Soul Fire Farm– Working for justice, equality and sovereignty in the food system

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The things we need: food, water, shelter, sunlight; of these, food is ultimately the most important, and good food, nourishing food, at that.

But unless you are lucky enough to have a garden or share in a community garden or belong to a CSA, good food is not yours.  Instead, we are beholden to a complex of industrial farming corporations, and the transportation, packaging and grocery industries, to sell us our food. It’s theirs; it belongs to the Market and most of us have no real control over the quality and the supply. 

Nowhere is this fact more evident than in low-income communities or communities of color, where reasonably priced, healthy food is sometimes not just scarce, but unavailable.  These communities tend to be “food deserts,” where there are not markets offering fruits and vegetables, whole grain and other healthy products.  It’s just not profitable, and profit, not feeding people, is what drives the food industry in the U. S.

“One of the reasons we started Soul Fire Farm in the first place is we were living in the south end of Albany and we couldn’t even get good food to feed our family, a highly educated, highly motivated, mixed-race family.”  That’s Leah Penniman, who, with her husband Jonah Vitale-Wolff, founded Soul Fire Farm, a Black-owned, Black-run organic farm in Grafton, NY.

In the Desert

“There were no community garden plots” in that south Albany neighborhood, she continues. “If you didn’t have a car, you could not get to the grocery store and the nearest grocery store was overpriced and with poor quality produce. We tried to join a farm share, like a CSA, and that was very expensive and was our biggest expense in food and I would walk over two miles with my very young children in tow to go pick up that food,” she recalls. In other words, their neighborhoods had many of the attributes of a “food desert.”  Penniman and Vitale-Wolff decided to take action.

“When we started Soul Fire Farm, the very first project we ever did was to get food back into that community.  We did doorstep delivery; farm-share people would pay on a sliding scale depending on what they could afford and then receive the box on Wednesdays right to their house so they didn’t have to drive anywhere,” Penniman says.  An important feature of their effort was the ability to accept Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits electronically (through electronic benefit transfers, aka EBT).

“That was a great solution for this particular block in this particular city, but you know every community has their own solutions they get to participate in creating,” Penniman notes, pointing to the importance of local action as a critical aspect of the work to be done in establishing “food sovereignty,” a grassroots concept that is catching on globally.

Food Sovereignty

According to the United States Food Sovereignty Alliance, the concept was defined at the first global forum on food sovereignty, held in Mali in 2007, as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems.”  This Declaration of Nyeleni goes on to say “it puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”

Penniman points out that the current market system of industrial food production and delivery is just the latest rendition of the use of food and land “as tools to enslave people and to keep people under mass incarceration.

“I hope everyone knows about 500 years of enslavement of African people and the consequences and probably people know that, once slavery was abolished, the sharecropping and tenant farming system took its place,” Penniman says.   “But they may not know that despite that system, Black farmers were still able to earn enough of their own money to accumulate 14 million acres of their own farmland, which threatened that system.”  Ruling systems do not tolerate threats, however.

Role of the USDA

“So the vagrancy laws came into effect,” Penniman explains, “which allowed White folks to roundup Black people for essentially loitering, put them in prison, and then release them out as convict labor.”  Today, Black people own only 1 percent of farmland, partly as a result of practices by the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), exposed, she says, in the ITVS documentary “Homecoming.”

“The local USDA committees that gave out the loans allowed the USDA to be used as a weapon against civil-rights activity. Black farmers were the foundation of the organizing because they did not fear being fired. They weren’t sharecroppers, they weren’t domestics, they were independent so they were able to do their organizing as well as provide the food, the clothing and shelter, the meeting space—all the resources for that, and that was a big threat to White supremacy.” 

That was another example of how “the land has been used as a tool to oppress people,” Penniman says.  Now the question is “how do we flip the script?   One of the ways is land ownership; land reform is needed on a grand scale and we have to be funding Black-owned cooperatives, Brown-owned cooperatives and rethink land ownership,” Penniman answers.  Soul Fire Farm is of the places where the rethinking and training goes on.

At Soul Fire Farm

The work at the 72-acre Soul Fire family farm is as multifaceted as the needs are.  There is the basic work of farming and maintaining the land, operating a CSA, and supplying 80 families with affordable, nutritious, fresh foods.  But then there is also the use of the farm as a “tool” to overturn elements of racism in the food system and in society.

“We have trainings for Black and Latino farmers and training programs for young people who want to extract themselves from the school-to-prison pipeline,” she says, explaining that young people of color are being sent to jail at “14 or 15 years old for loitering, for mini theft.”  Once in jail, only able to “afford public defenders, they’re told to cop a plea, which means to plead guilty whether they’re guilty or innocent.

“So we have an agreement with the Albany County DA where we take care of our own babies; we do a 50-hour training program on-farm and people who graduate from that program get their records wiped clean. So that’s a tangible way that we are using our land to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The farmer trainings, called “immersions,” are, according to the Soul Fire website, “designed for novice growers to gain basic skills in regenerative farming and whole foods preparation in a culturally relevant, supportive, and joyful environment.” Essentially, the immersion prepares growers of color to be farmers, giving them the skills they will need to be successful, which will help to bring the food system into racial balance and equality, and insure that more and more people are able to enjoy food sovereignty.

No Brainer?

That people should be able to own land and produce their own food may seem like a “no brainer,” but it is an increasingly difficult task as more and more accessible, arable land is taken up by housing, commercial buildings and malls, and industrial agriculture.  Add to that the idea that food ought to be “appropriate”—meeting the needs and expectations of people on the basis of religious, health, nutritional, cultural and other preferences—and a true retooling is necessary.  But that needs to start from the bottom and work its way up, Penniman maintains.

“Again, I want to come back to every community has its own priorities and its own needs, so we ought to be listening to those organizations that are led by frontline communities and asking them what do you need? What resources do you need and what policy changes do you need?” she says.

“There are so many policy changes. I’ll just speak to what we would like to see at Soul Fire Farm. Obviously, there’re so many aspects within the food system from the farmer to the trucker to the person who packs your chickens for Tyson up to the workers in the restaurant, so this is by no means comprehensive, but these are some of the things that would help us as a Black-run farm to be able to do our work:

Policy Changes

  • “We would like to see EBT and SNAP benefits to be an automated reduction, so it’s much easier for other people to adopt it.  We’re still the only farm in the region to directly accept food-stamp benefits because of the paperwork burden, because it’s a felony if you mess up;
  • “We also think that the land-grant institutions should be tuition-free for people of color as a form of reparation for slavery, because what White America owes Black America for slavery, is like $4.6 trillion, so that could be in the form of free scholarships; 
  • “We also think those institutions should be paying Black and Brown farmers as adjunct faculty to do trainings on their own farms so those farms are getting supported; 
  • “We would like to see a decrease in subsidies for corporate agriculture; we are paying these corporations to destroy our land and water and exploit workers;
  • “We would like to see that money go to a fund that pays small-scale, naturally-grown farmers for our ecosystem services, so when I sequester 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of carbon a year and increase the biodiversity and soil life and health and protect the water and replenish the aquifer because of my practices, that should be an income generating source.” 

Penniman points out that current practice is to pay polluters to fix their pollution problem.  “If you’re causing pollution, NRCS we’ll give you a grant to fix it. We need to be actually taxing polluters and then paying people who are treating land properly.  That would give farms additional income so they could pay a living wage to their farmworkers,” she says. That, in turn, would be an incentive for more farms to adopt those best practices, Penniman notes.  “So those are a few things I’d like to see as a few policy changes that would make it possible for us to do our work.” 

In terms of “flipping the script” about the role of race in the food system, Penniman believes that consciousness-raising is step one.  “There are thousands of things that need to change, right?   It’s not like three, two, one, racism is over,” Penniman says.  “But I do think that people raising their consciousness by going through training, needs to be a priority.” 

Organizationally, she says that starts with “taking leadership from people-of-color organizations and then looking at your organization, asking ‘Does our board and our staff and our leadership reflect the community that we are working in?’”And if it doesn’t? “That needs to shift,” Penniman states, “because we don’t need paternalism, we don’t need charity or philanthropy, it’s really about reparations and community control and community ownership and that means actually sharing power and resources, not just giving out the dribs and drabs that trickle-down after all the grants are received.”