Fighting and Farming for Food Equality
Revolution is based on land. land is the basis of all independence. land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality. —Malcolm X
So begins Leah Penniman’s empowering guidebook, Farming While Black. When I recently visited Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, a small town in Rensselaer County, and wandered the neat rows of vegetables and handcrafted farm buildings on a quiet day, it hardly seemed like a place where revolution is brewing. But this enterprise burns with a desire to change the inequity of the American food system.
“Farm management is among the whitest professions, farm labor is predominantly brown and exploited, and people of color disproportionately live in food apartheid neighborhoods and suffer from diet-related illness,” explains Leah Penniman, co-director and program manager. “This system is built on stolen land and stolen labor, and needs a redesign.”
Soul Fire Farm aims at disrupting a food system fraught with structural racism by implementing programs like a sliding scale CSA, training for a new generation of farmers of color, and community engagement.
The Roots of Soul Fire Farm
As a teenager, Penniman was hunting for a summer job in Boston when she chanced upon The Food Project, an organization that provides fresh produce for the urban community. Something clicked immediately when she went to work for them:
“From the first day, when the scent of freshly harvested cilantro nestled into my finger creases and dirty sweat stung my eyes, I was hooked on farming. Something profound and magical happened to me as I learned to plant, tend, and harvest, and later to prepare and serve that produce in Boston’s toughest neighborhood…shoulder to shoulder with my peers of all hues, feet planted firmly in the earth, stewarding life-giving crops for Black community — I was home.”
The dual social justice and food sustainability missions of The Food Project set Penniman on a path she couldn’t have predicted for herself, one that eventually became a passion.
Penniman met her husband Jonah Vitale-Wolff while both were Clark University students in Worcester, MA. After graduating, the couple settled in the South End of Albany in 2005, where she founded the Harriet Tubman Democratic High School and Vitale–Wolff started Hudson Valley Natural Building. Once two young children joined the family, the new parents were dismayed by the lack of access to healthy, fresh food in their neighborhood.
Neighborhoods with a scarcity of supermarkets, farm markets, and co-ops are called “food deserts” by the federal government. But they’re more accurately described by the term “food apartheid,” which, according to Penniman, “makes it clear that we have a human-created system of segregation that relegates certain groups to food opulence and prevents others from accessing life-giving nourishment.”
On a personal level, Penniman recalls, “Despite our deep commitment to feeding our young children fresh food and despite our extensive farming skills, structural barriers to accessing good food stood in our way.”
In 2011, the couple scraped together the funds to purchase 80 acres of land in Grafton, some 15 miles from Troy. The land was inexpensive at the time, and together with their young children Nashima and Emet, they built an airy straw-bale timber solar home. Once the cooperative farm got off the ground, providing food for their former neighbors in Albany was priority number one.
Penniman learned that some of the practices now taken for granted by progressive farmers have deep roots in African‑American culture.
Inspiration from Black Agricultural Trailblazers
While attending her first Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) conference, Penniman noticed only a few participants of color in the mostly white agricultural community. Out of this experience, she helped launch the National Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference. The group continues to meet annually and now attracts more than five hundred working and aspiring Black farmers who stake a place of pride in the sustainable food movement.
Penniman learned that some of the practices now taken for granted by progressive farmers have deep roots in African-American culture. George Washington Carver of Tuskegee Institute revived the practice of organic farming based on an ancient African-Indigenous system. “His system was known as regenerative agriculture and helped move many Southern farmers away from monoculture and toward diversified horticultural operations,” Penniman says.
Dr. Booker T. Whatley, also a Tuskegee professor, was one of the pioneers of the community supported agriculture (CSA) model, which he called a “Clientele Membership Club.” He also stressed the importance of finding ways for urban dwellers to feel connected to farms through activities like pick-your-own outings.
Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper, founded Freedom Farm, a successful cooperative, as a means of releasing poor Black farmers and sharecroppers from the control of white landowners. Carver, Whatley, Hamer, and others in the Black agricultural movement continue to serve as models of innovation and inspiration for Soul Fire Farm and its programs.
Three Pillars of Food Justice
Ujaama: A sliding scale CSA program
Honoring the legacy of Booker T. Whatley, Soul Fire offers a CSA program called Ujaama, a Swahili word that refers to cooperative economics. Serving the needs of urban dwellers who have trouble accessing fresh food (and often don’t have cars or other means to access stores outside of their own neighborhoods), produce is delivered right to the doorstep of participants.
The CSA serves some 110 families in Albany and Troy. This season, Soul Fire expanded its “solidarity share” program through a partnership with the Albany Center for Law and Justice. This initiative provides fully subsidized shares to families impacted by mass incarceration and immigration policy. Some of the recipients of subsidized shares are resettled refugees.
Shares include familiar vegetables like tomatoes, kale, lettuces, green onions, carrots, summer squashes, herbs, and the like. In addition, CSA participants appreciate the opportunity to maintain their traditions through culturally significant crops.
Afro-indigenous crops requested by Soul Fire Farm members include okra, hot peppers, collard greens, turnip greens, and black-eyed peas. Some produce favored by the Latinx community include Aji Duse peppers, cilantro, tomatillos, chiles, and sorrel. Favorites of the Asian-American community include Japanese sweet potato, napa cabbage, tatsoi, daikon radish, burdock, and edamame. Other rare crops offered by the CSA include quelites, white sweet potatoes, purple rutabaga, and kohlrabi.
Serving a new generation of Black and Latinx farmers, youth programming is a core component of Soul Fire Farm’s mission. Growing up with food insecurity has a profound and lasting impact on young people, Penniman observes. Soul Fire’s immersion programs offer training in technical skills in conjunction with fostering a positive relationship with the land. The young people who emerge from these programs find them to be remarkably healing.
The youth programs emphasize pride in African-American agricultural legacy, while also examining the roots of food injustice. The most popular program is the weeklong immersion BIPOC FIRE (Black-Indigenous-People of Color Farming in Relationship with Earth). Offered five times per year, youth programs have long waiting lists, speaking to a growing need for them. Outcomes are impressive, with 90 percent of participants implementing what they’ve learned in various ways — urban farming, school gardens, land and reparations policy, and more.
The Spanish immersion programs are a particular point of pride for Penniman, who notes that they attract people who have long been part of the agricultural community and are fighting for farmworker justice — and to simply have a voice.
Leah Penniman’s book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land is described as “the first comprehensive how-to guide for aspiring African‑heritage growers to reclaim their dignity as agriculturists and for all farmers to understand the distinct, technical contributions of African-heritage people to sustainable agriculture.” The book is but one tool in the arsenal of Soul Fire Farm’s mission to engage with the public and the broader community.
Penniman is a regular public speaker and has granted interviews to dozens of media outlets. And while she might be the public face of Soul Fire Farm (in addition to her role as the farm’s co-director and educational program manager), the enterprise is a team effort.
Penniman’s husband Jonah Vitale-Wolff is co-director and operations manager. He has had extensive experience working with global farmers. Their children, now in their teens, are youth leaders and are involved with the CSA operations. Larisa Jacobson rounds out the leadership team as co-director and farm manager. However countless other staff serve integral roles in the operation and volunteers offer assistance, on and off the farm. A list of volunteer opportunities can be found on soulfirefarm.org.
In the introduction to Farming While Black, Penniman describes her awakening to African-American agricultural heritage, coming full circle back to the mission of Soul Fire Farm:
“The only consistent story I’d seen or been told about Black people and the land was about slavery and sharecropping, about coercion and misery and sorrow. And yet here was an entire history, blooming into our present, in which Black people’s expertise and love of the land and one another was evident … to learn of our true and noble history as farmers and ecological stewards is deeply healing.” ϖ