Soul Fire Farm is an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm applying ancestral wisdom to reclaim agency in food production and land stewardship. Members Danielle Peláez and Azuré Keahi speak to the environmental, spiritual, and revolutionary impacts of the farm’s mission.
About 175 miles north of New York City on an 80-acre plot of historically Mohican land is Soul Fire Farm, a Black-run Afro-Indigenous centered community farm. The mission of Soul Fire Farm is put forward in Farming While Black, an educational manual for growing food and community penned by the farm’s cofounder, codirector and farm manager, Leah Penniman. And it opens with the following quote by Malcolm X: “Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”
This message, and the book as a whole, resonated so deeply with farmer and educator Danielle Peláez that in 2019, she decided to move to upstate New York from Baltimore in search of meaningful farm-related work. Today, Danielle is the education coordinator at Soul Fire Farm, where she helps to plan and develop curricula for the farm’s educational programming—a fundamental element of their mission is to uproot racism in the food system and train future generations of activist-farmers. She cites examples like “Soul Fire in The City,” a program that builds raised beds in neighboring Troy, Albany and Schenectady, Community “Work and Learn” days, and week-long farming immersions as essential skill-sharing aimed at bringing agency back to folks living under food apartheid. Danielle works alongside Azuré Keahi, who looks after what she calls the “behind the scenes magic” of paying staff, contractors, and tracking information as Soul Fire Farm’s business manager.
Both Keahi and Peláez note that while strong documentation and communication are key in both of their roles and at the root of Soul Fire’s success, it is the spiritual work that ground’s the farm on its mission. Below, they explain why.
I read a quote in an interview with Leah about land being the scene of the crime in the context of colonialism and slavery. Getting back to the land seems like an obvious path to freedom, but so many of us don’t have an education or even a basis for where to start. Can you speak to this and shed light on what it’s like to work with land and community-building in the ways you do?
I’m from Hawaii and I moved to the continent in 2018 after graduating from college. I have a degree in English [and] was just set on getting a job. After a handful of years, I ended up in New York and my partner at the time who I had just met was studying permaculture. I was like, What the heck is this big P word? I was intrigued because my ancestors, the Hawaiians, were mentioned in this text. That was a moment for me where some sort of reunion started to happen. That’s when I became very curious.
I realized that I had never even considered land-based work because land where I came from was so inaccessible and out of reach. I was always told as a little kid, You’re never gonna own land. When we came upstate, I was able to explore more—simply because land was accessible (granted it was toxic soils that required a lot of remediation and attention). But, all revolutions are based on land. It was that first step of reconnection that motivates or fuels my commitment to learning more and doing more to heal the land, to heal ourselves. I really started to heal when I started working with these post-industrial soils I [had] access to. This is the soil that I’m gonna take care of, and the Mohican and Mohawk people, the Indigenous people who were stewarding these soils before, I’m doing this for them. I’m doing this for the lineage of people that have touched this land. I just feel like that curiosity being ignited and sustained is a key part of being able to just stay in the revolution and keep going.
Many of us that work in the land are trying to heal that very traumatic disconnect. I like that you brought up that quote about land as the scene of the crime. I think a very key follow-up is [that] land is also the scene of healing. I strongly believe that the land wants us back, the land yearns for us and is welcoming us back. The core of a lot of our programming is facilitating that healing process. Just thinking about the history of land loss with original land theft from Indigenous groups all over what’s now called the Americas, and the transatlantic slave trade and the intentional removal of Black farmers from land; thinking about how most of the food grown today is by Latina growers with very few labor protections, but most of the land ownership is in white hands; how very few of those processes are controlled by people of color—I think that really shows the power of having access to land [and] healing that rift.
Someone came [to Soul Fire] yesterday who had never really touched the soil, had never put a seed in the ground, didn’t know how to pick a berry. It felt like such a powerful experience to be able to really spend time with her throughout the course of the day and watch her confidence grow. [Watch her] feeling safe enough to explore and ask questions and be in this beginner’s space, and then come away at the end being like, Okay, I want to do so much more. We [also] don’t believe that everyone needs to be farmers. We all have different roles and different relationships with land in this movement. But, that’s why the Soul Fire in The City program is really important to me and to Azuré because we can still heal our relationship with the land in cities.
What sorts of climate challenges have you faced firsthand at the farm, and how have you addressed them?
The land itself was super degraded by the time that it was purchased. I believe it was formerly logged really intensively, so the soil was just extremely rocky. When surveyors came to the property, they were like, This is not farming land. Don’t even mess with this land. This is the lowest grading that we can give to land and soil. It’s been a process of building up that soil, knowing that soil is the most key component, and really leaning into ancestral technologies like silvopasture, building our own Verma compost, integrating livestock manure, having a relationship with bees, growing perennials, and then sharing with others why we do those things. Project Drawdown ranks silvopasture as number nine on its list of the most effective ways to battle climate change. That’s basically having animals rotate on grazing plots on the land interspersed with trees. The animals work like lawnmowers and add fertilizer back to the soil and in turn the trees offer shade to the animals. It really helps pull down a lot of carbon and fixed nitrogen in the soil.
A lot of us on the Soul Fire team have a background in education. Leah was formerly a biology teacher. [We’re] looking at the latest research, and how to best adapt [to] that while at the same time paying very close attention to the land. Initially when that project started, we had too many chickens and too many goats and pigs on the land. [We had to] pull back and learn and balance that out. One example that we always bring up in our farm tours and educational workshops is [that] so much of what we do is trying to heal the land. Now, the soil that we grow is incredible. [The land] is producing this very nutrient-dense soil. We use a variety of different tests for the soil, from infield tests to the soil ribbon test to sending out tests, and the carbon-holding capacity is greater every year. It’s really amazing to see that happen as a direct result of all the care that’s put back into the soil.
I watched a lecture Leah gave at Harvard Divinity School and learned more about the Pennimans’ religious background. I think many can agree that a lot of work dedicated to reclamation, revolution, and Black and Brown liberation is rooted in faith and spirituality. Can you speak to how spirituality plays a role in the work you do?
The land is my religion. Leah engages in this protocol of asking permission from the land before doing something, like asking for the land’s consent. I’m so emotional about the connection between us and the land. It’s like a conduit. I always think about how I am merging the wisdom of my ancestors with that of my children. It’s our hands on the land together. Doing this work with my family, with my children, and watching my children’s awareness and connection grow with the soils, the plants… that moves me. Doing this work inspired me to learn chants with my children, like doing a sunrise ceremony together every morning. That’s just one example of a ritual that we do together, but it’s the land that gave me those instructions. It’s my relationship with the plants and the bugs and all the critters out there that inspired that connection.
“All revolutions are based on land. It was that first step of reconnection that fuels my commitment to doing more to heal the land, to heal ourselves.”
You touched on this, but we very strongly believe in asking permission, [and] recognizing that we are the younger siblings in our development. The trees, the rocks, the waters are our older siblings. I’m coming at it from that perspective as opposed to a top-down perspective [where humans] make the decisions. It’s very much this process of reflecting and trying to listen to the land.
You touched on Leah’s practice: She uses Ifa divination to ask permission from the land before doing anything large, like cutting down a tree, digging a foundation, or altering the ecosystem in any way. Something I’ve struggled with is like, Okay, I’m asking permission, but I really want to do this anyway. So, maybe I didn’t hear the answer clearly [or maybe it’s that I need to learn to] accept a no if [and] when it comes up.
There’s this beautiful pond on the land now that, when the land was originally purchased, was just this boggy area. Permission was asked and permission was not granted. Instead of going in and digging it anyways, a relationship was continued to build with the land. And over the years, as permission was asked, permission was eventually granted with this resounding yes. Now the pond is there [and it] is the site of swimming, fishing, ice skating, and a lot of ceremonies. But that involves putting the human ego on a backseat and really listening. That’s also a very key part of our programming. Something that sets [us] apart from other land-based organizations, farming conferences or farming workshops [is] we start every tour by making an offering to the land.
What are you most excited about right now? What would you like to see happen looking ahead?
I hope and pray that we can broaden the reach of our Soul Fire in The City program. I think it’s really important that we focus a lot of energy in high-density, urban areas where many of us need to learn how to tend the soils that we have access to. At one point in the springtime, Danielle and I were visiting a bunch of the urban garden plots and we started dreaming about what it would look like if we had an urban immersion program that wouldn’t require people to come all the way to this farm. Instead, they could hop around to all these different urban spaces and learn about different ways of doing things in smaller spaces and with more people? I get really fired up when I think about that being a possibility.
That’s exactly what I was going to talk about. There’s no public transportation to get to Soul Fire Farm from Troy or Albany or any of the surrounding areas. That’s one of the first questions that we always get when we do tabling downtown. An elder will come up to us and be like, Okay, what bus can I take to get there? For us, it’s about trying to think of ways that youth and low-income folks can access the farm. Especially because that’s where a lot of our BIPOC community is living—in the city—and we are trying to bridge that gap, whether that involves some kind of shuttle or expanding our Soul Fire in The City program. [I’m] really focusing on how to bridge that connection as someone who started this land-based work in Baltimore and who developed a passion for green spaces in the city and the healing power that they can have to communities that have been historically, intentionally disenfranchised. The stress relieving powers of being able to sit under a tree—it’s such a small thing, but so huge, so powerful.
Also, Soul Fire does have a larger profile with the publication of Farming While Black. It is getting a lot more attention from other parts of the U.S. [and] internationally. [We’re] really trying to distribute those resources and encourage folks to look at similar things going on in their own communities. They may not have the same profile that we do, but there are folks everywhere that are working towards these goals of land access, food sovereignty, and disrupting racism in the food system. We need to pass the mic along as much as possible, whether that’s financially with grants or speaking engagements or just encouraging folks to, instead of taking a plane from Seattle to upstate New York, support similar initiatives in [their] own community.
You touched on this by referencing the healing power of sitting beneath a tree, but I would love to close this conversation by asking about any anecdotes or casual pleasures you can share from being so close to land.
I’m just thinking about when I bring my children here and they’re so wild. [We] release them out of the car and they head straight for the pond to look for frogs and toads and poke around in the mud. My younger son is three and the last time I brought him here, he seemed to be having flashbacks of when we started coming here, probably two years ago. He started asking, Where’s the white turkey? I just thought that was so cool that his little toddler brain was holding these memories on this land at such a small age. Jonah, who lives here, at one point showed the boys where the frog eggs were. Now, they’re always just like, Where are the frog eggs? For me, it’s the relationship-building that’s happening on this land. They’re so courageous when they’re here. They’re so ignited by being on this land, by being connected with their environment. It’s really fun to watch.
I love your kids. I was touching upon this earlier with the person who came to the Work and Learn Day. When she got here, she was very apologetic and [had] so many questions. I could tell there was a lot of hesitation. But you could tell she blossomed so much over the course of the day. I see those kinds of things happen all the time. It’s a reaffirming thing to see how important it is to keep that sense of wonder and hold people through this process. It’s such an honor. It feels almost like a summer camp. We have folks [who] come from all over the U.S. and they don’t know each other. When they leave five [or] six days later, there’s tears, holding hands, and these connections that then last for years. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.