their hoeing done and their fields prepped for planting beans and maize. These work parties are infused with rhythm and song. They use a very powerful primary tillage tool — an ancient long-handled hoe invented in Africa. I’ve also learned about the restoration of severely degraded lands. Haitian farmers have been able to stabilize hillsides and start to trap some organic matter by using strong grass crops. After that they plant bushes and trees. We shared this strategy in Oaxaca, Mexico, where we were to serve indigenous farmers on a Fulbright fellowship last year. The Mixteca there also suffer from land degradation. It was beautiful to be able to exchange indigenous knowledge between these different cultures. We explained the use of these plants for degraded hillsides, and farmers in Oaxaca explained their intercropping to us. They intercrop three to 12 diverse crops. Each plant provides a service to others. These intercropping systems are amazing technologies that release nutrients throughout the season. They go beyond the Three Sisters. Natural chemicals that wash off the leaf of the squash actually prevent pest infestation in the beans, for example. The Mixteca also taught us to use nixtamalization to make the niacin and protein in maize more available for human digestion. That’s not a common practice in Haiti, so we shared it there. The peasant farmers of the world still grow over 70 percent of the world’s food. They have many of the solutions we need to feed the world sustainably. These conversations and exchanges and mutual support have been a great and humbling honor.
ACRES U.S.A. Does your family have Haitian roots?
PENNIMAN. My maternal lineage is Haitian.
ACRES U.S.A. I understand that you also went to Ghana.
PENNIMAN. I’ve been to Ghana a few times. Right after college I lived there for five months. I worked with farmers to create income-generating projects for people who were marginalized in society — the disabled, orphans and people living with HIV. There was a small but strong movement led by Mr. Kwabla in the village of Ojepa Djerkiti to stop using agrochemicals and treated seed, which some of the foreign organizations were pushing. His farm was very productive, so people would visit. His model would get them thinking that maybe they didn’t need the agrochemicals. I spent a lot of time with Mr. Kwabla on his farm. Their gender roles were different from what I was accustomed to, but I won their favor and got to use a machete to help clear the fields without burning or spraying herbicides.
ACRES U.S.A. After seeing your sister Naima perform her poetry before your keynote at last year’s NOFA Summer Conference, I became curious about your family background. Can you identify things in your growing up that contributed to your creativity and courage as a passionate and original leader?
PENNIMAN. That’s very generous. I also need to shout out to our little brother, Allen Penniman, the Urban Planner for the City of Providence, Rhode Island, and quite a progressive leader and justice advocate in his own right. In some ways I think adversity contributed to our ability to be leaders and to see injustice and act. We have experienced poverty and different types of abuse. We have been surrounded by folks who struggle with mental illness and have experienced the fallout. From a very young age we had to come up with survival skills and mechanisms and develop fortitude. I think having compassion for those who are suffering came out of our own experiences. Certainly our parents have strong social justice consciousness. My mother was very active in the Civil Rights movement, as was my father, though he was more active on land protection and environmental stewardship. Growing up mostly in rural Ashburnham, Massachusetts, shaped the heartfelt connection to the earth that informs our work.
ACRES U.S.A. What sorts of personal growth does it take to be an agent of change in the movements toward liberation and justice?
PENNIMAN. It’s probably different for every person. I come at this from a spiritual activist perspective. I consider it a sacred duty to heal and repair the world, and doing this fills my soul and gives me purpose and joy. But I need to maintain personal self-care practices. I run every morning at 6, even in the dark, and I do my weekly co-counseling and have a prayer relationship with the divine. Those things have allowed me to do the work. Besides rootedness and spirituality, I think a sense of humility and a learner’s mind are important. Yesterday and today I’ve been having conversations with people who have participated in our programs. I’m asking them, ‘How can we do better? Where does it hurt? What are the things I’m not seeing that I need to see?’ so that we can keep our integrity in moving towards justice.
ACRES U.S.A. You’ve worked as a high school biology teacher for a number of years. Could you talk about that aspect of your life?
PENNIMAN. In 2002, right out of college, I started teaching biology and environmental science full-time in a public high school. I’m now teaching environmental science and agro-ecology two and a half days a week at an independent school. That has been a really important shift. Farming is a full-time job, but we needed that supplemental income and community connection. Now that we’re moving toward a more financially sustainable model we don’t need to be off farm as much.
ACRES U.S.A. Turning to another subject, what does the phrase food justice mean to you?
PENNIMAN. I defer to La Via Compesina’s “Declaration of Food Sovereignty” as the authority on this, but in simple terms there are four ingredients to food justice. The first is everyone having access to nutritious, culturally appropriate food regardless of race, income, class, gender and geography. The second is fair wages and working conditions and dignity for everyone involved in the production of that food. Third, in the process of producing the food we improve the quality of the natural environment, rather than diminishing it. And fourth, democratic rather than corporate control of the food system at all levels.
ACRES U.S.A. Going back to that first element, talk about food apartheid and the seriousness of its impact.
PENNIMAN. Food apartheid is a term I learned from Karen Washington, a black farmer and food justice activist, friend and mentor. It refers to geographical areas and communities where people live in poverty and do not have access to fresh, affordable, culturally appropriate food grown with sustainable methods. The USDA maps these neighborhoods and calls them food deserts. We prefer ‘food apartheid’ because this is a human-created system of segregation, not a natural biome. We can measure the impact of food apartheid on communities of color in the incidence of diet-related diseases. The number of children who go to bed hungry is also measurable. Less measurable is what happens to a hungry and sick people in terms of ability to organize, resist, and live free from anxiety and distraction. A hungry population is less likely to be able to analyze and resist the structures of oppression.
ACRES U.S.A. An important part of your mission is making real food available to everyone. How do you overcome economic and other barriers to serve marginalized communities?
PENNIMAN. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re committed to doing our best. In our model right now — the farm share model — some people pay more than market value for their food, while others pay substantially less. That washes out to keep the farm afloat in terms of income. We try to reduce the transportation barrier by offering doorstep delivery to people who live in food apartheid neighborhoods. We also do what we can to grow culturally familiar foods. We grow a lot of tomatoes, peppers and alliums, collard greens and okra — foods familiar to new Americans and black Americans. With less familiar foods we offer culturally familiar recipes with substitutions. Using other greens to make callaloo is an example of that. Additionally, a foundation of authentic and caring relationships with community members is crucial. We spend a lot of time in the winter at organizing meetings and at events talking with folks in the neighborhood about their needs and how as a farm we can better serve them. Almost all of our members have come out of those relationships.
ACRES U.S.A. You have interesting ways of explaining the CSA farm share to make it more culturally relevant.
PENNIMAN. Our friend Masai coined the term ‘Netflix for vegetables,’ which breaks down some of the immediate misunderstandings about how our farm share works. We also credit the clientele membership club developed by Booker T. Whatley, in blessed memory, a black man who was an agricultural professor at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. We talk about him and Tuskegee, and we talk about the Kwanzaa principle of Ujamaa, or cooperative economics. The Swahili word is about moving beyond the casual relationship between producer and consumer, which is encouraged by capitalism, into a community-based system of mutual commitment.
ACRES U.S.A. Do many of the people in your CSA eventually come to the farm?
PENNIMAN. Oh yes, most.
ACRES U.S.A. How is the low price of food in the United States related to race?
PENNIMAN. In this country we still very much rely on exploited labor — which is predominantly done by people of color — to keep the price of food low. Many of the farm workers that grow 75 percent of our food are here through the H-2A guestworker program. They’re invited to the United States to labor on the farms, but they don’t have a pathway to citizenship or land ownership or the right to collectively bargain, or in most states the right to overtime, sick days, health insurance, high-quality housing or safe transportation.
ACRES U.S.A. Or the right to change farms if the farm they’re on is not working out for them.
PENNIMAN. Exactly. One of the arguments that people use for capitalism is that labor has the freedom to move, but in the guest worker program, workers don’t have this freedom.
ACRES U.S.A. As a small farmer do you experience the contradiction of trying to pay your workers fairly, while also compensating yourselves as family farmers?
PENNIMAN. Absolutely. For the first years of the farm we were all volunteers. That included us as the leaders of the project and everyone who came to work here. We are committed to working toward a living wage and have ended the practice of volunteers performing any of the crucial work on the farm. That said, I don’t think that figuring out how to fairly pay folks on the farm is solely the responsibility of farmers. It’s a systemic issue. The imbalance between the percentage of the USDA budget going to support commodity crops and large-scale industrial Ag compared to small-scale farmers is completely out of line. We need to subsidize small farmers for the environmental services they provide like carbon sequestration, pollinator protection and purifying the air. Those things have a real dollar value. At the same time polluters should pay for the externalities like water pollution and the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Black Farmers and Food Justice
ACRES U.S.A. The USDA has had a strong role in the decline in the number of black farmers and in black land ownership. There is a long history, but maybe you could give some highlights.
PENNIMAN. It’s important to know about the class action lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman, which was settled in 1999. Black farmers suing the USDA for decades of discrimination proved that discrimination existed and the case was settled out of court. Farmers in the suit received up to $50,000 each. Unfortunately, by then almost everyone had lost their land, and as farmers we know that $50,000 is not going to get your land back. It really was too little, too late. By that point black farmers only owned 1 percent of farms, down from a high of around 14 percent in 1910. That’s 16 million acres of land lost. Many push factors are behind why people left their land. Some of it was just straight up racist violence and harassment, as black land ownership was seen as a threat to white supremacy in the south. White folks wanted black people to stay in their ‘place’ as sharecroppers and tenant farmers and they would lynch and harass black farmers and burn crosses in their yards and burn their homes. When the option of moving to the north opened up, it became more attractive than staying and facing the risks. Of course, county USDA offices controlled the disbursement of credit and emergency relief, and at every turn black folks were denied. When the cotton boll weevil struck in the early 1900s and decimated the cotton crop, white farmers got relief and black farmers didn’t. And white farmers could attend land grant universities to get training, but black farmers couldn’t.
ACRES U.S.A. Wasn’t there a system of separate universities?
PENNIMAN. Yes, but the resources allotted to them were unequal, so over time extreme disparities developed. Many black farmers lost their land to foreclosure and legal trickery, and they didn’t generate enough income to sustain it.
ACRES U.S.A. You say that giving credit where credit is due is an essential step in ending racism. What are some of the contributions people of African descent made to American agriculture?
PENNIMAN. The very concept of regenerative farming — farming where soil health is of primary importance — came out of Dr. George Washington Carver’s work at Tuskegee. He helped a generation of black farmers move away from cotton monocropping into diversified horticultural systems. He was the first person to put these practices together in writing, give them a name, and start promoting them through the university system, so many people consider him the founder of U.S. organic agriculture. I have already mentioned Booker T. Whatley and his CSA. African-Americans also made significant contributions to the farmer cooperative movement through the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union, and later through the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Shirley and Charles Sherrod started the first U.S. land trust on one of the largest black-owned pieces of property in the history of the country, which was collectively owned by 500 families in Georgia. The Community Land Trust movement was born out of the Sherrods’ pioneering work.
ACRES U.S.A. What about all the things contributed by the people forcibly brought here from Africa?
PENNIMAN. They brought seeds and technologies. They weren’t just bodies kidnapped from African shores. They were experts in agriculture — rice growers, cattle herders and tobacco farmers. Folks brought their skills and taught European Americans how to cultivate land in regions where the climate resembled West Africa’s more than Europe’s.
ACRES U.S.A. You’ve said we fail to notice and honor resistance movements of people of color, such as the refusal of Haitian peasants to adopt GMOs.
PENNIMAN. They are under such pressure to accept paternalistic donor aid, but they have maintained courage in the face of real scarcities that exist in their country. Monsanto has been dumping GMO products on the Haitian market, trying to get people hooked on them to displace Creole native seed. The Haitian Peasant Movement rose up and said, “We’re not doing that. We need our seed. That’s our sovereignty. That’s our life.” At a demonstration they burned Monsanto seed. For their organizing, they won the Global Food Sovereignty prize a couple of years ago. We have to be aware of a U.S. strategy in the farm bill called Tied Aid, which is designed to create dependence. Whenever we give food aid to other countries, it has to come from U.S. farmers and U.S. corporations and be shipped by U.S. companies. The United States has strategically dumped this food aid onto Haitian markets at harvest time. Rice arrives during the rice harvest and peanuts during the peanut harvest. No farmer can compete with free food. This undermines farmers who don’t have savings, causing migration to the cities. The president of Haiti has been calling for the cessation of this dumping, but the United States continues to dump. We have to be vigilant. Things that look like helping gestures can actually be undermining people’s autonomy.
ACRES U.S.A. How did the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference come about?
PENNIMAN. My part of the story begins at a NOFA Summer Conference. There were very few black and brown folks there. I wanted to have a safer space for people of color to talk about our place in the movement, so I asked people to meet at a certain place and time. Karen Washington and many others came. We felt we needed a conference focused on issues of importance to us. In 2011 Karen organized the first conference. It’s been held every year since at different locations around the country, bringing together many hundreds of urban and rural black farmers.
ACRES U.S.A. What obstacles still make it harder today for people of color to become farmers in the United States?
PENNIMAN. One is access to land. Like I mentioned, European-Americans own almost all the farmland, so without some sort of land reparations or land reform, that’s an obstacle. Land is prohibitively expensive, especially land close enough to the urban communities that people are connected to. Training is another. Land grant institutions tend to be in isolated, rural white areas. Most professors are white, and they may not be culturally sensitive or know our history. And black and brown farmers don’t have the resources and support to offer trainings. We need to think about putting some federal and state agricultural dollars toward supporting black and brown farmers. One recommendation is hiring black and brown farmers as adjuncts at a distance from land grant universities to provide training and support. Another policy suggestion is creating business start-up clinics that offer legal and financial services and low-cost subscriptions to software for farm businesses. A lot of paperwork goes into running a business. Offering these free and low-cost supports would let farmers focus on farming.
ACRES U.S.A. Explain how historic trauma prevents people of color from becoming farmers and how the land-based healing that Soul Fire Farm does help people overcome it.
PENNIMAN. It’s impossible to have your ancestors go through hundreds of years of brutal enslavement, followed by tenant farming and sharecropping and forced expulsion from your family land, and not inherit some type of trauma. For a lot of black folks, when they think about farming, the first word that comes up is slavery. To undo that requires land-based spaces for healing justice. Our farming programs don’t just teach how to propagate plants or make sauerkraut. We explore the history of our people on land through our hearts. Our history of dignity on the land is much longer than our history of land-based oppression, so tapping back into that pre-slavery cellular memory is part of the healing justice work. We use our ancestors as healing tools through song, dance, herbal bathing, communal meals and talk therapy. By processing that grief and trauma we can find our way home to the land.
ACRES U.S.A. What did you set out to accomplish with the Black and Latinx Farmer Immersion?
PENNIMAN. We created this program because there were many black and brown folks interested in farming, but they didn’t have the experience necessary to engage in a year-long apprenticeship or take a job on a farm. We took all that we had learned from training apprentices and new farmers and created a week that offers essential gardening skills and enough knowledge that people would know what questions to ask if they decided to further their learning. We also wanted to help them decide if they wanted to pursue farming as a career in a way that was culturally relevant, historically rooted and committed to healing justice. We try to accomplish a lot. People walk away with tangible knowledge. They learn things like how to interpret a soil test, how to transplant and how to judge ripeness for harvest, and also where to find more resources. We do early business planning and teach how to cook, and we process chickens and go through animal processing safety. Our days are packed. We go from 6 in the morning to 10 at night for the entire week. In the evenings we watch documentaries, do roleplaying and explore our history. We make art and do massage and body movement. We want folks to be able to taste, touch, feel and breathe what is possible if we were truly liberated and to have that vision so cemented in their hearts that they’re not willing to settle for anything less! We’ve had hundreds of people come through the program and we’ve heard that this is what happens. Many have gone on to become farmers or food justice leaders, folks doing farm-based education for youth or running urban gardens. It’s been very powerful.
ACRES U.S.A. How many times do you hold that each summer?
PENNIMAN. About three times.
ACRES U.S.A. Can you give an example or two of the types of assumptions, attitudes, or behaviors that your Uprooting Racism Farmers Immersion helps people understand and overcome?
PENNIMAN. You know the saying, “Fish can’t see water?” People living with white privilege and positional power might not even notice that food is cheap, let alone ask why that’s the case. It may just seem normal, so we uncover some of those realities that we’ve discussed. One of the biggest blind spots for well-meaning people is how much Euro-centric culture can permeate an organization, so we spend time together unpacking that invisible knapsack. For example, there’s language inequality. Relying heavily on the written word and on the English language for communications might exclude people who are more accustomed to an oral tradition and face-to-face communication, or people who don’t have English as their first language. Some of the other European values that people imagine to be normal are the drive toward perfectionism, always rushing, and quantity over quality in relationships.
ACRES U.S.A. How do you respond when you’re asked to serve on a board or advisory committee?
PENNIMAN. It’s really not possible. I’m working on a farm 20 hours a week. I run all of the educational programming, which in 2016 served 3,650 human beings. I raise all of the money for the organization, and next year we’re going to have to pull in over $250,000 to pay everyone and run all these programs. And I’m a mother of two and very active in our local Black Lives Matter community. I have to say no to taking a leadership role in other organizations at this point, but I do notice that folks are excited about these issues and invite me to give talks and advise. I do the best that I can to respond, but we need to uplift the many voices of people of color and women and other folks from marginalized communities who are doing leadership work. We have a Speakers Collective and we’re trying to come up with a list of organizations, but it’s also important for folks to take a minute and look around their own communities. You may realize that around the block there’s a new Burmese American community of farmers, but you’ve never talked to them to see what they need or want to say.
ACRES U.S.A. What is your philosophy of education?
PENNIMAN. We’re very rooted in the popular education model of Paulo Freire and Myles Horton. Everyone should know who these men are. Myles Horton was one of the most powerful white anti-racist organizers in the history of the United States. We also use the African Griot tradition of dynamic storytelling to convey information and raise consciousness. That’s a very participatory form that gets people rooted in their own experience, in their hearts and their ancestors. We use a lot of theater, movements, art, storytelling and other connected ways of learning. With all the things to touch, feel, smell and experience, the farm is a perfect container for that. It would be ridiculous to keep your nose in a book or eyes on a screen in that context.
ACRES U.S.A. You talk a lot about nature as teacher. What are some examples of nature as a model for human behavior?
PENNIMAN. We like to think about nature as not just providing food, but also providing lessons for us. I’ll give you two examples. Working in the orchard, we were talking about how it’s best not to harvest tree fruit for the first several years. You pick off blossoms so the tree concentrates its energy in developing the roots, trunk and branches. That’s also a metaphor for how we like to think about our projects. Early on you need to be investing in the foundation and the scaffolding. Grabbing a harvest then would undermine your long-term stability. Only after you develop your leadership and organizational ideals and practices are you ready to pick fruit. Another metaphor that was really powerful for us came up when we were pruning tomatoes. Again, folks were really tempted. You see a sucker coming off with little tomatoes on it so you want to keep it. But no, we have to concentrate on the apical meristem. If you have that singular focus, rather than getting distracted by all these sidelines, in the long-term you’ll have a healthier plant and more abundant harvest. Often in modern life we get strung too thin. We try to do everything all at once, and nothing is done with quality.
ACRES U.S.A. There was a description in your newsletter of making rock picking an emotionally meaningful activity.
PENNIMAN. All credit belongs to Julie Rawson of Many Hands Organic Farm for inventing this activity. We call it Rock Therapy. We are getting ready to put our east field in production, so we’ve got to pick rocks. On our rocky land young folks gather up rocks. We go to the edge of the field and I tell them to think of something that makes them angry or sad, and to shout that thing as loud as they can while tossing the rocks into the forest. It becomes a beautiful catharsis. Many young folks need to release anger around their parents, teachers, law enforcement, politics, or just slow Internet and bad cafeteria food. That makes the activity joyful and connected to who they are beyond the work of the farm.
ACRES U.S.A. Readers would be interested in the diversity of groups that come to the farm.
PENNIMAN. This summer 25 or 30 different groups of youth came to the farm. They range from court-adjudicated youth that we’re working with through the county to youth in foster care, Boys and Girls Club, Jack and Jill clubs and school groups. These youth are predominantly, but not exclusively, black, Latino and urban. Most come for a six-hour program or a day and a half overnight. Some come for longer programs. Adults come to our Black and Latinx Farmer’s Immersion and Uprooting Racism programs from 20 states around the nation. About half are from our region. That’s similar to our one-off programs, like the Seed-Keeping weekend or Healing Justice weekend. Those folks come from everywhere, too.
ACRES U.S.A. Given that many young people coming to the farm have no particular knowledge, interest, or familiarity with agriculture, are you able to reach most of these kids?
PENNIMAN. We’ve never had anyone not eat the food and not leave with a smile, but definitely there’s some skepticism. Young people show up who don’t want to get out of the van, or their hoods are drawn or earphones are in, but I think having a lot of people of color on the farm makes a big difference. When we start to talk about issues of importance to them, like mass incarceration and hunger, that also makes some connection. And the land is beautiful and healing. I can’t say that we reach everyone, but we always have a closing circle where folks say what they’re grateful for and what they’re taking with them. Almost universally we hear they’re taking a sense of belonging to the land, of a renewed caring about food quality, hunger or farms, so it’s worth it.
ACRES U.S.A. What makes the way you farm at Soul Fire Farm regenerative?
PENNIMAN. First of all, we farm on soils considered so low quality that people say you can’t grow food on them. As you can see, even in late fall, we’re growing a lot of beautiful, bountiful food. With our methods we can feed about 70 families per acre with a bushel and an eighth per week. Our practices include semi-permanent raised beds, minimal tillage, heavy straw mulch and no plasticulture. Our beds are on contour. We use drip irrigation and keep our soils very moist. We pay attention to micronutrients and add them when needed. We fertigate with mixtures of beneficial fungi and bacteria. We use a lot of clovers and bell beans as understory cover crops, and we cover crop at the end of the season. We rotate through and have perennials integrated into many parts of the farm — kiwis, grapes, fruit trees, hazelnuts, herbs — and pollinator-attracting flowers. We raise a couple hundred birds per year for meat on pasture using movable chicken tractors. I created a lightweight design that works for the female body to move by herself. We also have a small flock of laying hens on pasture. We use organic seed when we can source it. For animals, we get our feed from a farmer and prioritize local over certified organic.
ACRES U.S.A. I love this statement, “Farming involves as much intricacy, complexity, and attention to detail as medicine and law. Imagine if society valued it as highly.” What are some of the dimensions of farming that tend to go unnoticed?
PENNIMAN. If you counted the number of sub-skills you need there would be thousands, from being able to determine the peak ripeness of all kinds of produce to identifying pests and diseases and the right remedy to all that behind-the-scenes accounting, sourcing, ordering and marketing.
ACRES U.S.A. What is the role of intention on your farm and in your work and community?
PENNIMAN. Impact is always more important than intention. We certainly have an intention to dismantle racism and oppression in the food system, but more important are the actual results. It’s been great after a couple of years to start to hear back from people who have come here and to follow alumni and see what they’re up to. Understanding that there is a ripple effect in the world is what’s most meaningful to me.
For more information on Soul Fire Farm, visit soulfirefarm.org.
Interview by Tracy Frisch. This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A.