Soul Fire Farm: Seeding Sovereignty, Uprooting Racism

Farmers of color are committing their time and talents to nurturing the land in their communities.

Photo by Soul Fire Farm

Soul Fire Farm is a community farm committed to ending racism in the food system and reclaiming Afro-indigenous regenerative practices. Founded in 2010 in Grafton, New York, Soul Fire Farm tends 80 acres in Mohican territory and trains thousands of growers and activists each year. Learn more about this nationally recognized project on the Soul Fire Farm website.

My first day as a farmer at The Food Project in Massachusetts was a homecoming for me. I carried a lot of pain and trauma in my 16-year-old body and was burdened with both personal and ancestral violence and loss. I felt unsure whether there was a place for me on this green earth. This summer job wasn’t an explicitly healing space, just a program to get urban and rural youth together to grow food and learn leadership skills. Still, the land worked her magic on me. My task that first day was to harvest cilantro. I’d never interacted with this powerful plant before, and the aromatic oils lingered in the creases of my fingers long after my train ride home, infiltrated my dreams, and called me to the present. The next eight weeks of farm labor awakened me to who I was meant to be.

While farming was initially healing for me, for many African heritage people, it’s triggering and re-traumatizing. Almost without exception, when I ask Black visitors to Soul Fire Farm what they first associate with farming, they respond, “slavery” or “plantation.” As Chris Bolden-Newsome, co-director of Sankofa Community Farm, explains, “The field was the scene of the crime.” Hundreds of years of enslavement devastated our sacred connection to land and overshadowed thousands of years of our noble, autonomous farming history. The societal abuses heaped upon Black farmers include the broken promise of 40 acres and a mule; lynchings that targeted landowners; government discrimination; and heirs’ property exploitation. As a result, the number of Black farmers in the U.S. has declined from 14 percent in 1910 to less than 2 percent today, which means they’ve lost more than 12 million acres of land.

Leah Penniman and Mx. T plant maize in the “milpa,” an intercrop of corn, beans, and squash. 
Photo by Soul Fire Farm

Many of us have confused the terror our ancestors experienced on land with the land herself, naming her the oppressor and running toward paved streets without looking back. We don’t stoop, sweat, harvest, or even get dirty, because we imagine that would revert us to bondage. And yet, we’re keenly aware that something is missing, that a gap exists where once there was connection. This generation of Black people is becoming known as the “returning generation” of agrarian people. Our grandparents fled the red clays of Georgia, and we’re now cautiously working to make sense of a reconciliation with land. We somehow know that without the land, we cannot return to freedom.



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