Located at 1972 NY-2 in Petersburg, New York, Soul Fire Farm is unique in its vision, mission and work. Soul Fire Farm, as per its website, is “an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system. We raise and distribute life-giving food as a means to end food apartheid. With deep reverence for the land and wisdom of our ancestors, we work to reclaim our collective right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system. We bring diverse communities together on this healing land to share skills on sustainable agriculture, natural building, spiritual activism, health, and environmental justice. We are training the next generation of activist-farmers and strengthening the movements for food sovereignty and community self-determination.”
Opening to the public in 2011, founders Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff named their farm after the reggae track, “Soulfire”, by Jamaican singer and producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. Identifying as multigender/genderqueer and Black Kreyol, she is a Manye (Queen Mother) in Vodun. Her partner/husband, Jonah Vitale-Wolff identifies as a Jewish, White man. Their union has been graced with a daughter, Neshima, and a son, Emet. The couple met at Clark University, from where they completed their undergraduate degrees in 2002.
Building upon her Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science and International Development, Penniman earned a Master of Science degree in Science Education from Clark in 2003, when their daughter was born. In 2005, their son was born and the family moved to Albany after she accepted a teaching position.
The origin of Soul Fire Farm tragically arose during this period, as the young adults attempted to meet the basic need of having access to healthy food at a reasonable cost. This need was pronounced because Penniman and Vitale-Wolff are parents. They lived in the South End of Albany, an area designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a food desert. However, Penniman referenced it as “food apartheid”, as a desert is a natural occurrence while a “food apartheid” is created by man. The latter all too often has devastating and generational effects upon persons of color.
In “Farming While Black: How 1 Mother is Fighting to End Racism in the Food System” Food article by Emi Boscamp at Today website, Leah Penniman emphasized, “It comes out of a legacy of redlining and housing discrimination, of divestment from communities of color, and has resulted in a situation today where if you’re White, you’re four times as likely to have a supermarket on your block than if you’re Black … The system where if you’re Black or Indigenous, you’re more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, and other diet-related illnesses, not ‘cause you don’t know how to eat, but because there is a scarcity of affordable, culturally appropriate quality food that’s accessible.”
Because both Lean Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff had professional experience, advanced degrees and more than a decade of farming, they decided to begin their own community garden. In “Soul Fire Farm: Working Toward Food Justice” by Jack Kittredge for The Natural Farmer, Penniman provided further insight to her good friend about their plight years earlier. She shared, “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 (Community Supported Agriculture) 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.”
Using their savings, receiving donations from loved ones and borrowing from friends, the couple bought seventy-two acres of land in 2006. Initially, they were going to use their site as a crop sharing system to serve those with a low income.
However, they soon added components dedicated to eradicating racism and injustice in the food system. This is an especially significant theme considering the decline in Black farmers within the past century. According to statistics Boscamp cited in her article regarding all farmers in the United States, in 1910, Black farmers peaked at 14%. They presently comprise less than 2%. Penniman explained, “This is not because Black folks don’t want to farm … This is because of a whole legacy of discrimination, of institutional racism.”
Vitale-Wolff and Penniman are incredibly passionate about their mission. To meet the demands of their farm and its increasing growth, the couple created the non-profit arm of Soul Fire Farm in 2016. The couple retains ownership of the property and the nonprofit owns the farm business. This arrangement, as per the Kittredge article, allowed that “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 its 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.”
They developed various modes for involvement, including programs, at the Soul Fire Farm have been designed to produce activist farmers who collaborate on a local, national and global level. In “Taking on Food Justice with Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman” interview, also with Tracy Frisch, in Eco Farming Daily, Penniman describes the awesome work of Soul Fire Farm. She recounts, “We’re restoring degraded hillsides. The land here ranks as the worst in the USDA Agricultural Soils Classification. By using regenerative and ancestral farming practices, we’ve brought our soil back into full health and production. Our Farm Share, a version of a CSA, predominantly serves low-income people in inner-city neighborhoods. We use a sliding scale system where people pay according to their income and wealth. Every year we host hundreds of youth at Youth Food Justice Empowerment programs. By teaching farming, cooking and leadership skills we are helping youth find a home here on the land and in the wilderness and a sense of belonging in the food system. We also train farmers — mostly Black, Latinx and Indigenous — from beginners up to folks getting ready to manage their own farms. Finally, we support activists and movement builders. Activists come here for strategic planning retreats and use the land as a basis for organizing and activism, and we support movements for food sovereignty internationally.”
Integral to Penniman’s mission is being able to be accessible for those who seriously want to be active. One means of doing this is the inclusion of sliding scale of cost. This has been made possible due to the farm’s sale of shares on a sliding cost. Fortunately, there is more than enough support to subsidize those who are unable to afford shares. Soul Fire Farm also accepts federal government programs, such as EBT, that provides resources for those with low incomes to pay for food.
According to Soul Fire Farm’s website, its food sovereignty programs have impacted more than 10,000 people annually. Topics featured in their programs are “reparations and land return initiatives for northeast farmers, food justice workshops for urban youth, home gardens for city-dwellers living under food apartheid, doorstep harvest delivery for food insecure households, and systems and policy education for public decision-makers.”
Its programs include BIPOC FIRE (Black, Indigenous and People of Color Farming in Relationship to Earth) and Black Latinx Farmers Immersion. Also inspiring is the farm’s outreach with youth. In the Civil Eats article, Henry reported, “Hundreds of children also come through the farm each growing season, through established youth programs such as residential foster care or Boys and Girls Clubs … Soul Fire farm also piloted a week-long restorative justice program through the Albany County Courts. Penniman’s goal for this group was simple yet profound: ‘We want them to leave feeling valuable and as though their contributions matter.’”
Soul Fire Farm grows approximately twenty types of fruits and more than eighty types of vegetables and raises laying hens and meat chickens. Their products are certified naturally grown, as opposed to certified organic.
They also operate their own store which sells items including lip balm, herbal teas, salts, salves and baths, preserves, t-shirts and totes. If you are in their local area, frozen whole chickens and frozen guinea hens may be bought, as a customer would have to pick them up. Also available for purchase is Leah Penniman’s acclaimed book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (2018) and the digital keynote, Uprooting Racism, Seeding Sovereignty.