LA CROSSE — When Leah Penniman’s neighbors found out she had skills she wasn’t using at the time, they began lobbying for Penniman to put those skills to good use.
The more she thought about it, the more Penniman, who had been working on farms since she was 16 but was then living in a part of Albany, New York, where she couldn’t find healthy food to feed her two young children, realized the good farming could do for her community.
Penniman was living under what she calls food apartheid, a term that takes into account the role racism plays in many neighborhoods that are considered food deserts due to a lack access to healthy foods.
“When our neighbors found out we knew how to farm, they started saying, ‘When are you going to start a farm for the people?’” Penniman, the author of “Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land,” said Feb. 28 during the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse. “Soul Fire Farm was born out of this idea that to be free, we need to feed ourselves.”
Penniman and her husband, Jonah Vitale-Wolff, founded Soul Fire Farm in 2010 with the mission to “end racism in the food system and reclaim our ancestral connection to the land.”
Eighty-five percent of the agricultural labor is done by Latino workers, but only about 2% of farms are managed by that population, Penniman said. U.S. Department of Labor statistics in 2019 showed that being a farm owner/manager was the whitest profession in the U.S., while being a farm worker was the brownest profession, she said. Ninety-eight percent of farmland in the U.S. is white-owned.
“This is the most racially skewed it’s ever been,” she said. “If you believe in justice, it’s getting worse.”
Soul Fire Farm has become an Afro-Indigenous community farm in rural upstate New York. The farm consists of 80 acres producing vegetables, fruits, medicinal herbs, mushrooms, sheep and chickens for eggs and meat. They produce food for “solidarity sharing.”
“We do solidarity sharing by making sure the people who need the food the most in our community have access to it,” Penniman said. “These are refugees, immigrants, people who are incarcerated and their families, people living in zip codes under food apartheid.”
Penniman said the land they are farming on wasn’t considered prime agricultural land, but it was land she and Vitale-Wolff could afford to start their farm.
“All the farmers around us were side-eyeing us when we went into the rocky mountains to try to have a vegetable farm,” Penniman said. “We had to take what we learned from urban farming and remediate soils and build them up in order to apply this in this rural space.”
Penniman said they are using Afro-Indigenous farming practices at Soul Fire Farms. These practices, she said, have become the foundation of everything from sustainable and organic agriculture to farm-to-table food, pick-your-own and community-supported agriculture.
“We’re sequestering carbon and putting it back into the soil, where it belongs,” she said. “But, of course, we didn’t make up this idea of feeding our community. We didn’t make up this idea of regenerative agriculture.”
Penniman uses Soul Fire Farm as a training center for under-represented communities withing the agriculture industry.
“We never thought we were going to be a training center, but as soon as we sold our first bulb of garlic, we started getting phone calls saying, ‘Can we come apprentice? Can we learn?’ We said, ‘We need to start some programs’,” she said. “The thing that makes me so excited is the work of the people who have graduated from Soul Fire Farms programs.”
Soul Fire Farm programs now have more than 10,000 alumni, many operating farms in their own part of the country, Penniman said.
“Farming saved my life when I was a teenager,” she said. “There’s something about the elegant simplicity of when you plant something and take care of it, it produces food and people are grateful and you start over in that cycle.”
On Feb. 27 at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference, MOSES Executive Director Lauren Langworthy introduced Jane Hawley Stevens and her husband, David Stevens, owners of Four Elements Organic Herbals, a 130-acre farm in North Freedom, as the Organic Farmers of the Year. The Stevenses grow more than 200 varieties of herbs to make wellness products, such as teas, creams, tinctures, lip balms, and sprays and have been certified organic since 1989.
Also Feb. 27 at the conference, Changemaker awards were presented to Steve Acheson, an Iraq war veteran from Blanchardville who founded Peacefully Organic Produce and co-founded the South Central Wisconsin Hemp Producers Cooperative; Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin of Northfield, Minn., a founder of Peace Coffee, a Minnesota-based fair-trade coffee company, and the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance; and Loretta Livingston and Joy Schelble of the Bad River Food Sovereignty Program, a joint program of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northern Wisconsin and UW-Extension.