With deep reverence for the land and with the guidance of ancestral wisdom, Soul Fire Farm works to reclaim our collective right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system.
Here in our feature “Grateful Changemakers,” we celebrate programs and projects that serve as beacons of gratefulness. These efforts elevate the values of grateful living and illuminate their potential to transform both individuals and communities. Join us in appreciating the inspiring and catalyzing contribution these Changemakers offer to shaping a more grateful world.
Soul Fire Farm
With deep reverence for the land and with the guidance of ancestral wisdom, Soul Fire Farm works to reclaim our collective right to belong to the Earth and to have agency in the food system. In addition to raising and distributing life-giving food as a means to end food apartheid, the organization brings diverse communities together to share skills on sustainable agriculture, natural building, spiritual activism, health, and environmental justice. Through all of its work, the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)-centered community farm is training the next generation of activist-farmers and strengthening the movements for food sovereignty and community self-determination. Cheryl Whilby shares more on behalf of the Soul Fire Farm team about how their commitment to ending racism and injustice in the food system is informed by a land ethic built on grateful reciprocity.
What sparked the founding/creation of Soul Fire Farm?
Soul Fire Farm was founded out of a need to increase our community’s access to fresh and affordable vegetables. In 2006, cofounders Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff were living in the South End of Albany, New York (NY). The South End of Albany was and still is an area living under food apartheid where it is difficult for folks to access healthy and affordable food options without owning a car. When community members learned of Leah and Jonah’s knowledge and experience in farming, they asked the family to start a farm to help feed the community. Leah and Jonah agreed and got to work on acquiring the land and resources to build a farm and opened Soul Fire Farm in 2010. Recognizing that most issues in our food system have deep roots in racism, including food apartheid, Soul Fire Farm has expanded its work over the years to continue our fight in uprooting racism in our food system.
How does Soul Fire Farm fill a need for everyone it serves and communities as a whole?
Soul Fire Farm offers farm shares to community members living under food apartheid through institutional partnerships and social justice organizations. The majority of recipients report positive health impacts and a dignified experience receiving this food. We also build and support urban gardens for households in the Capital District of Albany through “Soul Fire in the City,” the majority of whom report a joyful and successful experience harvesting produce from their gardens.
Through our farming immersion program and other workshops at our farm, we annually equip hundreds of adults and youth with the land-based skills needed to reclaim leadership as farmers and food justice organizers in their communities, to heal their relationship with Earth, and to imagine bolder futures. Using land as a tool to heal from racial trauma, we work to reverse the dangerously low percentage of farms being owned and operated by people of color and increase the leadership of people of color in the food justice movement. Our graduates receive ongoing mentorship to access resources, land, and training, and they are invited to join our speakers collective so that they can amplify their voice in the food system.
Lastly, we mobilize the public to create a racially just food system. We collaborate with regional and national food justice networks to advance reparations, establish action platforms, and work on campaigns for farmer survival and dignity. Each year, we inspire thousands of community members though speaking at conferences, publishing articles/book chapters, and facilitating workshops for activists to share tangible methods for dismantling racism in the food system and increasing community food sovereignty. We also host on-farm educational and community-building events for hundreds of participants.
How do you see Soul Fire Farm as being related to living gratefully?
At Soul Fire Farm, we practice grateful living by giving thanks to and honoring the land that we are stewarding as well as to the original stewards of the land. We remember and recognize that the land we are on is stolen land, historically stewarded by the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation. We have been building a relationship with members of the community over the past several years, and we are currently in the process of establishing a “cultural respect easement” that would allow Mohican citizens to use the Soul Fire Land for ceremonies and wildcrafting in perpetuity.
We believe that the land is a relative, not a commodity. We use divination tools from West Africa to ask permission of the Land before making any major changes. We sing and dance to our crops to maintain our good relationship with the Ground. Our regenerative, carbon sequestering farming practices — such as no-till, cover crops, mulch, compost, raised beds, agroforestry, silvopasture, and native species restoration – are part of that covenant to care for the Land. The Land gives us so much, and so we show our gratitude by giving back to the Land.
How does Soul Fire Farm nurture gratefulness and related actions (love, kindness, compassion, etc.)?
Soul Fire Farm hosts many Uprooting Racism trainings around the country where we touch upon topics that often cause our audiences to question their part in perpetuating racism in our food system. Ultimately, the goal of our trainings is to educate and facilitate discussion to help participants realize ways that they can dismantle racism in their local or larger food system, rather than being complicit. These conversations are facilitated with kindness and compassion, and these actions are also encouraged in our participants.
At the start of a training, we share our Safe Space Agreements with participants so that we are all on the same page as to how we compassionately communicate and listen to others, to ensure no oppressive behavior occurs. Reviewing these agreements supports folks in having positive interactions with others in the group and nurtures gratefulness for anyone who shares their thoughts during a training. Participants often take these agreements with them and apply them to their day-to-day interactions. Our hope is that practicing more compassionate communication helps our participants strengthen and maintain their work and personal relationships.
What inspires people to be part of and support Soul Fire Farm?
People join Soul Fire Farm because they want to be a part of the movement for change. We have been blessed with many opportunities over the past few years to share our message of ending racism in the food system and seeding sovereignty, and people are listening. After every public speaking engagement, article, podcast, etc., folks reach out to us to volunteer, join our Farming or Building Immersion Programs, attend an Uprooting Racism training etc. because they recognize the importance of the work we are doing and want to learn what they can do to bring us closer to a more equitable food system.
What are the ripple effects and lasting impact of Soul Fire Farm?
Two of Soul Fire’s main goals is to equip the next generation of BIPOC farmers and movement building. We achieve these goals through our Farming Immersion Program and Uprooting Racism trainings.
Black farmers currently operate around 1.5% of the nation’s farms, down from 14% in 1910, and have lost over 12 million acres to USDA discrimination, racist violence, and legal trickery. 85% of the people working the land in the United States are Latinx migrant workers, yet only 2.5% of farms are owned and operated by Latinxs.
We are aware that there are folks out there who don’t agree with our mission of dismantling racism in the food system, the main reason being that they believe the design of our food system has nothing to do with race. This is why it is so important to us to educate folks about the history of the food system in the U.S. Only through realizing our food system was built on stolen land and exploited labor of folks of color can we understand how and why communities of color have been disproportionately harmed by our food system.
Teaching our people how to farm and reclaim our collective right to belong to the Earth is how we change this narrative. It is also important that we educate all people about these injustices and how to resist them through our Uprooting Racism trainings.
From a recent survey of alumni from our immersion programs, we learned that 65% of Farming Immersion alumni are growing food for their community and 75% of alumni are teaching others about farming and food justice. From our Uprooting Racism training survey, we saw that 80% of our alumni are working on food justice and ending racism issues. By educating others about farming and food justice, we help support more leaders in the food justice movement. Just as we show gratitude by giving back to the earth, we can show gratitude by giving back to our communities and empowering others to tend the values they hold most dear.
What are some of the common barriers and obstacles that arise for the farm? How are they addressed?
One of the biggest barriers for the farm is accessibility for the communities we are serving. Soul Fire is in Petersburg, NY, which is about a 30-minute drive from Troy, NY and 40-minute drive from the city of Albany. There is no bus that comes out to or near the farm. Currently, rideshares will bring people out to the farm, but we have never had success with drivers willing to come back out to the farm to pick people up and bring them back to Albany or Troy.
Currently, when people from the community want to come to the farm for programming, we try our best to coordinate rides with the help of volunteers through group carpools. When we can, staff also helps with giving rides to people.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve had to make quite a few adjustments to our operations. During the growing season, we typically receive a tremendous amount of help from volunteers through our monthly community farm days. We have already had to postpone two of these this spring as it would not be safe to have a lot of people on the farm and be able to maintain social distancing. We are fortunate enough to have a very dedicated staff and a core group of volunteers consistently make time in their work week to support our farm manager Leah with prepping our beds and planting for this growing season.
As we see more events happening virtually, Soul Fire is also working to adapt to this new world we’re living in by adjusting our curriculum to a virtual setting.
We have seen an increased need in our community for support during these uncertain times. Before the pandemic hit, we originally set out to build about ten gardens for members in our community living under food apartheid. In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, we have seen the request for gardens quadruple! With support from staff and volunteers, we are able to build gardens for everyone who requested one. It is increasingly essential that we grow our own food and medicine towards self-reliance and community resilience. We see our work as a continuation of that legacy of a long lineage of BIPOC growers who developed alternative food systems to sustain their own communities.
We are also offering support and guidance on how to farm and/or garden through our weekly “Ask a Sista Farmer” online show. Every Friday, experienced Black womxn farmers answer audience call-in questions about gardening, livestock, agroforestry, plant medicine, and food preservation.
What inspires you and the staff of Soul Fire Farm personally about this work? What inspires you to continue growing this project?
It’s most inspiring for us to have the honor and privilege to meet all the amazing souls that come through our farm (i.e. farming immersion alumni, uprooting racism alumni, etc.). We are truly blessed to see the projects that our alumni go on to do, and we love to witness the impact that their voice has on the food justice movement. We are just grateful that they chose us to be a part of their journey to greatness, and they inspire us to keep building our work.
How does gratefulness inspire you all to make change in the world?
We are grateful that we were called to do this work and hope that we are making our ancestors proud. It can be discouraging when you’ve been working at bringing about change and the results feel minimal. Every time we receive gratitude and/or affirmations from our community, we are reminded that they are the reason we do this work, and they motivate us to keep working on changing the world.
How does Soul Fire Farm plan to grow?
When Soul Fire Farm opened in 2010 as a small family farm, no one could envision that we would become a national voice in the food justice movement and receive thousands of visitors annually. The drinking water well, septic system, and family home are buckling under the impact of this commercial use. Additionally, people who use wheelchairs are unable to visit the farm because there are no ADA compliant buildings. The Rensselaer County Health department is requiring upgrades to the space in order to continue offering farmer training and community education on the farm.
All of our community members deserve access to the learning, healing, and nourishment provided at Soul Fire Farm. We are seeking to build a program center, guest lodge, and classroom in 2020-2021 as well as complete the in-progress bath house, commercial drinking water and wastewater system, and staff apartments. All buildings will be energy efficient and environmentally sustainable. You can learn more about these efforts here.
If you could encapsulate one message for people who benefit from Soul Fire Farm, what would that be?
Thank you for believing in our work and recognizing the importance of food justice and food sovereignty for all people! Our current food system needs to change. and we should not depend on anyone else but ourselves to change it.
If Soul Fire Farm could share one message about living gratefully, what would it be?
We are all a part of the Earth and must treat it with kindness and gratitude. If we do not, how can we expect it to continue to provide for us?
To read more about the inspiring work of Soul Fire Farm, visit the website: soulfirefarm.org
To learn about other Grateful Changemakers, visit: Grateful Changemakers