Serving Up Local Food and Social Justice at Soul Fire Farm

From by Nina Sparling
Serving Up Local Food and Social Justice at Soul Fire Farm

At Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York, farmers Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff see equality and sustainable food systems as two sides of the same coin. In their work as farmers and educators, Penniman and Vitale-Wolff seek to encourage conversations both about injustice within the food system and the potential for more equitable food systems to facilitate greater equality. They couple education about sustainable agricultural practices with racial justice workshops and make concerted efforts to bring farmers of color to the table.

Penniman started farming as a teenager in Boston, where she worked for The Food Project. The organization manages 70 acres of farmland in northeastern Massachusetts and educates local youth about agriculture and food systems. Much of its production fills the pantries of local organizations fighting hunger; volunteers sell another portion at regional farmers markets. In a recent interview with Food Tank, Penniman recalled, “feeling grounded and inspired by the intersection of caring for the environment and the earth and caring for human communities and social justice. In all of the confusion and craziness of being a teen and of being a young person of color, that felt right, good, true, and simple. I started farming, and I never stopped.”

In 2006, with two young children, Penniman and Vitale-Wolff founded Soul Fire Farm in an effort to rejuvenate the land along with its surrounding communities. Vitale-Wolff manages the farm, focusing on maintaining sustainable agricultural practices, while Penniman focuses on youth education and outreach. Alongside work on the farm, she teaches biology and environmental science at a local high school.

The educational work at Soul Fire Farm encompasses a handful of programs. Alongside seasonal apprenticeships, the couple runs two residential training programs on the farm in the summertime: Undoing Racism Farmer Immersion (URFI) and Black and Latinx Farmer Immersion (BLFI). Designed to address social, environmental, and food justice in parallel, both incorporate intensive agricultural education and explore tools to manage how race and racism can permeate professional and personal lives.

Penniman told Food Tank how the BLFI program responds to her mission to counteract the decline of black landowning farmers and “to reconnect our people to land and to a place of power and agency in the food system.” During the five-day immersion, participants learn basic farm skills, but also engage in conversations and education about land-based exploitation, food sovereignty, agroecology, and much more. Through the program, Penniman hopes to recast the image of farming and to empower “people to have a consensual relationship to the land, to grow food for ourselves and our communities.” Penniman recounted a moment working in the fields during the BLFI program this past summer where the group of black and brown farmers “came to realize that our story could be seen through a different lens.”

For Penniman, food justice extends far beyond the bounds of Soul Fire Farm. She said, “there is no way of conceiving of a just and sustainable food system within the political boundaries of the United States. Everything we do is contextualized in that global struggle.” The couple has traveled extensively to indigenous farming communities and maintains partnerships with farmers in Mexico, Brazil, Ghana, and Haiti (the country Penniman’s grandfather fled in the 1970s). Their interactions with other farmers focus on “listening carefully and coming to understand what the community needs from us [rather than] going with our preconceived notions of what folks need.” From erosion control strategies to contour beds to intercropping legumes and heavy feeders, the practices of the indigenous farmers Penniman and Vitale-Wolff have met inform and inspire much of the approach to sustainable agriculture at Soul Fire Farm. 

Conversation and involvement in the local community is just as much a priority. Penniman spoke about the importance of “listening and co-creating strategic goals for the next year to make sure that we’re evolving in response to the community.” Penniman and Vitale-Wolff joined the Albany-based restorative justice program Project Growth as a pilot member through such intentional listening. The parents of local young people who had attended workshops at the farm spoke of a hope to use the farm to keep their children out of the criminal justice system. Rather than serve time, young people can opt to work with Penniman and Vitale-Wolff on the farm.

Penniman said she finds the conversations, people, and programs around her encouraging. “We’re integrating into the discourse on ending racism issues of land reparations, access to education, including agricultural education. I know that when I was 16 and started this food justice was not on the national radar. I’m hopeful. I always believe we are going to win; I just don’t know when.”