Ending Food Injustice | Leah Penniman | Soul Fire Farm | Grafton, NY

I’m super excited because my guest is as passionate about social justice as I am and she’s used her life and skills to really connect social justice and food justice together. I think you will love this interview with Leah Penniman from Soul Fire Farm  in New York!LeahPenniman_photocredit_Jamel Mosely-Mel eMedia


Soul Fire Farm is committed to ending racism and injustice in our food system.

20 years of experience as a soil steward and food sovereignty activist.

Tell us a little about yourself.


Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land

Definitely, I’d be happy to!

I’ve been farming 22 years and I am the founding co-director of Soul Fire Farms

IT’s a little community farm run by Black-Indigenous Latin and located up in the mountains of Grafton NY

in love with farming my whole life, NY and really see it as a foundation for social justice and environmental stewardship. Here at Soul Fire Farms


We are committed to ending racism in the food system.

Part of that is what we grow in our food.


We grow on 5 acres and all of that gets boxed up to those who need it most in the community



people who have an incarcerated loved one

latin indigenous folks who want to farm

We have cultivated 500 new farmers over the years through our program.

How are you supporting your farm if you are donating all of this food? Where are you getting your money from do you sell some food too? Do you get donations? Where do you get your income from?

That’s a really valid question, we started out as a family farm and we started out to be a viable business. 

it would be a little strange to be training the next generation of farmers if it was a farm that relies on donations or a slush fund. 

So we use a sliding scale model

people who earn more money and have more wealth pay more



The farmer get’s market value for the produce

non-profit branch to our work we get some funds for that that helps with our education 

youth programs we do

public education

We travel all around the regions sharing information about food justice.

I love all this, this weekend was the indigenous march in Washington DC and the kids at a large interaction with the and the government shut down over immigration and here you are helping train immigrants and doing all this wonderful work. I feel like it’s such a timely topic.


Tell me about your first gardening experience?

So, I did not grow up gardening

I did grow up in a rural area and was friends with the trees for sure. Our family was often one of the only brown skin families in town.

We got

  • bullied
  • taunted

So we spent quite a bit of time outside and the forest was really our first friend.

When it was time to get a summer job as a team

got a job in Boston at the food project

From the very first time I felt the satisfaction of using a strip hoe  to clean up a row of cilantro I was just completely hooked.

Not only did we grow food on 40 acres

  • urban market
  • garden in the city on vacant lots
  • soup kitchens

social justice and working with the earth directly!

Fascinating! I love the way you talk about getting hooked cleaning up a row of cilatnro? So what were the next steps how did you start a farm?

yeah! So Soul Fire farm started with just our partner

Jonah and our 2 children

newborn and 

south end of Albany my

high poverty area

food deserts

food apartheid

results in certain folks being hungry

others having

join a farm csa that was super expensive and walk over 2 miles to pick up the vegetables

Our neighbors, didn’t have that luxury and when they found out we knew how to farm

encouraging us

purchased this inexpensive and highly eroded land up in the hills no one wanted


build a house



open the farm in the beginning of 2010

So to me this must be a suburb? Rural? Of Albany?

3 1/2 hours

40 minutes


everything is through a CSA farm share

Dr. Booker Taliaferro Washington

Out of Tuskegee University

The idea is people are members. Our commitment because a lot of people don’t have transportation is to take it to their doorstep. We provide this service 

delivery service

In Albany and in Troy 25 minutes

We deliver 100 families!


You have so much going on in a small space

5-6 hours

for meat

Small demonstration flock

for meat we raise in batches of 50

learners get to learn the process of chicken harvesting

we time it so folks get that

acres of fruits and vegetables we have here on the farm.

Tell us about something that grew well this year? 

What was I excited about?

a few things winter

unconventional thing

the horseradish crops

african/american african/dispora

horseradish we grow for a jewish

holiday of passover we use horseradish in cerimony

to remind us of the bitterness of slavery


know matter what you do to it, put it in the most waterlogged, clay soil and hack it up and that reminds me of the tenacity we need in these troubleing times.

We have horseradish growing, we never eat it but it’s definitley growing in very poor soil, getting bigger over the years.

Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?

something we have been trying to grow


an herb that grows almost like a weed in puerto Rico


  • salsa
  • Sofrito
  • apies 

culantro doesn’t like upstate NY

north Carolina house

culturally important

  • pigeon pea
  • lemon grass
  • black peanut

I’m super excited we have the traditional herbs that our community needs

Tell me about something that didn’t work so well this season?

well in our region we had a really wet excessively wet


melon collapse

squash weren’t super wicked about it

that’s why we have a diverse farm and you always win some lose some so if you have a lot of different crops you’ll be ok

What are some of the tips you might have like my husband and I have about 1/3 of an acre that we planted and 2 acres sounds so big, do you have any tips for people who want to make that jump from backyard gardener to market farmer.

with 2 acres you can do a lot

really intensively

row crops

10 20 30 acres

100 different types of veggies

We probably started on a 1/3 of an acre. I was just doing it Sundays after school

expanded as capacity and time

don’t have to grow a lot of acre


commercial operation is just 

  • sauerkraut or
  • mushrooms
  • honeybees

So you just focus on one place

I just was going through an interview I did with Aidan from Young’s Farm that was transitioning from traditional to organic farming. 

Produce Project oct2012 (88)

Which activity is your least favorite activity to do in the garden?

I’ve tried to eliminate those as much as possible!

I really do love a lot of the tasks others don’t love

  • more rigorous
  • sweat inducing
  • challenging
  • hand digging beds

Last year we had a winter operation

our climate yesterday, it was negative 26º with the windchill

We were doing cut greens in the tunnel, I had frozen fingers and I look around and I realized that the bears and deer, owls are hibernating and here I am trying to farm.

I know that when I go to Long Island i the winter, it’s so cold. I can’t imagine cutting greens in the winter


We reserve our winters now for our community education work.

Do you want to talk about that?

did that for

it’s huge

that’s the main thing I do at this point

managing the farm

farm team


People probably don’t know but

commercial farming is the whitest profession!


latin x

good diversity of people managing farms

it isn’t by accident

discrimination by government

taking away indigenous people’s lands


state of subjugation


At Soul Fire Farms we’re engaging by trying to make as many opportunities for farmers 

people who want to be farmers from marginalized communities

education programs on the farm

trainings and mentorship

land some jobs

making sure that this next generation can make a life on land if they want

Do you have any tips for things that work good? How to set up an internship, how to find people, or mistakes you would tell people not to try. Because having people come work can be a challenge.


definitely get involved in a network



help give you best practices

don’t have anyone

That goes both ways

make sure you are set up to give them a positive experience

  • fair wage
  • adequate house
  • supporting

volunteer days

people come and make sure we have enough experienced folks set up and if we find they keep coming on an ongoing basis we hire them as staff

time to be focused

That’s something people have mentioned that really focusing on teaching and working with the volunteers are doing, make sure you are providing them with an education and a nice lunch, don’t think you are going to just get things done because the volunteers are here that day.

What is your favorite activity to do in the garden?

oh, I love almost everything!

I would say the more gross motor skills. I like to

  • dig beds
  • weed
  • transplanting
  • direct seed

fine detail

  • picking bugs
  • harvesting

not so much!

I feel like I can’t loose myself as much

love farming on my own

letting my mind just run free while my body is really engaged in the work of tending the soil!

What is the best gardening advice you have ever received?

best advice

not in the practical

Karen Washington

rise and root


she’s the reason I’m still farming

I was ready to quit

passionate went to all the conferences

wouldn’t see anyone who looked like me

  • did I chose the wrong thing?
  • did I miss the memo about where I am supposed to be? 

few people in that space

Don’t give up, you’re part of the returning generation of black farmers

hang in there

she was really right and she continues to be a close mentor of mine

Hang in there!

Do you have any suggestions listeners can do to help with things? You seem so solution oriented

that’s the great thing about a problem that’s so big

  • hurting farm workers
  • distributing land unfairly
  • not getting food to people who need it

there’s so many points of solution

If you go to our website at Soul Fire Farms we have all these ways to get involved

action steps on our website

whole list of things communities are acting for


visiting our reparations map

tool folks who have gone through our program put things they need

whether it’s 

  • land
  • or a tractor
  • tech assistance

A favorite tool that you like to use? If you had to move and could only take one tool with you what would it be?

Hands down it would be the hoe specifically it would be 

the heavy hoes that the use in west Africa and Haiti

  • primary tillage
  • forming beds
  • cultivation
  • ton of fun to use!

Produce Project oct2012 (77)

A favorite recipe you like to cook from the garden?

Soup Joumou

Haitian national dish

jewel pumpkin

Tiano people in Caribbean


island of ispanola

After the independence was fought and won, the formerly enslaved people celebrated with this pumpkin

every year on new year

independence day we make the soup joumou and share it with our friends and with our community members

That’s interesting!


A favorite internet resource?

To be honest I don’t do much web surfing because 

because something came across a list serve. I’m part of 

Food Service Alliance

US Food Sovereignty Alliance

National Black Food Justice Alliance

So people are kind enough that they will post things relevant to these lists so I don’t have to scroll.

That’s a good recommendation there those listserves because who has time to watch video?! That’s why I love podcasting, cause I’m always like who has time for video? And if it’s a book I want the hard copy in my hands.

A favorite reading material-book, mag, blog/website etc you can recommend?

I love to read!

My all time favorite

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants


Robin Wall Kimmerer

Like me she is a

  • scientist
  • gardener
  • plant-lover

Has a deep spiritual connection and she weaves all of those together in her book!

I’ve wanted to read that!

If you have a business to you have any advice for our listeners about how to sell extra produce or get started in the industry?

I think what’s so important is knowing your market

didn’t struggle with that aspect because we started a farm on community interest

stated community need

We were told we need doorstep delivery of vegetables

That’s a good first step

market research


community building

Sometimes when I’m doing the interview. IDK anyone else that I remember where a CSA actually delivers to someone’s home. I always thought I would not make a good CSA customer because I don’t want to be somewhere on a certain day? Does it give you some flexibility. Do you harvest some the day before?

Oh absolutely of course it depends on time of year

mon and tues

putting things in the cooler

Wed morning we box everything up a separate box for each customer and then we deliver between 

noon at

range of times

usually get to your neighborhood between 1-2 so make sure you are home or you leave a cooler or cool space.

I think that doorstep to doorstep is a cool tweek, I talked with Casey O’Leary about doing everything on a bike in the beginning hauling things to the farmer’s market etc.

Final question-

if there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?

it is

I’ll do my best to choose one thing

more on the environmental side of things

climate chaos

The soil itself is the biggest reservoir of carbon

If everyone in the world would use indigenous agriculture practices we could sequester all that carbon and halt climate change in it’s tracks

I think the work of

  • gardeners
  • farmers

intertwined with the survival of the planet

We need to be doing

  • low and no-till
  • cover cropping
  • permanent raised beds
  • agroforestry

not just doing them

return the land to indigenous

Do you ever think about running for congress?

creating alternative institutions

power and control

what we are doing with the land


reform is important

protest and resistance

building the alternatives

expertise is very much in building the world we want to see so as long as I am doing a decent job of it I am going to stick with it.

It seems like you are doing a fantastic job and you seem solution minded which is nice.


Do you have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden?

I’ll leave you with a quote from Fanny Lou Hamer

Mississippi freedom democratic

freedom farm

“When you’ve got 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, nobody can push you around or tell you what to say or do.”

That’s excellent!

How do we connect with you and if you have anything we haven’t talked about?

folks can reach us at www.soulfirefarm.org

Information about all our programs and volunteering etc.

reparations map

Soul Fire Farm

@soulfirefarm on twitter


Thanks for sharing with us, I think they will be inspired and hope listeners will check out your website and attend some events etc.

Wait, what’s the book tour? Did you just write a book?


Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land

Chelsey Green Publishing

You can get it wherever fine books are sold.

What I love about this book we put together is it’s very practical about gardening tips from

  • how to save seeds
  • how to plan your market farm 

but it also has this neat history about contributions of black farmers to sustainable ag and how you can help create a more just food system.

Yeah! There’s a bunch of book talk dates! At the University of New Hampshire all the way through next November! Get the book and don’t forget to leave a 5 star review on amazon! I love Chelsey Green especially now that Rodales is gone! 


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About the author, Jackie Marie

I'm an artist and educator. I live at the "Organic Oasis" with my husband Mike where we practice earth friendly techniques in our garden nestled in the mountains of Montana.

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