When a Black-Jewish family living in the south end of Albany had challenges finding fresh food to feed their small children, they decided to solve the problem for not only their own family but also for other families in the community and beyond.
Parents Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff decided they would grow healthy food themselves. They started with 80 acres in Petersburgh in 2006, and four years later they opened Soul Fire Farm, from which they began to deliver vegetables and eggs to low-income households. They continued to build, and in 2016 incorporated Soul Fire Farm as a nonprofit with even more expansion still in the works.
Today, Soul Fire Farm’s work reaches far beyond the farm and providing healthy food. The organization, which defines itself as “an Afro-Indigenous-centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system,” is working to end food apartheid and to increase the number of Black and Latinx farmers.
The organization fulfills its mission in a variety of ways. Here are some highlights of the programs and collaborations the farm’s staff, volunteers and partners operate to bring about equity in the food system.
Soul Fire in the City
For the Soul Fire in the City program, staff and volunteers build garden beds in the backyards of community members, with priority given to those in low-income communities who are living under food apartheid. They not only build the beds for planting, but they also provide seeds, seedlings and the tools required for people to grow their own food. In addition, they make themselves available via phone call and text message for follow-up questions, and they educate the growers on ways to use and preserve their crops.
“We saw a really significant increase in the folks interested in growing their own food,” said Cheryl Whilby, Soul Fire Farm’s communications director. Some of that resulted from people being worried about disruptions in the food supply chain due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, Soul Fire Farm built more than 40 gardens, and this year staff continued to support those 40 while building an additional 15 for families new to the program.
In its immersion programs at the farm, participants get hands-on experience in farming or building farm infrastructure. “The farming immersion is basically centered around our work to really train up the next generation of BIPOC farmers,” said Whilby, noting that only about 1% of farms in the U.S. are operated by Black farmers and only 2.5% by Latinx farmers.
At Soul Fire Farm during a weeklong residential intensive, participants learn how to farm sustainably. “We’ve really centered it around regenerative and Afro-indigenous farming,” Whilby said.
The farm also offers a building intensive. Maya Burke, a member of a farming collective based in the East Bay area of northern California, came for the building intensive, which Burke described as both a “community building and educational summit.”
Burke had introductory knowledge of gardening and other farming work they had done, so she chose the building intensive program. “My interest is more on infrastructure that can work with plants and process food,” she said.
While here, Burke worked with a cohort of 15 to 20 people to deliver fresh fruits and vegetables to the doorsteps of the families who needed them using a sliding-scale, community-supported agriculture model. But last year that changed with a solidarity share program.
“In 2020, we were able to actually transition to the solidarity share model, where we’re delivering this food free of charge,” Whilby said.
Soul Fire Farm has partnered with other organizations in the community, such as Free Food Fridge Albany, to widen its reach, enabling it to serve 60 families. “It would just be around 25 families that we would be able to reach on our own,” Whilby said.
Partnership is a large part of Soul Fire Farm’s work. For example, to further its goal of increasing the number of BIPOC land stewards, it co-founded the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, which it incubated and financially supported until October 2020. “They graduated,” Whilby said. “This organization is really working toward rematriating 4,000 acres of land to BIPOC farmers.”
Soul Fire Farm was also part of a coalition of hundreds of organizations that supported the Justice for Black Farmers Act of 2020 (S.4929), a bill introduced by Senator Cory A. Booker, D-N.J., in November 2020. According to Congress’ website, this bill “directs the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide a variety of assistance to address historical discrimination and disparities within USDA programs and the agricultural sector, including by providing land grants to Black farmers and assistance to socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, and groups.”
“One important thing to note is that the act would create an equitable land access service to acquire farmland and land grants of up to 160 acres to existing and aspiring Black farmers,” Whilby said. Sen. Booker introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act of 2021 (S.300) in February.
The farm has many other collaborations with BIPOC-led coalitions, including Black Farmers United of New York State, the HEAL Food Alliance and the National Black Food Justice Alliance, to name a few.
“Through those partnerships, we’ll also be working on policy to really influence the number of Black and brown folks owning land,” Whilby said.
In 2019, the Rensselaer County Health Department informed Soul Fire Farm that it was no longer operating as a residential facility and needed to make upgrades to meet commercial facility guidelines. Soul Fire Farm raised $2 million for infrastructure construction, which included a parking lot, wastewater system, commercial kitchen and lodging for the staff who live on the farm. At the beginning of 2021, a classroom space for programming was completed, and still on the docket is the building of a program center. Soul Fire Farm expects that construction will be continuing into 2024.
Once or twice a month during the warmer months, Soul Fire Farm hosts public farm days where volunteers can come and learn about its farming processes while they help with the work of the farm. Volunteers might be planting, harvesting, removing mulch fabric for the season, helping with the online store, garbling and bagging the teas they sell, trellising, clearing fencing of brush and other chores.
“We share a meal together for lunch, and the end of the program consists of a tour of the farm,” Whilby said.
Pre-COVID, 70 to 100 volunteers visited for the workdays. Currently, attendance is around 20 people.
Soul Fire Farm’s food sovereignty programs reach more than 60,000 people per year. For more information, visit www.soulfirefarm.org.
Soul Fire Farm
Year founded: 2016
Areas served: Greater Capital Region
Mission: An Afro-Indigenous-centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system.