Chasing the Dream


Chasing the Dream: Equitable Food Systems

A look into equitable food systems with the work of Soul Fire Farm and a conversation with Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming.

AIRED: November 01, 2019 | 0:26:27

- [Host] Coming up tonight on Chasing the Dream

- [Leah] One of the great tragedies

in the story of black farming,

is because of so much land based oppression.

All of that has really jaded our relationship

with soil and with growing.

- Relationship building is actually, I feel,

at the crux of a lot of the programming around food justice.

- I sat with this property, kind of wondering,

"What am I going to do with it?"

Then, I was like, "Oh my gosh, yes!

"It should be a garden. Yes, let's turn it into a garden."

- [Announcer] WSKG thanks the following

for their support of this project:

The Conrad and Virginia Klee Foundation,

The Corning Incorporated Foundation,

The Tioga Downs Regional Community Foundation,

and viewers like you.

Thank you.

(upbeat music)

- One hundred years ago,

14% of farms in the United States were owned

or operated by African American farmers.

Today, that number has dropped to under 2%.

Black communities and neighborhoods are also

far more likely to struggle with illnesses related

to the lack of availability of fresh produce.

The generational experience and wisdom that is crucial

to help sustain healthy food systems has, for decades,

largely been lost in the African American community.

But, as you will see in our next piece,

a reawakening is taking place,

and much of the energy and excitement rising

within the black farming community can be credited

to a movement right here in New York state.

(upbeat music)

- My name is Leah Penniman, I am the founding Co-Director

at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York,

and we are a people of color led community farm

that's dedicated to ending racism

and injustice in the food system.

(upbeat music)

I started farming by accident when I was 16 years old.

Like all teens, I needed a summer job so I could get

a bicycle and pay for college,

and I was lucky enough to be hired by

The Food Project in Boston,

and completely fell in love with growing food from

that very first day when the scent

of freshly harvested cilantro clung to my fingers

and I looked with satisfaction over a row

that was well hoed and well weeded, I said,

"This is really for me.

"This is this intersection of getting to take care

"of the land and the earth, who I love,

"as well as taking care of community."

- 'Cause we're actually gonna take these bags

and we're gonna lay 'em out,

evenly and then each person will take one

and spread it out in their section because we--

- I've been a school teacher for about 17 years

working in high schools, mostly public schools

in New York and Massachusetts

and back in 2005 when we moved to Albany, New York

it was very, very challenging for us

to get fresh vegetables or any type of whole food

for our children, despite our Master's degrees

and ability to farm and high level of motivation

to get the food there just were no supermarkets,

no farmer's markets, no available community garden plots.

So the only way we could get fresh food was

to join a CSA, community supported agriculture.

The cost was as much as our rent

and we had to walk over two miles in order to pick up

those vegetables and then pile them on top of our children

who were asleep in the stroller

and then go back down the hill.

So when our neighbors learned that we knew how to farm

they started encouraging us to start a farm for the people,

a farm that would really make sure that fresh produce

was available on the block at affordable prices

and we took that challenge really seriously

and that became the immediate catalyst

for starting Soul Fire Farm.

(ambient music)

One of the great tragedies in the story of black farming

is because of so much land based oppression.

Enslavement and sharecropping

and the lynching that drove farmers off their land,

the government discrimination

all of that has really jaded our relationship

with soil and with growing.

I can't tell you how many young folks

who are African American come to the farm

and their first association is

"Oh are we gonna be slaves, right?

"Is that what we're doing today?".

But of course there's a much deeper and longer

and wider noble history of dignity

in relationship to farming

that goes back thousands of years.

The Ovambo people of Namibia

were doing these really elegant raised beds

that concentrated organic matter and channelized water.

People like Doctor George Washington Carver

who's arguably the founder of the modern organic movement.

The whole reason we have 'Pick your own'

and 'Farm to table' is because of another black farmer

named Booker T. Whatley who came up with the idea

for the CSA, or that sort of subscription program.

So there's a whole legacy of powerful black farmers

that we build upon here at Soul Fire.

(uplifting music)

- So we're gonna open up the bags

and if I was in that corner I would work this way

and try to spread out--

- So one of the main things that we do at Soul Fire Farm

is to train the next generation of black and brown farmers.

So we work with hundreds of farmers

who actually come live with us throughout the year,

take classes, experience hands on learning and-so-forth

and this year folks are coming from over 40 states.

So I feel like we get a really good survey

and lens into what's happening

in this returning generation of farmers.

What's so incredible is that many of us

aren't coming with generational knowledge.

Our Grandparents worked so hard to get us off

the land that they were not telling us

how to plant a cherry tree

or what to do for your covered crops

or how to rotate livestock

and so we're having to reclaim and find

that knowledge anew through courses

and books and supporting one another.

The exception to that though is in the South.

In the Southeast there are a good handful

of generational farmers who've actually been able

to sit at the feet of their elders

and learn the details of the timing

of the cotton harvest and-so-forth

and that's been really powerful

and we've tried to make as much space as possible

to listen to their stories and voices

so that knowledge isn't lost.

(mechanical sawing)

We have between 500 and 700 young people

who come to the farm each year.

Sometimes just for the day,

they'll do some hands on learning about farming,

they'll learn about the history of foods systems,

how to advocate for justice in their own communities.

We do offer week long carpentry training courses as well

but my favorite program is actually

a week long camp we have called LOL, Liberation on Land.

It's for black, latinex and indigenous young people

and the really cool thing about this,

we started it three years ago,

is that those young folks, we thought they would graduate

and be done and we'd move onto a new cohort

and they said "Oh no, we are all coming back,

"we wanna learn more".

So we're now in our third year with

the same group of 20 young people.

We call it our black future farmers of America

and we're gonna stay with them all the way

through high school and really support them

in implementing these skills once they reach adulthood.

I think something that we see time and again

when young people come to the farm,

it's not so much how much the like lettuce at the end

but it's the sense of opening to possibility,

remembering something deeper about who they are

and what might be possible for them in the future

and so they might not become farmers

but I think when they come here

and they see so many black and brown folks

making their dreams come true they really say

"well maybe it's possible for me

"to make my dreams come true as well".

(soft piano music)

- Here to talk more about

the importance of equitable food systems

is Elizabeth Gabriel and Alexas Esposito

from Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming.

Before coming to Tompkins County,

Elizabeth was involved with innovative work

in the Washington, D.C. urban agriculture movement

and literally transformed a baseball field

into a productive farm as the Founding Director

of Common Good City Farm.

Alexas moved to Ithaca to pursue

a degree in music composition.

After graduation she embarked on a path of exploration,

which cultivated a deeper relationship to land

and her indigenous culture.

Thank you both for being with us here tonight.

- Thanks for having us. - Yeah.

- So tell me a little bit about Groundswell

and what brought each of you to this work.

- Sure, so Groundswell Center was founded in 2009

by a group of farmers and food system advocates

and non-profit workers to address

the growing desire for young people to get into farming.

And so, we've really started

as a beginning farmer training organization

but the Founding Director, Joanna Green,

was also really committed to building

an equitable food system for the Finger Lakes.

So, what brought me to Groundswell,

after working on an urban farm in Washington, D.C.,

realizing I did less farming

and more relationship building

I was really excited to move to the Finger Lakes

and have a farm of my own and do more farming

and then I really missed working with people.


So once the director job opened at Groundswell

I was just really excited to merge my passion for

equitable food systems and farming

with a job that could allow me to do that on the ground

and put it all together.

- That's great. - Yeah.

- What about you Alexas?

- Well what brought me to Groundswell,

or at least into this work,

was just wanting to have a deeper relationship

within the community

and also putting forth my strong convictions

around food sovereignty and healthy food systems

and being able to work in the community

and feel like I'm being fulfilled (laughter)

and so Groundswell has been really doing the job.

- So you have an equity statement on your website

that says you are "committed to the creation

"of an equitable local food system,

"one that truly works for all of us".

Can you explain what an equitable food system looks like

and why it matters?

- So, what an equitable food system looks like

is everybody has equal access to good food.

Currently, this isn't really the state of our economy

and where we live in the Finger Lakes,

we're really fortunate because there's an abundance

of local, fresh, organic foods even if it's non-certified.

And so one of our goals as an organization

is to help connect people with what already exists

and help people who want to further their education,

further their involvement,

further their interest around farming

and regenerative agriculture.

Helping them in a way where they feel empowered

and able to do what they want to do for themselves

because I think at the basis of equity

is self-determination and that sense

where people feel empowered to do what they need to do

and provide what they need to provide for themselves

but also leverage resources where

Groundswell is still a prominently white lead organization,

so leveraging our resources as an organization

to provide better access for those

who wouldn't historically have good access.

- We also in 2017 formed our

Equity and Accountability Committee,

which is a committee that is only for people of color

and then there's some board members and staff

who sit on it as well

but it's specifically designed to hold ourselves,

as an organization, accountable internally

to the statements we lay out in our equity statement

and so it's been transforming for the organization

to have this statement and then to make sure

that we hold ourselves accountable to it.

- That's very impressive.

I know Groundswell is also very focused on the idea

of food justice and I heard you both mention that earlier.

Can you talk about what that means

and how it's reflected in your work?

- So maintaining relationships and relationship building

is actually, I feel, at the crux of a lot of

the programming around food justice

and then also one of the ways that we really work

on bringing more awareness to food justice

is our Farming for Justice discussion group,

which happens monthly.

We have people come into the office

or tune in via Zune to talk about

what they think is important in regards to justice

and farming and food and it provides

a platform for people to talk about it,

to ask questions, to learn and to share

'cause also it's a really wonderful way to network.

It's always growing, I mean in my education

around food justice and what that actually means

is continually evolving as well because it's so nuanced

in the community.

- [Host] Right.

- We think about a pathway to get into farming

and food business and where are the steps in the pathway

to be successful in that that are hard and unobtainable?

They're all hard but what's even more unobtainable

for a person of color or somebody

who is experiencing some sort of racism or marginalization?

And so, we think about breaking down those barriers.

We started a matched savings program last year

so people of color who have a food or farm business

can save $1,000

and they have access to then financial planning

and business planning and support

and then we're matching that $1,000 with $3,000

that they can put towards their farm or food business.

- Right, I mean at its basic level access to land

and then access to capital are--

- Yeah.

- [Host] Pretty big

- Huge.

- So I know Groundswell is celebrating

its tenth anniversary this year, which is exciting,

congratulations. - Thank you.

- How has your organization evolved since its inception

and what kind of exciting things are there on the horizon

that you might be able to share with us?

- Sure, it is really exciting.

I think for the tenth year we're trying to think bigger.

You know, we're looking at our incubator farm,

which is amazing and has been around since 2012

but we need it to grow and so we're transitioning

the incubator farm as is it was to support farm businesses

and transition the farmers there to leave.

We're transitioning that instead to a community farm

so that the farmers that are there can stay.

We're also looking to develop a new Practicum program

for farmers, which would specifically

be for people of color, under privileged people

or white people of course,

everything that we do is open to everybody

but prioritizes people of color

but the Practicum would be a place where people

with no farming experience, no previous experience,

can get compensated to gain that experience.

- So tonight's episode highlights the work of Leah Penniman

and Soul Fire Farm, who you both are familiar with.

Can you talk about how you've partnered with,

or been inspired by Soul Fire Farm?

- Alexas' first day was with Leah.

- I know. - Wow, okay!

- Yeah, I was really thrown into the fire.


- Into the Soul Fire.


- Into the Soul Fire. - Touched my Soul.

- No but my first day actually was so influential

in the way that I came into this work

because it was during a land access and reparations workshop

and it was part of her Farming While Black book tour

and it was just beautiful because for me

it really touches me as a woman of color

and also as an indigenous woman.

There's a lot of things and a lot of teachings

that she has that I identify with

as my ancestors are also from the Islands

and so having that connection and understanding that

that exists and there are people still doing that

and also trying to help people within their own communities

and bring this work to the larger community

is really influential for me.

Since that moment in March, we've also really carried on

a lot of the work around land access and reparations

and reconciliation

and working to

deepen our relationships around land

and what that means to people of color

and indigenous people, refugees, immigrants

and having those conversations,

which have been really difficult actually

but it's been remarkable work.

We have a small working group that we're part of

with some other people in the community

from some other organizations that are really focusing

on the conversation around land access

and what that actually means and I know Groundswell

has had a really consistent relationship

in the years going back as well so it's beautiful.

- We love Soul Fire Farm, we've been there,

I've been there four times both to take trainings

and to participate in workdays

but also Groundswell, for the last three years,

has organized all of our staff and board

and committee and invited other community members

that we partner with a lot to take a field trip

up to Soul Fire for one of their workdays

so we've done that for the last three years.

So I would say we lean on them as mentors

and as inspiration a lot and also I hope as partners.

We just recently submitted a grant,

which they would be part of with a commitment

and letter of support

and so we wanna support the work they're doing as we can

and like I said before, leveraging our capacity

to bring in money and disseminate it for the work

that they're doing is something that we believe strongly in.

- Great, so how can people learn more

or get involved in the type of work

that Groundswell is doing?

- They can check us out on Facebook

and like I said the Farming for Justice discussion group

is a really good way to network because in that sense

we're not just promoting our organization

but we're also promoting other people

who are doing similar work,

there's always volunteer opportunities

from, I think,

April to October of every year

on the first Thursday of the month there's two hours

in the evening where our incubator farm manager, Liz,

leads a tour and a volunteer night at our incubator farm.

- And we are developing a database of people

who are seeking land or people who have land,

either that they wanna sell, donate or lease

to support farmers getting started

and so, also if there's things like that

that people are interested in getting involved in

they can be in touch with us and we can keep

them posted as we develop that system

and that land linking program.

- You've got a lot going on for sure.

So thank you Alexas and Elizabeth for joining us

and sharing some of you knowledge with us here tonight,

it was a pleasure to have you both here.

- Thanks for having us. - Thank you.

(uplifting music)

- [Host] To find help, or to become involved

with issues discussed during tonight's episode

please consider reaching out to the following organizations.

For a more complete list of resources,


(emotive piano music)

- My family was a real community

organizing type of family.

We're of Puerto Rican descent and my grandparents came

from Puerto Rico, my grandmother would tell me stories

about how she would be able to drop a mango seed outside

of her window and a tree would grow

and it's just magical to me.

I had lost my parents,

it was less than 10 years that I had lost my mother

and then my father, both my grandmothers and my uncle.

So very close together, my foundation of elders

in my life passed away.

I was at a painful point in my life.

On December 5th of 2013, I experienced a house fire.

My son and I were sleeping.

The smoke detector went off, woke me up

about five in the morning.

I immediately saw smoke, grabbed my son

who was one year old at the time,

we just got right out of the house,

I had no shoes, no coat, nothing.

Got out and realized that the other side of my home,

as it was a two family home, was filled with smoke

and I could hear my tenant

screaming for help.

It was probably the scariest moment of my life.

Fire department was able to get there in time

to rescue my tenant.

You know, from there I just watched the home burn.

You're just watching yourself lose it all.

I was really praising God from

the minute we got out of that house.

Feeling gratitude for safety.

It wasn't long after that they determined

the house a total loss.

I was required to demolish what was left, by the city.

I considered rebuilding but it wasn't very realistic.

I sat with this property kinda wondering

"what am I gonna do with it?"

and I got to talking to one of my good friends

and said "you know, what about the,

"isn't there that VINES organization?

"you know they're building gardens and stuff like that"

and I was like, "Oh my gosh, yes!

"It should be a garden.

"Yes, let's turn it into a garden".

My family really taught and demonstrated to my sister and I

how to bring people together around food.

So this concept of putting a garden

in this particular neighborhood,

on the west side of Binghamton,

was exciting for so many reasons.

When I drive by now, I still see my son's swing hanging

in my mind from the tree that's in the backyard.

As I turn around and look at the rest of my yard

and where my home was, I see this flourishing garden

and there's so much love and care in that garden,

there's incredible carpentry,

there's a beautiful brick circle that was made

and there's a swing, a love swing.

I look at that garden and I see love just blossoming

and spreading out into the community.

I have learned that community is necessary,

it is


to have relationships with people in your community.

I went through such a series of loses,

of losing my family members and then my home

and I never went one day without.

I was so supported by this community

and the outpouring was unreal, it's just so beautiful

and I wanted so much to give something back

and I knew I wasn't going to be able to replace

all the blankets and all of the items that have been given

to us and financially as I was still

getting back on my feet.

I wanted to pay it forward and when this came up

it was just a blessing to me as it would be a blessing

to the neighborhood.

My dream for the West Side Garden

is for people to continue to come out,

to expand in their experience

with one another and with the land

and I have a vision for this land

that music and art,

performance would come into play as well.

I know that where there's a vision, there's a way.

(upbeat music)

WSKG thanks the following for their support of this project:

The Conrad and Virginia Klee Foundation,

The Corning Incorporated Foundation,

The Tioga Downs Regional Community Foundation,

and viewers like you.

Thank you.


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