The Seeds of Ancestors: A Day at Soul Fire Farm
A Profile of Leah Penniman on the Emergence Magazine Podcast
Emergence Magazine is a quarterly online publication exploring the threads connecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. As we experience the desecration of our lands and waters, the extinguishing of species, and a loss of sacred connection to the Earth, we look to emerging stories. Each issue explores a theme through innovative digital media, as well as the written and spoken word. The Emergence Magazine podcast features exclusive interviews, narrated essays, stories, and more.
Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer and food justice activist. This episode explores her work to create spaces for people of color to heal and reconnect to the land—an effort to end America’s food apartheid system.
From the episode:
For 13 years, Leah Penniman has planted and harvested food on a section of land located on the forested slopes of the Taconic range in upstate New York, 40 minutes east of Albany. She calls this place Soul Fire Farm. “We have the blessing to be stewarding 80 acres of Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican territory in the rocky hills of Grafton.” The Mohican people were the original stewards of this land, forcibly relocated to Wisconsin in the 1800s.
By nine o’clock on a morning in late July, the sun is already high and the day hot. Visitors are arriving at the farm and congregating in the shade of a large tent: they carry water bottles and sunscreen and wear eager, tentative expressions that say they are here for the first time. Today is a community farm day, called a konbit after the traditional Haitian practice of voluntary, shared labor, in which farmers take turns attending and hosting work parties on their land. Once a month from April to October, Soul Fire Farm extends an open invitation to anyone who wants to lend a hand, regardless of farm experience—or ethnic background.
“Every age, ethnicity, and creed is welcome at some of our programs, not at all of them,” says Leah, who wears large teardrop earrings wound with patterned fabric and long hair plaited into a single braid, wrapped into a tower atop her head. “We have select programs that are designed for certain constituencies—for example, Black farmers, Indigenous farmers, Spanish-speaking farmers.”
Leah, as a Black Kreyol farmer in a country where 98 percent of arable land is under white ownership, politely informs those who do not identify as one of these constituencies—whether they be community members, potential funders, or members of the media, such as myself—that they are warmly invited on specified days, and not always on others. “This food system, built on stolen land and exploited labor, continues to disproportionately harm communities of color… It’s very important to make sure that there are spaces for all of us.”
Leah’s 14-year-old son, Emet, checks guests in at a table fitted with a large cooler of water and a stack of release forms. Behind him, pink, yellow, and purple flowers, planted in an unmowed cluster on the lawn by the farmhouse, sway on long stems. Dozens of tomato plants are climbing inside the wide greenhouse. Rows upon rows of crops extend back over the fields, toward the deep green of the woods: the majority of these 80 acres have been kept as forest. Of the cultivated areas, roughly three acres are used for growing food and several acres are dedicated to the chickens.
Noah McDonald, this season’s farm apprentice, walks the first group of konbit volunteers from the tent to the East Field for the morning’s first task: digging Irish potatoes. He asks if anyone has harvested potatoes before; heads shake no. He grabs a pitchfork. “Let’s take a look at this plant,” he says. He demonstrates how to insert the fork into the ground a few inches from the base of the stem and then pushes down on the handle. Reaching into the loosened soil, his hand disappears and then emerges with a red potato the size of his palm.
“Oh my God,” one woman says, “it’s like treasure.”