In this episode
Timing and cues
Interview part 1 (2:02-15:57)
Interview part 2 (16:56-27:50)
Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Additional editing: Omari Spears
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald
Colleen: In the 1920s, roughly 14% of all farms in the United States were owned by Black people. Today that number is only 1%. The decline in Black farm ownership happened after decades of systemic discrimination from the USDA, which gave more subsidies to White-owned farms than they did to Black-owned farms.
The oppression in our food system also means that Black households face food insecurity at double the rate of white households. And it’s not only an issue of quantity, but also of quality. Only 8% of Black people have a grocery store nearby, making it extremely difficult to find fresh local produce.
These are the issues that today’s guest, Leah Penniman, is working to solve. When she struggled to find fresh food to feed her family in Albany, New York, Leah decided to start her own family farm. What began as degraded, eroded land, later bloomed into Soul Fire Farm, a co-op and nonprofit dedicated to equitable access to land and power in the food system.
Leah shares how she and her team restored their farm, and explains the regenerative techniques that are key to farming equitably and sustainably. We also talk about how regenerative farming compares to industrial agriculture, in terms of productivity, resilience, and sustainability. And we take a fascinating yet heartbreaking look at the unjust history of our food systems, and what we can do to help.
Colleen: Leah, it's such a pleasure to have you on the podcast. Welcome.
Leah: Thank you for having me. It's truly an honor.
Colleen: So, you're the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of the book "Farming While Black." There's so much historical context in the book that clearly centers, sustainable farming practices in African wisdom. And there's practical information about the economics of starting a farm to the science of building rich soil, the cultural practices, and the book is really steeped in how to heal the wrongs of systemic racism. So, I want to hear the origin story of Soul Fire Farm and how you went from teaching science in Albany and raising two young children to starting a farm.
Leah: Wonderful. Well, as you know, big projects have many origin stories, but one of them was that my partner, Jonah, and I were living in the South End of Albany, which is a neighborhood under food apartheid, that insidious system of segregation that relegates certain people to food opulence and others to food scarcity. And we were challenged to find fresh vegetables and fruits and whole foods for our then newborn and two-year-olds, and when our neighbors found out that we had over a decade each of farming experience, they started peer pressuring us to create a farm for the people. You know, a farm that would pull forth the bouncy of the earth and make it available to those who'd previously been excluded from access to these fresh, healthy, you know, culturally appropriate foods. And so that was the immediate impetus. We took really seriously this charge and started finding lands that would welcome us to call her home, and building from there. So, I will say that I've been a science teacher simultaneous to being a farmer for the past 20 years. It's only this last year that I've been able to, you know, leave the four walls of a classroom and have only one full-time job.
Colleen: Okay. So you've been doing both?
Colleen: Wow. That's amazing. Wow. So, describe the farmland that you had to work with when you first showed up and, you know, how you transformed it into a prosperous farm.
Leah: Soul Fire Farm is located on 80 acres of mountainside land that's traditionally Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican territory outside of Albany, New York. And because we didn't have a trust fund or, you know, a whole lot of savings, we purchased land that we could afford which meant that it was heavily logged. It was degraded and eroded. The limited amount of fields were overgrazed and also overrun with brambles and invasives. So, we had quite a project on our hands. You know, there was no barn or driveway septic electric house, you know, any of the human habitat or infrastructure that you would need to start a farm. So, we spent from 2006 until 2010, just making the place habitable for our vision. You know, our home is a timber frame, straw-bale, cob, adobe, solar house that we built by hand. We had to create our own driveway, dig our own well, you know, build all that basic infrastructure from scratch.
Colleen: Wow. So, you're doing this on weekends or vacations and how many people are working with you?
Leah: Well, Soul Fire Farm started out as a family farm. So, it was my partner Jonah and I. He was out here most of the time. He ran a small, natural building company and would build someone's house and save up the money from that project, and invested into our land. And then the children and I would come out after school every day and also on the weekends and summers and vacations. So, it was us and our friends, our beautiful friends, you know, would come and lend a hand from time to time. But it wasn't until much later in the maturation of the organization around 2016 that we formed a community organization, both a co-op and a non-profit organization, built out of staff and volunteer base, and really expanded beyond that vision of a family farm to a community-based training farm.
Colleen: So, it sounds like the soil that you had to deal with was not optimal for planting. I mean, what were your thoughts when you put that first shovel in and realized what you had to work with.
Leah: Well, we've always had a naive and stubborn optimism. So, while farmers in the valley below and USDA officials would come out and say, "Oh, there's no way you can have a farm here. Maybe sheep, maybe logging, but certainly not vegetables and fruits." You know, we had come from a background of both rural and urban farming, and in our urban farming experience, we were working with soils that had so much lead in them that they would be classified as super-fund sites, I mean, I'm talking about as high as 11,000 parts per million in some areas. And we had formed a youth co-op that dealt with remediating leaded soils, building community gardens and farms in Western Massachusetts. So, the idea of thin topsoils really was not that daunting compared to, you know, a hazardous waste site that you're trying to convert into a community resource. So, we used some of those same techniques, you know, building up high levels of organic matter, building terraces, raised beds, no-till, using animals and cover crops to enrich the soil. And sure enough, you know, within a few years, we were able to see major change. As I imagine, your listeners know industrial agriculture certainly has an inverse effect on the environment where in just one generation of European colonizers taking the plow to the Great Plains, they had destroyed 50% of the organic matter. You know, half of the carbon was stripped of the soil and emitted into the atmosphere. And we inherited those post-colonial carbon levels of just a few percentage points organic matter. And now, regularly, measure between 10% and 12% organic matter in our soils after about a decade of investment in these regenerative techniques.
Colleen: So, one thing that I've always been interested in is how sort of traditional ecological knowledge and science are so closely aligned, but we ascribe sort of more seriousness to science and from reading your book, it seems like you kind of blend the two perfectly. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the section on soil testing, because I found that really interesting. There's, you know, you can send your soil out to be tested, or you can use some of the Indigenous soil testing practices. Can you describe both of those methods?
Leah: Absolutely. You know, I do think it takes western science some time to catch up to indigenous knowledge, but the seeds of that knowledge have been here a long time. So, one example is, you know, a very popular way that we analyze soil quickly in the field is something called the texture by feel test, where you pick up a ball of soil and you roll it around in your hand, you try to make a ribbon, you listen to it, and that determines the particle size of the mineral component of your soil. And in turn, its water-holding capacity, it's nutrient-holding capacity, how easy it is to work in the wet early spring, and so forth. Well, this idea of texture by feel actually originated amongst the Yoruba people in what is now Nigeria, West Africa. And they had a very sophisticated way of differentiating between the iyanrin, the sandier soils and the bullae, the more clay soils. And if you dig a little bit across West Africa and these indigenous soil testing methods, you find examples of people actually determining pH by taste. You know, how sour or sweet the soil taste can correlate to its level of acidity, which is very, very important in terms of how available nutrients are. Similarly, by color, folks were able to analyze the levels of organic matter. So, these technologies, you know, while Western scientists have gone and studied these ways that indigenous people analyze the soil and are shocked and surprised to see how 'accurate' it is, you know, as if Western scientists had a monopoly on accuracy. But I mention that because sometimes especially new and beginning farmers will get really intimidated by the idea of, you know, having to interpret all these numbers and letters and graphs on a soil test and remembering that most of what you need to know about your soil, you can do by digging a hole, counting the earthworms, checking how easy it is to spade doing an infiltration test. And so, alongside teaching folks how to analyze your cation exchange capacity, we also say be intimate with your soil, you know, and within five minutes of our soils class, you know, these beginners are able to tell us, you know, which of 10 soil samples would be best to grow vegetables just by looking, feeling, tasting, touching. And I think it's very important that we don’t forget how to use our senses as we interact with the environment.
Colleen: Right. I liked the part where you were describing the class where you have sort of the three samples of soil. One was soil from when you first arrived at Soul Fire Farm, and then two other samples that were along the way, I believe. And, you know, it was very easy for students to tell right away that the soil that you started with was very depleted just by looking at it and touching it. And I think you even mentioned that a few of the brave students tasted the soil.
Leah: Yeah. Exactly. Well, we told them it was safe to taste and not all soils are safe to taste, but out here, you know, we've measured the lead levels and all of that are infinitesimal. But yeah, the soil, it was subsoil on top when we got here. And so, really light in color you know, fused together like a clay brick, no friability you know, no life really that you can see with your eye inside the soil. And so, you know, an amateur can pick that up just using their five senses.
Colleen: Yeah. I'm definitely not going to taste my soil here, right? I live on an old...it used to be a military site, so I don't think I'll be tasting my soil.
Leah: I agree with that intuition.
Colleen: Yes. So, tell me a little bit about some of the ways that you actually restore degraded soil. You talked about cover crops and other methods. So, what are some of the methods that you're using?
Leah: Oh, well, I feel like we cannot talk about restoring degraded soils without giving a major shout out to George Washington Carver of Tuskegee University in the late 1800s and early 1900s, who was one of the founders of regenerative agriculture. And he had this, you know, amazing foresight generations ahead of his time where he was noticing that monocropping of cotton was completely destroying the soils of the South and economic collapse wouldn't be far behind. And so, he got folks, you know, planting cover crops of legumes because as you know, legumes have this almost magical alchemy property where they collaborate with bacteria to trap atmospheric nitrogen in an organic form you know, making available this limited nutrient. But he also had people, you know, mucking out the swamps to build their compost piles, grazing their pigs on acorns in the forest. You know, a lot of things that sound familiar to us in the organic farming toolkit today. So many of these technologies that we use on the farm really mirror what Dr. Carver set in motion in the late 1800s. So, we certainly do use cover crops, which are you know, plants that you plant not to eat, but to feed the soil. So, our soil is always covered with something growing, whether that's a lovely nitrogen fixer, like clover or a pollinator attractor, like buckwheat or a biomass generator like sorghum-sudangrass. And then we don't till very much if at all, we've moved almost entirely to no-till, which means that instead of turning up the soil with heavy equipment and releasing a whole bunch of carbon into the atmosphere and turning the homes of this soil biology upside down, we're letting that soil structure stay intact and the carbon build over time in the soil.
We also do polycultures, which is this amazing idea that instead of just growing one crop at a time in a section or in a row, you actually plant crops that help each other out. The most famous example, probably being corn, beans, and squash or the three sisters, which is a Turtle Island indigenous technology, where the corn provides support for the beans, the beans fix nitrogen, and the squash provides a cover that suppresses weeds. But there are many other polycultures. In fact, there are dozens among the Yoruba people alone that we, to the extent that we're able, mimic and supplement those types of polycultures.
Colleen: So, you mentioned no-till, and to me, it's so counter-intuitive, and it's something that I've really struggled with just growing vegetables in my own garden. It's just so hard to get away from the idea that you have to plunge your shovel in and turn over the earth and break it all up.
Leah: It's true. It's true. I mean, breaking the ground is almost the metaphor for what it means to be a farmer, but the really cool thing...so something that has helped me with this, instead of saying no-till, you can say biological tillage because the worms and other soil biota actually do the work of mixing the soil, of aerating the soil, of creating soil structure. And it's not that you can never take a fork to your soil, but the impact of a spading fork is really different than a shovel in that you're creating these air channels, but you're not actually turning the whole house upside down. And the main way that we control weeds is through heavy mulching, not through rototilling. And so, you can use a giant silage tarp. You can use a biodegradable mulch like paper, straw, leaves. You can use temporary covers like landscape fabric, but that's the technique that we use to kind of smother from above rather than churning everything up as a way of removing the competitive volunteer plants.
Colleen: So, when you're covering from above, then you're kind of building your soil up rather than digging down into it.
Colleen: You mentioned in the book about when Hurricane Sandy hit and you feared that you were gonna lose all of your crops with the rain. So, can you tell that story because it was just really an interesting story about how these types of farming practices really offer more opportunity to be resilient when you have something like a massive storm?
Leah: Absolutely. So, Hurricane Sandy, this must have been, was that 2013? We got so much rain like everybody. And I remember this moment in the middle of the night when we heard, you know, what sounded like a truck crashing through the forest, and it wasn't a truck, of course. It was this wall of water just coming down through the woods straight towards our farm. So, we woke up our young children, you know, we all went outside with shovels to start digging trenches to divert the water away from the crop fields. You know, one of our most valuable crops is our garlic and there it was ripening and getting ready to harvest and we just knew that would be the end of it. So, luckily, we were able to divert to some extent, and we went back to sleep and waited for the morning to see the extent of the damage. And something that was so powerful is that because of the high levels of organic matter, because of the way that we had built beds on contour, so meaning that they slow the water down. There's these essentially ridges or trenches that are against the grade. And because we have raised beds and water is channelized, we saw very little damage to our crops, and not that we would celebrate in any way anyone else's losses, but it was really powerful that in our area, in our county, you know, farmers had lost all their topsoil. They had lost all their crops just washed into the river because, you know, they didn't have raised beds, they didn't have these high levels of organic matter, these protective forest cover all around. So, if we had any doubt at that time that this was, you know, a good way to go, that doubt was erased, and we kind of doubled down and started to do even better at implementing these regenerative and ancestral practices.
Colleen: From your experience working the land, is it realistic for larger-scale farms to use these practices? And I mean, I'm thinking again about the no-till practice.
Leah: Oh, absolutely. So, a couple of things just to step back on this question of scale, because I think that's one of the places where we really get stuck of, you know, can regenerative truly feed the world, and you know, what about yields, and how do you scale this up? What's the labor cost? And you know, I had the opportunity to work with a couple of researchers at the new school on this very question. And one of their most powerful findings among many was that if you look at yields within just the season, as you would imagine, conventional industrial, highly mechanized agriculture is going to outperform organic regenerative. However, as soon as they stretch the timescale to four or five years or more, time enough for climate chaos events like hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, pest outbreaks, they started to see that that gap diminished over time because regenerative agricultural systems are much more resilient. They're biodiverse. They're able to respond to these uncertainties in weather and climate and ecology. They start to outperform.
Colleen: So, as you're teaching young farmers about the land and the traditions, the science, do you also talk about climate change?
Leah: Oh, of course. I mean, how can we not talk about climate change? I feel like, you know, to figure out how to stabilize the climate, it is the challenge of our generation. So, our goal is to inspire, equip, train the next generation of Black and Brown farmers who are practicing regenerative ag. And the way we quantify the success of regenerative ag is two-fold. One is how much carbon are we taking out of the atmosphere and putting back into the soil where it belongs and how much are we increasing biodiversity, both of native and cultivated species. So, that's the metric, right? The metric is how are we farming as well as who is farming? And this generation is so passionate about climate healing and climate justice, and very, very interested in these questions of, you know, if I add compost tea in June instead of July, how does that impact the biological life in my soil and increase the potential for sequestering carbon and so forth? You know, how do we reduce food miles? How do we reduce food waste? Which animals do we choose to put on our farm that have the least impact in terms of methane emissions and the least imported feeds? So, it is a conversation thread that just underpins everything that we do here at Soul Fire Farm.
Colleen: One of the programs that I found inspiring is the youth justice program. Can you tell me about that program?
Leah: Absolutely. So, we are really committed to inspiring that next generation of farmers, including the very young ones. And one of our most cherished programs is this week-long immersion for young people called LOL, which stands for Liberation On Land. And that's when young folks ages 13 to 16 come and learn the basics of farming, of cooking, of how to take leadership in their communities to make positive change. And it's infused with, you know, dancing, singing, art-making, getting connected to our ancestors and our spiritual traditions that maybe have been demonized or obscured. And one of the fun things about the LOL program is that we envisioned a new cohort, you know, each year. And after we finish the first year, you know, now four or five years ago, the young people looked at us and said, "Oh, we're not going anywhere. We're all going to be back here next year." So, we changed the model of the program so that we work with a cohort over three years, and then we kind of start fresh with another cohort and with the alumni being in a leadership role. And then, of course...
Colleen: That's great.
Colleen: It's kind of a fun problem to have, right?
Leah: It's a wonderful problem that the young folks are, you know, so excited about being part of the farm and being connected to this beloved community that they don't want to leave.
Colleen: What are some of the barriers to Black and Brown people in farming?
Leah: There are many barriers to Black and Brown people in farming as the entire food system in this nation is really built on a bedrock of theft of land and theft of labor. So, without going into all of those details, you know, essentially we're in a situation today where almost 98% of the rural agricultural land is white-owned, which is an all-time high in terms of racial concentration of ownership. And, you know, of course, we can trace that back to the theft of land from indigenous people, but also the theft of land and exclusion of other people of color. You know, as an example, in 1910, despite the broken promise of 40 acres and a mule black farmers had purchased almost 16 million acres of land and that was 14% of the nation's farms. Yet today, black farmers only own about 1% of the nation's farms, and that is not because of choice, that's because the U.S. Department of Agriculture systematically discriminated against black farmers and their lending practices. It's because the Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups targeted black farmers with lynchings, for the audacity of leaving the plantation and because of really tricky inheritance laws that make it very easy for retirement companies and developers to take land from black families who disproportionately don't leave wills behind. So I would say land ownership is obviously a major, major barrier. And we've been excited to collaborate with Senator Cory Booker and Senator Elizabeth Warren and Kristen Gillibrand on the Justice for Black Farmers Act of 2020, which actually creates land grants for beginning black farmers to correct this injustice.
I would say another major barrier to Black and Brown folks becoming farmers in the sense of farm managers is that currently, over 85% of the labor that is done on farms is actually done by people of color, mostly Latinx and Hispanic, but also incarcerated Black men, Asian folks, and other people of color. And yet farm management is only a few percentage points of folks of color. And so, that huge racial disparity is especially pronounced in the food and farming sector. And the obvious solution would be to provide pathways to ownership, management, and leadership for those farm employees who are experts in their craft, but who are trapped in a cycle of low wages, a cycle of really being exploited in their work. And the challenge there is that what allows farmworker exploitation is that the Fair Labor Standards Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and our draconian immigration policies make it so that those farmers don't even have equal protection under the law, like no right to unionize, no right to overtime pay, no right to a day off in seven, etc. And so, equalizing labor laws and creating healthy pathways to leadership for farm laborers is going to be really essential in making sure that we have producers of food who reflect the beautiful diversity of this country.
Colleen: What are some things that individuals like our listeners or me, for example, what are some things that we can do?
Leah: Well, my daughter Anashima, who's no longer a toddler, she's almost 18, you know, says the food system is everything it takes to get sunshine onto your plate. So, it includes the way that land is shared, the way labor's treated, the access to capital, the access to food, and, of course, the earth herself. And the good news about this wide arc of the food system is that there's so many points of intervention and so many right answers for how to help. And for folks who are interested, you can go to soulfirefarm.org, and we've created an action guide for how to heal and repair the food system to make it just for everyone. And some examples of things included in that guide are the reparations map, which is this cool interactive map that helps you find Black and Brown farmers near you and see what kind of support they might need, or what products you can purchase. There's also a list of policies and regulations that need to be updated, passed, or repealed to support farmers and a number of educational resources to learn more and to help you fortify, you know, your own commitment and drive to make a change. Because I really believe that everybody who eats food and everybody who lives on land has a role to play in improving the food system.
Colleen: Well, Leah, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast. This has been a really inspiring conversation.
Leah: Thank you. And thank you for your insightful and warm questions. This has been a pleasure.