Women in Food: Leah Penniman, Food Justice Farmer and Educator
May 27, 2015 | Rose Egelhoff
The connection crackles slightly as I pick up the phone.
A couple thousand miles away in Oaxaca, Mexico where she is currently working on a Fulbright, Leah Penniman replies. Though I am nervous to speak with someone whose work I greatly admire, Leah’s humor and openness quickly puts me at ease.
But don’t let the laid-back persona fool you: Penniman likes to keep busy. In the past nine years she has established a farm, taught hundreds of people about farming and food justice and even helped get a provision into the 2013 Farm Bill making it easier for CSAs to accept SNAP. She has done all of this while maintaining levels of production that allow Soul Fire Farm to deliver thousands of bushels of produce to CSA members, many of whom live in food desert neighborhoods.
Penniman founded Soul Fire Farm in 2006. She started off with a 73-acre plot of marginal mountain soil near Albany, New York, and an ambitious goal: to “dismantle the oppressive structures that misguide our food system,” while also maintaining a working family farm.
Today soft, dark topsoil now extends down more than 18 inches, where originally there was only six inches of topsoil over the hardpan clay. The farm is home base for a comprehensive food sovereignty education curriculum, including youth educational programs, activist retreats, a new restorative justice program as an alternative to jail time for convicted youth, their immensely popular Black and Latino Farmers’ Immersion program, not to mention enough produce for a 19-week-long CSA program every summer with a sliding-scale price depending on income, which also accepts EBT.
Soul Fire Farm typically has two acres in cultivation and another couple acres of grazing and chicken range area. They grow about 80 varieties of vegetables, making sure to include the crops that their community wants: not just tomatoes, onions and peas but also okra, collard greens, hot peppers and white sweet potato (for the Japanese community that lives in their area).
Penniman started farming as a teenager, when she got a summer job with the Food Project. Looking back on that time, she remarks, “in all the confusion and uncertainty of being an adolescent, there is something very grounding and concrete about planting and harvesting.” Preparing and distributing food at homeless shelters in Boston, as well as selling Food Project produce at a farmers’ market, was an education and a source of inspiration that followed her down the years. She never stopped farming, going on to work at several farms around Massachusetts, starting her first farming program as a student in Worcester, Mass. and founding Soul Fire Farm with her partner Jonah Vitale-Wolff in 2006.
Now Penniman is not only a farmer, but also a full time environmental science and biology educator. This lets her work on what she loves–connecting young people to the natural world–and brings in extra income to support the farm. On the farm, she manages educational programming and advocacy, while her partner and co-founder Jonah Vitale-Wolff manages farm production. As Leah says, “we work too much.”
Fortunately, this year is Shmita, the agricultural year of rest that occurs every seven years in the Jewish calendar, which Leah and Jonah have chosen to observe. Three quarters of the land is out of production, with cover crops sewn to regenerate the soil. The remaining quarter is planted so that farmer training and youth programs can continue.
With time freed up, Penniman and the Soul Fire Farm team is working on building up physical and organizational infrastructure.
“We’re trying to get our systems to catch up with our programming and the demand for our programming,” Leah explains. “Shmita comes out of the Hebrew tradition, an ancient agricultural sustainability practice, and also a redistribution of wealth practice. During Shmita, debts would be forgiven and land would go back to its original owners. We think it’s an interesting and helpful gift from our ancestors.”
Besides infrastructural development,Penniman is traveling and teaching in Oaxaca, Mexico after winning a Fulbright Distinguished Award in teaching.
“I am very interested in Black, Latino and indigenous land rights and sustainable production of food,” she explains. Her Fulbright project involves developing a curriculum based on the best practices of Oaxacan farmers and indigenous communities. The curriculum will explain practices like milpa, an intercropping system for corn, beans, squash, and other cultivars as well as the water-conservation and irrigation used in the drought-prone region.
“They just have incredible strategies that I think are going to be crucial to understand as the population grows and we are presented with a 60 percent calorie gap–that’s what the World Resources Institute says–by 2050.” The curriculum she develops will be used back at Soul Fire Farm, and made available to all interested schools or community farming groups.
Enthusiasm sparks in her voice as she describes her vision for the coming years at Soul Fire Farm. “It’s really important to me that good quality food is really a right and not a privilege,” she says, explaining her plan to work on their farm share model, hopefully making changes that will allow more people to take part in the CSA.
Soul Fire Farms is also planning to create more of the educational programming that has been in such high demand, including farmer trainings in Spanish and a family program. She further hopes to expand the restorative justice program, “working with youth who’ve been convicted of a crime as an alternative to incarceration and a way to get themselves out of that school-to-prison pipeline.” While they have host a small number of young people in the past year, they would like for all convicted youth in their county to have the option of attending their program or a similar one, which Leah describes as “a job training or a life training as an alternative to being stuck in this punitive cycle.”
Finally, there’s the part that Leah Penniman’s “nerdy scientist self” can’t wait for: testing the techniques she is learning from the indigenous farmers in Oaxaca and on her own land. So if you stop by Soul Fire Farm next year, expect to see milpa growing, the usual CSA food heading out to recipients and gaggles of kids learning about our food system and how to reclaim their connection to the land.