The folks behind Soul Fire Farm are using their bare hands to grapple with thorny issues like food apartheid, structural racism, generational trauma, state violence, and environmental justice. All summer, the core team of farmer-activists, joined by countless volunteers, urban youth, and various apprentices, have their hands and feet deep in the soil of this five-acre farm as they work to cultivate both their produce and their mission for change. In speaking with one of the farm’s natural leaders, Leah Penniman, her profound knowledge of and passion for the issues — couched in a calm and pleasant demeanor — fill you with the confidence that they are on the right path.
Co-founders and longtime activists, Penniman and her husband, Jonah Vitale-Wolff, initially bonded as college students at Clark University. Their path would take them to Albany in 2005, where Vitale-Wolff started a construction company, Hudson Valley Natural Building, and Penniman founded the Harriet Tubman Democratic High School. During their time living in Albany’s South End, they noticed “that it was easier to get weapons and drugs than healthy food.” Never hesitating to take action, they purchased 72 acres in Grafton (15 miles from Troy), and began building the five-acre farm and the timber-frame house where the Soul Fire Farm nonprofit organization would come to life.
Every Tuesday morning, the Soul Fire team meets around a long dinner table in the large, exposed-beam house they built. On the agenda: improving access to healthy food for people in places that don’t have supermarkets, co-ops, or farmers’ markets (they apply the term “food apartheid” to describe human-created conditions like these). Soul Fire tackles the issue head-on through a unique sliding-scale CSA program they call Ujaama — a Swahili word for cooperative economics, according to Penniman — that includes options for doorstep delivery of the organic produce and meat grown and raised on their farm. Other items on the to-do list include planning of youth programming that provides education, skill-building, and healing for primarily black and Latino youth. The aim is to offer an avenue for young people to connect with a proud African-American agricultural history that preceded slavery and learn about African-American agriculturalpioneers like Booker T. Whatley, who invented the CSA, Fannie Lou Hamer, who started the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969, and George Washington Carver, an early pioneer of the organic agriculture movement. Penniman explains, “So much of slavery and sharecropping overshadowed the positives about our relationships with the land.”
In the warm months, the farm is filled with students and apprentices taking part in one of their immersion programs targeted at expanding the land-ownership base of black and Latinx farmers by empowering them with the necessary skills to farm on their own. Soul Fire accepts 20 applicants per each weekly immersion session for a reasonable cost.
While this farm is sure to encounter road blocks in their work, their energy, passion, and commitment promise to produce results in the fight toward equity in our food systems and beyond.
To find out more about Soul Fire Farm’s Farm Share CSA, immersion programs, volunteer opportunities, and activist retreats go to www.soulfirefarm.org