SOUL FIRE FARM; Grafton, NY
Leah Penniman, Farm Educator
Words by Leah Penniman
Photos by Capers Rumph
Orginally published in Yes Magazine
Soul Fire Farm is a family farm in Grafton, N.Y., committed to the dismantling of the oppressive structures that misguide our food system. We are a community resource, a vessel for education, and grow our life-giving food without pesticides, fertilizers, or hormones. With deep reverence for the land and the wisdom of our ancestors, we act in solidarity with people marginalized by racial inequalities in access to food. We bring diverse communities together on this healing land to share skills in sustainable agriculture, cooking, and natural building, and contribute to the movements for food sovereignty and community self-determination. The Black and Latino Farmers Immersion program is designed for aspiring and novice farmers to gain basic skills in farming and whole foods preparation in a culturally relevant and supportive environment. Leah Penniman is farm educator at Soul Fire Farm.
"Land is the only real wealth in this country and if we don't own any we'll be out of the picture."
— Ralph Paige, Federation of Southern Cooperatives
We have been uprooted from our land. As African-Americans, many of our ancestors were stolen from West Africa to be sold into slavery. As Latinos, they were forced out of Mexico by international trade deals like NAFTA. As First Nations people, they were driven to walk the Trail of Tears. Some of our ancestors put down roots in new soils. For more than 400 years they tilled the red earth of the American South, while others joined the ranks of “foreign-born” agricultural workers. Our ancestors built the foundation for this country’s wealth and power.
We knew the land and belonged to the land, but the land did not belong to us. Brutal racism—maiming, lynching, burning, deportation, economic violence, legal violence—ensured that our roots would not spread deeply and securely. In 1910, at the height of black land ownership, 15 million acres of farmland—14 percent of the total—was owned and cultivated in the black community, according to the PBS series “Homecoming.” Now, less than 1 percent of farms are black-owned.
Our black ancestors were forced, tricked, and scared off of land until 6.5 million of them migrated to the urban North in hopes of a better future. This was the largest migration in U.S. history, according to The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.
As the playwright August Wilson wrote:
We were a land based agrarian people from Africa. We were uprooted from Africa and we spent 200 years developing our culture as black Americans and then we left the South. We uprooted ourselves and attempted to transplant this culture to the pavements of the industrialized North. It was a transplant that didn’t take. I think if we had stayed in the South we would have been a stronger people and because the connection between the South of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s has been broken, it’s very difficult to understand who we are.
The Black and Latino Farmers Immersion at Soul Fire Farm is a humble attempt to rewrite part of this story, to reclaim our ancestral right to both belong to the land and have the land belong to us. It is also part of my personal story as a Haitian-American farmer navigating a largely white farming world in search of relevancy and connection.
Twenty aspiring growers arrived at Soul Fire Farm from the nearby cities of Albany, New York City, and Boston, as well as from faraway places like California and Florida. Each person placed incredible trust in the leadership team and the learning process, many camping for the first time, eating whole-food versions of traditional black and Latino cuisine, working the earth in hot sun and dreary rain, and engaging in vulnerable personal reflection that allowed healing tears to surface.
Our leadership team greeted the participants with warm hugs and a hot meal. Our team included Adaku Utah, a Nigerian-born dancer and herbalist, who took the lead on reflection and movement. Brazilian-born chef Ellie Markovitch coordinated the kitchen and cooking instruction. My sister Naima Penniman, an acclaimed Haitian-American poet, activist, and former farmer, joined to co-facilitate the farm work with resident farmers Jonah Vitale-Wolff and me. Our children, Neshima, 11, and Emet, 9, did their part to share their farm knowledge and encourage play. Additionally, each participant was given the opportunity to lead an activity matched to his or her skills.
Learning and healing
After the welcome dinner and tour, the leadership team and participants wrote the collective agreements that would define our time together (for example, “Ask questions rather than assume,” and “Push beyond your comfort zone”).
We then established a routine that married flexibility with
clarity, grit with introspection. Each day, beginning at
6:30 a.m., we got our hands on the land. There were three
experiential work periods per day, each one ranging from
one to three hours long—a gentle introduction to the
corporeal rigors of farm life. Naima, Jonah, and I took time
to explain the how and why of each task, including harvesting
vegetables, packing boxes for the farm’s CSA program, taking
care of chickens, mulching, weeding by tool and by hand,
pruning tomatoes, and casting seeds.
There were several days of driving rain, punctuated by hail,
which threatened to demoralize those participants who had
not heeded the recommendation to bring quality rain gear.
Anticipating the emotional fatigue of the group heading out
to weed for the third consecutive day, I reminded the
participants of the difference between capitalism and the
earth’s economy. In contrast to the linear and consumptive nature of capitalism, a life bound to the earth is cyclical and productive. So that we all may eat, we must pick the weeds. They regrow and we pick again, on an on, for all our days. And we find beauty and presence in the picking. To reward our surrender to this truth, a bright double rainbow appeared while we weeded.
The leadership team also offered participants lectures and seminars on the conceptual framework behind farm planning. During the longest work block we would break for a lecture in the field and address natural building, orchard planning, tractor basics, and herb cultivation. The children, Neshima and Emet, stood in and offered tips on how to grow their favorite herbs and tree fruits. Jonah did a beautiful job balancing times when it was correct for him, as a white person, to step forward and share knowledge (like in tractor class) and when to let others share their wisdom and expertise. During some of these blocks he led conversations with the other white allies working on the farm about their role in ending racism.
After lunch, I brought out a stack of reference texts and spreadsheets so that participants could dive into crop planning, soil management, whole food preparation, and the creation of a strategic operation plan. It was the first time I taught a group that was able to invent metaphors using hip hop to elucidate “cation exchange capacity,” a concept in soil chemistry. (Mos Def is like low-CEC soil that has few binding sites for nutrients because there’s just one vocalist in the project, while Wu-Tang Clan is like high-CEC soil that has more binding sites because there are more vocalists.)
Whole foods, whole people
To work and live on the land was a new experience for many and a challenging experience for some. To support the healthy adjustment of body and spirit to farm life, we offered a guided midday movement break and evening personal reflection. Adaku and Naima led us in yoga, improvisational dance, and Thai massage before lunch each day. After the workday ended at five, mud-caked participants rested and reflected as guest facilitators offered sitting and walking meditation enhanced with the vibration of gongs and earthy scent of burning sage.
Adaku designed a forest labyrinth and guided us lovingly through a maze
in which we were prompted to engage with our senses and our hearts.
Another guest facilitator led us in a healing hum circle that dissolved
into giggles. I offered a ritual herbal bath with a meditation on the
beauty and completeness of our unadorned selves. The forest and
pond provided our temple and kissed us with rain mist. One participant
said that these reflections “reawakened a dormant joy … Somewhere
along the way I lost something and I now remember what it was.”
Head chef Ellie Markovitz magnetized us with her deep reverence for
food and the stories it holds, never allowing a morsel to be wasted.
At the conclusion of the meal, one participant shared her family’s
tradition of chanting a statement by Black Panther activist Assata
Shakur: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and protect each other. We have nothing to
lose but our chains.”
We chanted it over and over, getting louder each time until the powerful
echoes of the shouts mingled with quiet tears—tears for the struggles of
oppressed peoples and tears for the hope of liberation.
After the clatter of dinner dishes being washed subsided, participants gathered on the rug of the living room in the farm house to continue their learning. One night, we screened the heart-wrenching PBS documentary “Homecoming,” about the history of black land loss in the United States.
The take-home message of the documentary is best summarized by Toni Morrison as she wrote in her 1977 novel Song of Solomon:
See? See what you can do? Never mind you can’t tell one letter from another, never mind you born a slave, never mind you lose your name, never mind your daddy dead, never mind nothing. Here, this here, is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back in it. Stop sniveling,” [the land] said. “Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this county right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on—can you hear me? Pass it on!
There was a reverent silence thick with hope and mourning as the credits rolled. Then, Emet picked up his head, hesitated in his search for words, then stammered, “I just feel so intertwined with you all.”
On another night, a spontaneous and raucous living-room dance party emerged, mixing salsa, urban house music, and Afro-Caribbean percussion. Participants danced their way down the stairs with exaggerated gestures into a circle of laughter and support. A Brazilian capoeira roda, or dance circle, formed and the recorded music gave way to call and response singing. Then, people brought out guitars and journals and shared intimate song and poetry. These gifts were received with the “hallelujahs” best known from the black church and with the rapid finger snapping of urban poetry slams. With the air thick with aromas of fried plantain and black beans, shea butter, and rain damp sweaters, and everyone’s eyes heavy with the need to sleep, one participant closed the evening with a freestyle rap that praised the character of each person in the room with astounding accuracy. A friend was visiting for the night and remarked, “Each time I come here, my heart opens a little bit more.”
The sense of family was so safe and palpable that Jonah accepted the urging of the group to recite the speech he wrote for his brother’s wedding, which compared mulch to love. It was such that, while picking beans, participants openly shared stories of childhood traumas, divorce, cancer, and children birthed and lost. It was such that, when Adaku had to leave two days early, the entire group surrounded her, singing Stevie Wonder’s “As” with the refrain “I’ll be loving you always” in harmony, then collapsing into a group hug. It was such that, even as the rain soaked bedding and cell phones, folks did not flinch—choosing love and joy over stress. It was such that the tears flowed freely at the closing meal and even waiting for the bus in the parking lot, we could not help but dance.
Black and Latino Farmers Immersion was a little peek into what is possible in a mended world. Our people have been traumatized and disoriented. I believe that we mixed up the oppression of racism and named it the land herself and strove to divorce ourselves from her in an effort to get free. But without the land we cannot be free.
Currently our food system is in the control of a small number of massive corporations, which are beholden to private profit, not public good, and certainly not to the welfare of people of color and the economically disadvantaged. When we get together in our dignity and power to own our means of survival, make decisions about the food system, learn to grow the food that nourishes us, cook for one another, and heal with one another—we can then return to wholeness.
For more information about Soul Fire Farm and the Black and Latino Farmers Immersion Program, visit their website