Jonah Vitale-Wolff and Leah Penniman, Soul Fire Farm, NY

Posted on March 12, 2013

NY.SoulFireFarm.LeahPenniman_JonahVitale-Wolf_Close-up.jpgHealth, justice, community, education, creativity, farming. 

Leah Penniman and Jonah Vitale-Wolff integrate all of these in their work at Soul Fire Farm, located in eastern upstate New York. Below, Jonah and Leah share more about their philosophy, and what motivates and inspires them to do what they do. 

Briefly describe your operation: We are a diversified vegetable CSA, offering 60-80 varieties of veggies throughout our growing season.  Shares also include a dozen eggs or sprouts each week. We produce pasture-raised poultry and eggs.

Our CSA is the only of its kind in the NY state capitol region that accepts EBT and SNAP benefits.  We reserve 50% of our shares for low income and EBT customers in target food desert neighborhoods in Albany and Troy.  Many of our shareholders don't have private transport, so we deliver to people's doorsteps in these communities.  We also have educational programming for youth, primarily working with young people from inner-city Albany and Troy.  Our internship program is geared towards connecting people that are historically excluded from farming lifestyle and livelihood, such as women and people of color.

NY.SoulFireFarm.SheetMulching-Leah_smiling--ed.jpgDo you have any other jobs? Jonah has occasional off-farm natural building design-build, timber framing and carpentry during the off-season, and runs all farm operations.  Leah is a full-time Environmental Science and Biology teacher in a public high school 11 months/year.

Who farms with you? Jonah primary handles farm operations.  During the growing season we have 2-4 interns living and working with us.  Leah does admin during the school year and on-farm operations during growing season.  When school is out our children, Neshima and Emet, help.

How long have you been farming? Leah's first job farming was at age 16 with The Food Project in Boston.  She has farmed every year since, including having an ongoing relationship with Many Hands Organic Farm, in Barre, MA, where she served as co-manager for several years.

Jonah began farming at age 19 during the summers, including time working at Live Power Community Farm in northern CA and Many Hands Organic Farm in MA.  He worked and managed at Many Hands for several years.  Out of college, Jonah coordinated the city-wide community gardens program in Worcester, MA and started the youth farming program YouthGROW.

How did you get into farming? Farming just felt right.  Despite growing up in the city of Hartford, CT and going to inner-city schools, listening to hip-hop, and playing basketball on the blacktop with every spare moment, I could not help being drawn to having an intimate connection with land.  It seemed only natural to me, to learn to the best of my ability to care for myself, my family and my community through growing food.  I love the relationship with the land, but even more so how farming brings out the full potential of my creative expression.   So I am still the dancing, hip-hop loving, slick dressing person I was growing up.  And when I show up fully as a farmer AND fully as myself I am the best resource for my community that I can be.

Why did you get involved with CNG? We believe in the grassroots, peer-to-peer community that CNG fosters by, and for, farmers.  We also believe that the CNG guidelines for certification look at the whole farm as an integral  system, rather than a collection of individual practices, inputs and outputs.

Talk about the biggest challenge you’ve encountered as a farmer.
On a personal level...
I love people.  So when things slowdown in the late fall and winter things get lonely without the ability to leave.  Caretaking a piece of land means I cannot up and go somewhere else to pursue other interests and life passions.  Leah and I both also have an urban-rural internal conflict.  Our friendships, identities, interests, and communities are largely urban.  But to be so drawn to being on land, caretaking it a resource for all our people, and growing food makes for a ripe internal conflict.  

On a professional level...
We're frustrated by seeing the limited scope of the "good food movement", making products and jobs accessible only to people who have historically been able to access the best resources our society has to offer.  As a mixed-race family and activists, working with low-income communities - typically communities of color - is not an issue of obligation or charity, but one a love for all of our people.  One of working for true social change.  There is a Jewish saying that is something to the degree of, "We are not free until all people are free." This resonates deeply in my heart.   How racism and classism act out on our communities is a great injustice. 


NY.SoulFireFarm.Chard-scaled.jpgWhat is unique or unusual about your farm? Soul Fire Farm is dedicated to building a just food system.  This means everything we do is driven by our vision to dismantle the oppressive structures that create such gaping disparities in our food system.   We also offer education in 5 ways:  youth educational programming, internships, publications, international solidarity, and workshops and talks.  Our internship is targeted to people typically excluded from farming as a livelihood. We work with farmers in Ghana, Haiti, and Brazil - sharing skills and resources across the imagined boundaries of nation.
We do what we do because we seek:

  • Health - Levels of diet-related sickness are exorbitantly disproportionate in communities of color.  We need to stop saying "they" and take collective responsibility for the health of our communities.
  • Proper representation in the food system by all people consuming food - As long as farms are predominantly owned by white men (according to the latest USDA census), and decision makers are of a limited ethnic, racial and cultural background, we cannot effectively address issues affecting underrepresented communities.
  • To love the earth - Everyone not only has the basic human right to the highest quality food, but also to be connected to the earth, to the land that sustains us.  Yet, our urban trending culture is disconnecting people from land and our food.  African American communities in particular have a conflicted history, where being on land not too far in the past meant being slaves, or being sharecroppers essentially in slavery.  The collective confusion must change.

What’s your favorite dish to cook at home? It's less about the dish itself, as long as you can put it in a homemade, naturally-fermented dosa.  

Favorite season? Why? Summer of course.  People abound, warmth, parties, less clothes. The earth's abundance really bubbles to the surface, from people to land.  It is the time of year when it feels right to never slow down, socially, educationally, or on the farm.  And we like that.

Do you have any hobbies? We are both dancers and perform with our advanced hip-hop dance troupe in Troy.  Jonah also loves the underground club dance scene in NYC.  Leah is an aerial fabrics trapeze artist, family historian, and competitive runner.  Both of us also use co-counseling as a tool with friends and community.

NY.SoulFireFarm.LeahPenniman_JonahVitale-Wolff_family-crop.jpgWhat plans or hopes do you have for your farm in the future?  I hope that our farm works to inspire other growers, and communities to engage in the food system so that all people are working for a truly just food system.  AND that every person believes they deserve nothing but the best to honor their bodies.  When that happens, our work as educators will be done, and our work as growers will be only a small part of the highest quality food feeding our communities. 

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