For One To Eat, Another Must Die

A conversation with Leah Penniman at Soul Fire Farm.

Leah Penniman is a cofounder and codirector of Soul Fire Farm, which is located in upstate New York, northeast of Albany and not far from the borders of both Vermont and Massachusetts. Like many farms in the Northeast, Soul Fire features hoophouses, chickens, and rows of bountiful vegetable crops. But it also has a mission as “a people-of- color-led community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system.”

Part of Soul Fire’s mission involves “training the next generation of activist farmers and strengthening the movements for food sovereignty and community self determination.” This training currently includes week- and day-long programs in both building (BIPOC Builders Immersion) and farming (BIPOC Farmers Immersion and BIPOC Fire 2.0 Workshops), taught by Soul Fire staff including Leah as well as by visiting facilitators on subjects ranging from seed-keeping and pastured poultry to farm welding and timber framing.

Leah is also the author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (2018, Chelsea Green Publishing), designed as “the first comprehensive manual for African-heritage people ready to reclaim their rightful place of dignified agency in the food system.”

In early June, Leah and I (her book’s editor) had a conversation via Skype about death and farming.

Interview by Michael Metivier.

Photo by Jamel Mosely Mel.

Leah Penniman: We just had a whole group of herbalists out last weekend from Boston for this BIPOC intensive. They’re doing a nine-month course and their second intensive was at Soul Fire.

So I’m giving the opening tour, and everyone’s in that space that folks often are when they first come to Soul Fire of, like, “Wow, it’s so dreamy!” And, you know, flowers and plants and skipping through fields, right? And then the dog, Chaga, comes by with a half rotten, dead chicken in his mouth that he dug out of the compost pile and tries to give it to people. He’s real excited about sharing this super nasty, maggot-infested, stinky-as-hell chicken, you know? People are squealing and everyone’s freaking out. It was funny because what I said was “just ignore him.” I think that through farming, I have become really comfortable with, and used to, being at that intersection, that juxtaposition of life and death.

Michael Metivier: How do you help others who aren’t yet so comfortable get closer to that point?

LP: In that moment I made a joke about it, and also talked about how close and comfortable we need to be with transition and that intersection of life and death. So we had an informal conversation. But I think most of what we do is experiential. When we do our weeklong BIPOC Fire Immersions and other programs, we offer the opportunity to do slaughter and evisceration. Folks participate in prayers of gratitude and grounding before the birds are transitioned. We also talk about the way that the taking of life has been sanctified in our indigenous traditions, which is really, really different from industrial agriculture. Then we offer support throughout the process, and afterward we do a spiritual bath out of the Haitian tradition, a sort of “lay down the weapons of war” type ritual. There’s a lot of holding in there and a lot of conversation. So we’re not that theoretical! [laughs] We’re more like, “let’s just experience this and then talk about where that lands in our bodies, and how that impacts the way we think about the food in the store that we see, or the animals in the field that we see.”

But death on the farm doesn’t have to be something as clear-cut as slaughter and evisceration. I mean, right now Microsoft hates me and wouldn’t let me sign into Skype on my phone so I could go outside and kill a bunch of plants while we talk, which is to say weed, go weed the strawberries. In order for life to exist, in order for that robin to eat right outside my window, it’s consuming a bunch of worms that were exposed by our shovels.

MM: I think the image most of us who didn’t grow up on a farm still often have of farming is left over from children’s books — the red barn, the silo, the happy animals.

LP: One of the things that happens in modern life that’s sort of strange is this distancing from death, even the death of our loved ones. Now people hire professionals to deal with the body, and just two generations ago the undertaker was your uncle. Not having the exposure to touch and smell death creates this weird sense that we are invincible and eternal, which we are not.

MM: Then there are the ag-gag laws that prevent people from undercover filming or photographing farm activity where it could expose animal and human rights abuses.

LP: It’s fascinating. And who decides that shielding needs to happen? And what they are protecting? That’s a whole other question. In our food system there’s a sense that certain people are disposable and other people are worthy of life. Farm workers have been in the former category for all of the history of this empire, as disposable people — whether enslaved or sharecroppers or farm workers — valued only for their labor.

MM: How does Soul Fire Farm grapple with the ethics of raising animals for meat?

LP: I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the context of what has been kind of an Afrovegan wave, I guess you could say. It’s not entirely new, but I would say there’s some energy behind it right now. So we’ve been having conversations on the farm, because we believe in and practice an integrated, holistic animal- and plant-based agriculture. I’ve been talking with a number of Indigenous folks, mostly about their conceptions around the relationship between humans and animals, especially when that involves the taking of life. I’ve talked to [Chef] Sean Sherman about this, and to [Sky World Apothecary founder and co-director of the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust] Stephanie Morningstar, and to a bunch of members of the I-Collective, which is a collective of Indigenous chefs, seed and knowledge keepers, and artists.

A couple of themes stand out. One of them is that death, as a part of life, is inevitable. Inevitable and natural — for one to eat, another must die. That’s how it is. And there’s not a hierarchy between plants and animals and fungus. Each is a being, worth of consideration and respect, and each is a sibling. But there are some elements that temper this. Just because death is inevitable doesn’t mean the taking of life should be excessive or wanton. There’s a concept of consent around that. There’s also the idea that certain animals and plants — as well as people — make themselves available, as a sacrifice to the wheel of things. It’s important as well not to waste, to only take what you need and use all the parts of a thing. And then the minimization of suffering and cruelty — you don’t torture a being; you take life quickly and with consideration and gratitude. There are always prayers and offerings and thanksgiving involved and ritualization involved.

So that’s been some learning and thinking that we’ve been doing, and while I certainly have been vegan and I respect that perspective, for me it’s been important to think about what our relationship to animals has been in a decolonized frame, and to uplift that way of being: the gratitude, the consent, the not wasting, the minimization of suffering. These are principles that we use in relationship with… all life, right? But I think animal life is what people often think about.

There has to be some disassociation in the way our society engages in all kinds of destruction. Some of it might be intellectual justification, like “CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] are efficient, and modern, and profitable.” But then for the people who actually need to process 3,000 hogs and so forth, I imagine that over time there needs to be a numbing or deadening the senses in order to get through the day-to-day. And my experience has been that when you numb one emotion you kind of numb all emotions. In order to feel the fullness and vibrancy and wholeness of what it is to be alive we also need the tears of tragedy and so all of that aliveness kind of comes in a package. And if we have to go around and deaden ourselves to things it limits our ability to have our hearts be open to all kinds of life experiences.

MM: Spring must be a time for a farmer when all of these complexities come into particular focus.

LP: What it is to be a farmer seems to be figuring out how to kill the things you want to kill without killing the things you don’t want to kill, as efficiently as possible. [laughs]

Photo by Jonah Vitale Wolff.

That big tarp right out there, if we put it out in just the right amount of time, it’s gonna kill the herbaceous weeds. We’d love it to kill the grasses, but if we leave it out long enough to kill the grasses it might also kill some of the beneficial soil life, the worms and bacteria. So you’ve got to get that timing right. Or your tillage equipment, similarly — you’re trying to get out certain competitors and weeds and such, but you don’t want to upset the soil structure so much that you destroy the biotic community that’s really beneficial. So this sort of… calculation around targeted death [laughs] is a huge part of farming. How do you kill the pests but not kill the plant? Actually putting the seeds in the ground, or nurturing the plant, is like the dessert after you figure out how to kill all the other things that are in the way of that plant thriving.

MM: How you deal with insect pests on the farm?

LP: We mostly do exclusion stuff. So we’ll put down row covers, do crop rotations. If we have an outbreak of something we’ll go around and spray soapy water or hand-pick things off, drown potato bugs in buckets and such, but a lot of our pest control is preventative, like kaolin clay on the cucumbers. Holding things back.

MM: Do you have a lot of pressure from deer and other mammals?

LP: Yeah, we need to learn how to hunt so we can get one of those nuisance licenses to shoot the deer. We actually had a decimation of a bunch of our solanums from some kind of small rodent, which is strange. I don’t know if it was a rabbit. But our eggplants — decimated. And a bunch of tomatoes. Usually those aren’t as subject to herbivory as that, but we have electric fences up, and a dog that runs around at night and barks at everything. You know, it’s a big project to kill and exclude [laughs] what you don’t want.

MM: We’ve talked a little bit about both small-scale and industrialized farming, but I also wanted to bring up permaculture [a coined term used to describe, among other things, agriculture that simulates or directly utilizes patterns of natural ecosystems] after hearing your keynote at this year’s NOFA-VT Conference, where you challenged the audience, including myself, to look critically at that movement.

LP: Well what comes to mind is that one form of death, especially when you talk about Indigenous communities, is by erasure. If you can make people think that whole peoples do not exist, it becomes much easier to take life and land and language away. I think in a way, the permaculture movement — I’ll say, generously — probably unwittingly perpetuates death by not acknowledging the very specific lineages of each of the technologies that are used in permaculture, or providing royalties and resources to the communities that originated those technologies. In doing so, by imagining permaculture as some kind of new beginning for agriculture, the movement erases thousands of years of culture and people, who still exist, and who need solidarity and support from those of us who purport to love the earth. Permaculture may purport to be about building self-sustaining, everlasting living systems, but I think if they’re built on a foundation of death and destruction, then it’s a limited model of sustainability that’s being created.

This interview originally appeared in LAAB Magazine #4: This Was Your Life!, published by Beehive Books, 2019.

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