Soul Fire Farm: Working Toward Food Justice

Leah and Jonah

photo by Jack Kittredge
Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff in their kitchen at Soul Fire Farm

(editor’s note – As a matter of full disclosure Julie and I need to say that Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff are our good friends. They worked at our farm in Massachusetts for several years when they were young, as did Jonah’s brother David and Leah’s sister Naima. We were present when Leah home-birthed their daughter Neshima, and know both sets of her grandparents.)

Immediately west of Williamstown, the Massachusetts town in the northwestern corner of the Bay State, is a north-south spur of the Taconic range in New York. Heading west out of Massachusetts on Route 2 one climbs via switchbacks to Petersburg Pass, then descends to Grafton, NY, site of Soul Fire Farm. The farm itself is 72 acres located largely on a long south-sloping hillside from which years of bad farming practices had allowed the soil to erode. In 2006, Jonah Vitale Wolff and Leah Penniman, then living in the South End of Albany, bought this land in a quest to grow healthy food for their family and community. It took them five more years to save enough to build a livable farmstead and move onto the land.

From crops grown there the couple built their CSA, serving families in Albany’s South End, and in 2016 decided to expand their work to include trying to uproot racism in the food system. Since then they have brought thousands of mostly young people to their on-farm educational programs such as the Black Latinx Farmers Immersion, a weeklong program “designed as a rigorous introduction to small-scale sustainable farming that balances the nerdy explication of concepts like ‘soil cation exchange capacity’ with the cultural and historical teachings necessary for our people to heal our relationships to land.”

It is hard to summarize all the work Soul Fire Farm is doing, still growing for the Albany CSA (including many Afro-indigenous vegetables and herbs), raising reparations money to settle individuals on farms, speaking at dozens of events around the country and, most recently, publishing through Chelsea Green the book “Farming While Black”. Anyone wanting to know more about these people and their work can check them out at www.SoulFireFarm.org.

This interview is mostly with Leah Penniman. Her ‘identity’ is certainly complex as a mixed race woman — with an Afro-American mother and a white father — who has converted to Judaism to be with her partner Jonah. In it we try to find out a little about the couple’s history and the successes, failures, and difficulties of the work they have undertaken.

Leah and Jonah met at Clark University, where they graduated in 2002. While a student Leah came to nearby Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, MA to work, beginning in 1999. Through her we met and hired Jonah, David and Naima. Leah got her masters degree at Clark in 2003, the year Neshima was born to the couple. Two years later, in 2005, Emet was born and they moved to Albany where Penniman was offered a teaching job.

2018 At a GlanceAs Leah explains this period, “Jonah and I started out thinking we would just farm. Not that there is anything ‘just’ about it. We were catalyzed a lot by living in the South End of Albany and running into a lot of roadblocks just trying to get good food. I grew up experiencing hunger, but I thought I was past that. I had a master’s degree! There were no grocery stores, no farmers markets, no food delivery into the neighborhood, no community garden plots, we didn’t have a car at the time. Finally we joined Denison CSA with an Albany drop off two miles away. I had Neshima in a stroller and Emet on my back. I’d pile the groceries in on top of Neshima and walk home that way. I had conversations with my neighbors about what it was like to live in a place with no food. That’s what motivated us to theme the farm we wanted to start on food access.”

Once they had purchased the farm (it wasn’t great land, they realized, but it was what they could afford) Jonah, who was a contractor, would do a job for someone else, get the money and use it on the farm. He also came out there on weekends to live and work – they had a tiny little camper in which he could live.

They moved onto the farm in December of 2010, during a massive snowstorm, Penniman recalls.

“At the time,” she says, “both of us were working full time other jobs. The farm was on the side and we hoped to be able to keep that going, which we were lucky enough to be able to do. We looked at all sorts of marketing methods, but our community was so clearly in need of food that it became our only market. We had twenty shares that first year, then doubled that and kept growing. We spend a lot of time in the winter at community events talking about the CSA, providing nutrition education, whatever people wanted us to do. That has been the primary feeder for the CSA. We know everybody who joins. They don’t come off a poster.

“The farm sells shares on a sliding scale,” she continues, “and there are enough people who are willing to pay more to enable those who can’t to afford shares too. But we got to a point in 2015 where the farm was growing and we couldn’t both be working full time off-farm. But the farm needed to make more money. To have that work we could either market to upscale restaurants by growing high end greens, or look at the value we had proven we could add through education and have a way to support ourselves doing that. We decided on the latter. We said ‘Let’s form a non-profit. Then we will have another revenue stream. We can built out the education part and that will make it possible for us to work here more and continue the CSA in the South End.’

“We had been relying a lot on volunteer labor,” she concludes, “but given the history of black labor on farms we felt uncomfortable not paying people well, so we had to raise money for that. Plus everyone was living in our house and we needed to have a place for people to sleep. We spent a sabbatical year in Mexico and that was when we figured out how non-profits work – forming a board, fundraising, etc.”

So they created the nonprofit in 2016. It owns the farm business, but not the property. The income stream supporting the enterprise has been fairly balanced at 1/3, 1/3, and 1/3. Leah and Jonah try to keep the farm paying for it’s costs, which are about a third of the total, with 90% coming from the vegetables and 10% from the chickens. Another third or so comes from program and speaker fees, and the last third come from grants.

Leah says that now perhaps that balance is closer to ¼, ¼, and ½.

Alumni Demographics and Outcomes“We accepted a pretty large grant,” she explains, “to be able to pay a living wage to our staff and be able to offer benefits. Before that we were at the bottom of the tier, paying $10 to $12 an hour. Now we pay $15 to $20. We only accepted the grant because it is for three years and the donor agreed to renew it if we don’t do anything illegal! We talked it all over with the staff. We would be stepping outside of the marketplace experienced by a commercial farm and entering the marketplace of non-profits. But that is what people wanted to do.”

Besides the farm, one of the most consuming of Soul Fire’s programs is the Black Latinx Farmers Immersion training. Trainees come for a week, arriving on a Sunday and leaving on a Friday. The program runs from 7:30 in the morning to 9:30 at night. The fee ranges from $0 to $1000, with most people paying about $200.

Using money from a partner organization that supports their work, Soul Fire actually pays Spanish-speaking farm workers to come — wage laborers with an H-2A program or something similar. They pay no fee and Soul Fire makes up the wage that the worker is missing by attending.

“It is really stretch work,” sighs Penniman, “let me tell you. My Spanish is only manageable, and the sustainable farming movement and the farm workers groups have been totally separated. They shouldn’t be, of course. We have gotten really good at helping hipsters in Brooklyn with roof-top gardens, but haven’t done much with people who grew up on a milpa in Oaxaca and are now picking strawberries in the US. They all want to run their own businesses, and we want to help them. But it is a stretch for us.”

We asked Leah if any other groups are doing similar work in the US, and she mentioned the Cornell Small Farm Program. They also have a new program for farm workers who want to become managers. It takes place over a series of weekends and Cornell is collaborating with Farm School NYC on it.

Soul Fire has had to develop innovative ways to connect with candidates for these trainings.

“We don’t have to market ourselves for most of the programs we have offered,” Leah explains. “We have a waiting list that we have to cull through. The stretch programs, however — like reaching out to farmworkers — involve people who aren’t necessarily reachable via social media and that takes more getting to know folks. Our first cohort was fifteen Mexican-born farm workers at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub who were working on farm for wages. Now we have hired some of them to help us with outreach.

We also have reunions,” she continues. “Every winter we do alumni calls. We have a volunteer in each cohort of 20 or so people who were here. The volunteer will call the other folks in the cohort and see how they are doing. That helps us know what our impact was, and to keep the relationships going. We have action programs at the end of every session here to see what people want to do with the experience. So when the volunteer calls they ask: ‘How is that food coop you were going to start doing?’

The public speaking part of the Soul Fire work is rewarding, Leah says. At first she used to think of it not as ‘the work’ but just talking about ‘the work’. But a couple things have shifted about that. A lot of people who end up at Soul Fire events started out hearing a radio interview or being at a talk. The value of story-telling is more apparent now as the feedback loop has closed. A lot of Leah’s ancestors, she realizes, were lay ministers or preachers, and she has been thinking about the oratory tradition in the church. It is a legitimate way to catalyze action in communities. Some people who have heard Leah speak even end up donating land to the farm’s reparations program.

Speaking has also become an important source of income for the work. Of the quarter that comes from speaking and program fees, most actually comes form speaking. She talks to libraries and community groups for free, but some of the bigger universities will pay a significant amount for a speaker. So the fees keep Soul Fire from depending too much on grants and doing things they may not want to do, plus the speaking seems to motivate people to take supportive actions.

As co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, Penniman has had to do a tremendous amount of work for the last few years. She hopes, however, that things are moving in a way that will give her a little more personal time and space.

“We are in the process of shifting things,” she says hopefully, “so I don’t have to handle as much as I do. I started keeping hours to monitor that. I work 75 to 80 hours a week, which is too much. I do 20 hours at Darrow School (a private school a half hour away in New Lebanon, NY). Then another 55 to 60 hours at Soul Fire. When we were so much smaller here I always kept an outside job for money and the health insurance. At this point that is not necessary, but we’re not willing to send our kids to public school out here because there have been racist and anti-Semitic incidents and there are no honors programs. I don’t know if it is rougher than the school where I went when I was growing up, but I wouldn’t wish that on anyone!

“So we send the kids to private school,” she continues. “Because I teach there we get free tuition. Now that I have been doing that for three years and they like our family I have been able to negotiate with them to keep the free tuition for my doing a couple of professional development courses. That will take care of the kids for the next four years.

“That is one step,” she concludes. “Also, we had no office support so we are hiring someone. Right now we are training her, so it is more work, but that ought to ease up soon.”

Asked whether forming the non-profit was the right choice, she says it was. One always underestimates how much work everything is, she suggests, including non-profit and employee management. So she has been reading books and listening to podcasts on management.

Leah also feels good about another decision the couple has made.

“We have decided not to just grow and grow and grow at Soul Fire,” she says, “even though there is pressure to do so from funders and the community. We want a kitchen table sized organization where we have authentic relationships. The forest is sort of a model. You have each tree dumping its sugars into a mycelial network that supports the others. You don’t have one 400 foot tall tree, but a lot of strong ones the same size. The people who we have trained and supported are our success stories. Some people who have come here as trainers are now setting up similar programs themselves. That is exciting. And some farmers are now on land that has been donated through our reparations program.”

“One day last summer,” Penniman relates, “I was walking with Emet and he said: ‘Mommy, can we just go back to having our farm?’ (she laughs) Our team is now nine people — that is a lot more than two. I’ve read that for every person you add to your team you need to budget 20% of your time to support that person. I was still assuming I would do 100% percent of the things I was doing before we had all these people. But it doesn’t work that way. The training, the supervision, the support, the relationship building, birthdays… There is a lot of stuff like that which needs to be done.”

Leah has been doing all the fundraising, public speaking, and media work for Soul Fire, though they are now getting people to manage that. But she feels proud of the pace at which the couple has built the farm, despite the work.

“We did this with our own resources,” she stresses. “That is how it should be done. We saved money, we borrowed money, we built things with our own hands. We had an opportunity to build the institution at a natural pace. If someone just drops a property on people who barely know each other and says ‘create an institution’, there are going to be challenges if people haven’t built trust, haven’t established any norms, haven’t worked out their goals and values.”

Penniman has been surprised that some of the work she does has not been as challenging as she expected.

“Like fundraising,” she cites. “I thought that would be hard. But we have figured out how to get good at it. Or like farming this crappy soil. That is a challenge but we have managed well enough.”

“The problem has been the internal stuff,” she continues. “How do we figure out how to all get along with each other, working and being in such close proximity? Someone is living here from March through November, in the guest room. We also have an apartment and a yurt that people stay in. During the programs our hired facilitators have tents on platforms they stay on. Right now we are constructing a bathhouse so people will have showers and toilets away from the house. That will be a total game changer, without people needing to go upstairs in our house!

“The opposite,” she concludes, “would be worse, of course – if no one ever came here or visited or cared what we were doing. There are a lot of farmers in our community who struggle with that – what is the meaning of life, why am I here? But as the non-profit has grown I personally feel that it is more and more of a struggle to find the time to do those things that got me started in the first place. I have barely preserved any food this year, I’m hardly farming at all – just teaching a farming class.”

One of the many sprouts Soul Fire is tending is a land trust called the Northeast Farmers of Color Community Land Trust. It includes Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian farmers all across the Northeast. Soul Fire is the fiscal sponsor of the fledgling organization, and is helping it figure out issues like incorporation and governance.

Representative of the sincerity with which the couple is acting, they are working with the Stockbridge Munsee Mohican community, who were originally in the Taconic region but were kicked off to Wisconsin. Leah and Jonah are offering that community a “cultural respect easement” on their land — a new tool only legally recognized right now in California and Maine. It works like a conservation restriction but allots to a native community certain rights in perpetuity – hunting, fishing, burial, things like that, not agriculture. The land trust Soul Fire sponsoring will hold legal title to the easement for the community.

It has not always been easy, however, to work with these communities. Leah feels this is the organizing that most tests her.

“The land trust is really exciting,” she says, “but it is some of the most challenging organizing I ever did. I went into it really naively, you know: ‘All these people who don’t have land will be natural allies’. But I have learned a lot of what happened in history to the folks in the Northeast. It makes sense now in retrospect. I read An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. It helped me understand how colonizers used the divide and conquer strategy to cement their power. They pitted indigenous groups against each other. The seeds of mistrust, once sown, only get deeper. And so if I hang out with the chief of one tribe then the chief of another tribe will not be my friend – will just stop answering my calls. The groups have been divided against each other. The colonizers did this between Black and Native folks, too. The Cherokees were encouraged to own slaves before the Civil War. Then, after Emancipation, Blacks could join the Buffalo Soldiers, special branches of the US Army, and go kill ‘Indians’ out west and get land. What does all that do to relationships between communities?

“So,” she continues, “that explains a little about when I say: ‘Hey, kumbaya! We’re going to have a meeting and form a land trust,’ I get a lot of: ‘Well, I don’t talk to that person or that other person.’ The work of the last year has stopped being about legal documents and we just have listening sessions! We try to understand native communities and other communities and what is going on for them. It is not going to be over easily. There were centuries during which the divisions were fostered, so it is going to take more than a couple of months to heal them!”

At Clark Leah majored in science, so she’s not well versed in management skills. But she has been reading and studying that stuff.

“The way humans work,” she relates, “and the psychology of groups and organizations – people have done a lot of thinking about it. People work remotely, for instance. But there is interesting science around how often you need to be face to face with someone for your brain not to turn them into an enemy. That is why big rich companies like Google will fly their whole team to Fiji for a week. They know it makes good economic sense for their team cohesiveness. We don’t go to Fiji, but it helps me think about how much our people see each other and whether I have a program team lunch to get my two remote people at the same table once in awhile.”

“We have built more programs where Jonah can take the lead,” she adds. “The carpentry program, for instance, and a few explicitly Jewish farming groups that came that Jonah worked closely with. This experience is a lot for him to hold as a white male and it has been a journey for him. He is running two weeks of builder’s immersion programs next year, and is going to have an assistant.”

Jonah himself thinks he is okay at managing employees, especially white men.

“The few times we have had young white men,” he recalls, “it is great, it works awesome. Those are easy relationships. But that is not what I have here. I feel that I have come a long way in my management skills and my personal work around racism and patriarchy. But even with all that cleaned up, there is so much there that it is hard to gauge how I’m doing, being a white guy in an organization that works almost entirely with people of color, often not males. The dynamic is just ripe for so much history to butt up against.”

With Neshima 16 and Emet now 14, the family’s days together are soon to come to an end. This is an eventuality neither parent is quite ready to face.

“We really like the kids and we all get along. It will be devastating to have them go,” says Penniman. “I told Jonah: ‘I’m not doing this without you.’ It is not always easy between us, but the things he is good at and the things I am good at are perfect complimentary puzzle pieces in putting together a venture like this. The success of this place has been because of our whole family. They helped build this house, run these programs. I think what people like about Soul Fire is they come and see this whole family unit working together. A seven year old can teach them how to slaughter a chicken.”

Jonah says, “For me, I have really settled into my parenting and my relationship with my kids in the last five years. I feel super about them. So I don’t want to see them go. I know I need to be in the moment. But I don’t want them to leave. They are some of my favorite humans in the world.”