Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman, Soul Fire Farm

Soul Fire Farm is a force to be reckoned with, according Leah Penniman, tackling racism and injustice at all levels of the food system. This small nonprofit farm in New York is bringing food sovereignty to the community by feeding people and soil (what’s known as survival programs), training farmer-activists (known as “skill up” programs), and building a global food justice movement for systemic change.

Penniman, Co-Director and Program Manager at Soul Fire Farm, traces her journey back to an early summer job with The Food Project in Boston, MA. Even at 16, Leah was excited to grow food and serve her community. From there, she went on to train at Farm School, Many Hands Organic Farm, Youth Grow, and with farmers internationally in Ghana, Haiti, and Mexico. There was no looking back.

“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 a I learned to plant, tend, and harvest, and later to prepare and serve that produce in Boston’s toughest neighborhoods. I found an anchor in the elegant simplicity of working the earth and sharing her bounty. What I was doing was good, right, and unconfused. Shoulder to shoulder with my peers of all hues, feet planted firmly in the earth, stewarding life-giving crops for the Black community—I was home.”

Today, Leah’s work at Soul Fire Farm is informed by these past experiences and focused on many of the same issues: working with producers and consumers at the intersection of structural racism and injustices throughout the food system.

The food grown at Soul Fire Farm is intensively cultivated on five acres using organic and ancestral practices that increase topsoil depth, sequester carbon, and improve soil biodiversity. Human health is also an important part of the farm’s mission, so these nutrient-dense, life-giving foods are available to SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) recipients and on a sliding scale to lift up community members, many who are living under food apartheid and state violence. Leah chooses this term—food apartheid instead of food desert—very intentionally to describe impoverished neighborhoods that lack healthy food options, because deserts are natural ecosystems while this lack of access is human-created segregation.

Leah is the author of many poignant articles and the book Farming While Black. In one article, she writes about the inspiration behind Soul Fire Farm’s training program: “The soil stewards of generations past recognized that healthy soil is not only imperative for our food security—it is also foundational for our cultural and emotional well-being.” While the farm’s training curriculum focusses on nitty-gritty details like soil organic matter and earthworm counts, many participants point to the personal healing that takes place on the farm.

The farm produces good food, talented farmers, and vocal activists—this is what sets Soul Fire Farm apart. Hundreds of youth and adults attend training programs that encourage leadership in both agriculture and activism through their BIPOC FIRE program (Black-Indigenous-People of Color Farming in Relationship with Earth). The result is food-growing, food justice organizers—often people of color (POC)—armed with the knowledge, mentorship, land, and training needed to amplify their often-underrepresented voices in the food system. Soul Fire Farm’s commitment to change goes beyond the individual, reaching out into the world to heal racial traumas and fight for systemic change through large-scale collaborations and events.

The goal of these programs is to lift up those affected by racism in the food system by ending inequity in access to land, sustenance, and power; reversing industrial agriculture’s negative effects on people and planet; and healing from a history of oppression.

Leah points to bleak statistics and a history of structural racism in US agriculture. “The food system is built upon land theft and genocide of indigenous people and the exploitation of Black and Brown labor.” Today, Black farmers operate less than 1% of the nation’s farms. Most farm managers are white, while farm labor is composed largely of exploited POC. People of color are disproportionately likely to live under food apartheid, be exposed to environmental pollution and the impacts of climate change, and suffer from diet related illness and other “nature deficit disorders”. Labor laws allow exploitation of farm and food workers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. “At Soul Fire Farm, sustainable farming practices rooted in African-Indigenous wisdom and technologies are part of the solution to feeding the world and supporting communities of color without undermining natural systems.”

Leah points to the fact that these practices have been ignored, erased, or appropriated by mainstream society throughout history. She writes: "Racism is built into the DNA of the United States’ food system. It began with the genocidal theft of land from First Nations people and continued with the kidnapping of my ancestors from the shores of West Africa.” After that, convict leasing—the practice of providing prison labor to southern plantation owners—and migrant guest worker programs aimed at Latin Americans have continued to undermine human rights and the role POC play in our food system.

“Our food system needs a redesign if it’s to feed us without perpetuating racism and oppression."

Soul Fire Farm envisions an equitable food system, sustainable from “sunshine to plate” defined by the international peasant activist movement Via Campesina. The food sovereignty movement has developed six principles: growing healthy food for people, valuing providers and producers, prioritizing local food systems over international markets, returning resource control to local communities, building agricultural knowledge and skill, and working with nature in mind. While this movement is often associated with its African, Asian, and Latin American counterparts, Soul Fire Farm is making these changes—putting people and planet first—in rural New York.

Change is possible. Everyone can take action to end racism and injustice in the food system. Soul Fire Farm has a comprehensive guide of simple actions for those looking to make impactful changes in their own lives and communities. Many of these are well within reach including good food purchasing programs for institutions, buying products from farmers and food businesses owned by POC, and supporting existing community work led by those directly impacted by the issues. There are a lot of good resources for better understanding structural racism in the guide as well.

Leah Penniman and Soul Fire Farm are nourishing the land, while nourishing people and teaching others to follow in their footsteps. The farm is healing and growing all levels of the food system, from field to producer to consumer. Physical and mental health are tied to healthy foods, strong communities, and relationships with the land that are built on a foundation of well-tended and cared for soil.