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Leah Penniman
Farmer, Educator
Soul Fire Farm
September 10, 2013

Leah's honesty takes our breath away. These days, even as the internet has allowed folks to pour their hearts out more freely than every before, nothing is more inspiring than hearing someone speak their truth. The real key to resonating with your audience is not only expressing honesty, but opening yourself up to vulnerability. Which is exactly what being a farmer means: doing what you love and being vulnerable to the earth.

When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
Being the only black kid in an all-white, rural town was tough. I found solace and meaning in my connection to the earth when the connection to peers was a source of disappointment. For as long as I can remember, I knew that I would grow up to become a "naturalist." Maturity helped that vision take a specific form. I am now an organic farmer and high school biology/environmental science teacher. I remember working for the Food Project as a teen farmer and feeling so grounded in that role - with so many uncertainties in our modern life, one thing that is certain is that a carrot seed will become a carrot and a carrot feeding someone is a good thing. I never stopped farming after that. Teaching at a high school allows me to connect many young people to the magic that is this living earth, as well as providing an income to sustain us as our farm grows. 
How did you get your current good food job?

My husband and I created Soul Fire Farm from the bare earth. We purchased 73 acres in winter 2006 with the savings set aside from my teaching. There was no home, road, well, septic, and only 6 inches of topsoil. Over the years, we put in the hard work and tears required to build our solar, straw bale home and build the soil so it could sustain a crop. We are now in our 3rd market year, having doubled production each year. We have managed to stay "in the black" each year, with money to reinvest into infrastructure. In 2014, we look forward to being able to provide a modest income for two co-managers. 

How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?

The essential requirement for being an organic farmer is grit. We are very hard working, hardy people who don't complain when the rain soaks through all of our layers of clothing and we still have hours of harvest left to go. It is hard to say what gives a person grit. In my case, a pretty rough childhood toughened me up and taught me self-reliance and the necessity of hard work to accomplish my dreams. My husband's childhood was gentler on him, but he is the only other person I have met who loves to work as much as I do - so, who can say?

What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?

I am my own biggest obstacle. My impatience, anxiety, and fear have been impediments to living fully actualized in each moment. I certainly have considered quitting - why work so hard for so little material gain? Why struggle when it seems like so many around us are relaxing and letting life pass by? Small windows into the difference we are making in the world have helped me persevere. A shareholder reminds us that if not for our vegetables that she bought with her SNAP benefits, her children would have nothing to eat. A child in residential foster care visiting our farm says, "Thank you for welcoming me into your home. No one has every done that for us before." My son hoes the soil to cover a furrow of lettuce seeds with great concentration and exclaims at the end, "This is a great day." That sustains.

What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?

The greatest opportunity in food right now is our apprenticeship program! (shameless self promotion here). Visit us at www.soulfirefarm.com. You will learn to farm, cook, live sustainably, and LOVE big.

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?

Since I am not compensated in money, that is easy to answer. I am compensated with abundant, healthy, fresh food. Hard work in the elements that challenges me and makes me strong; meaningful connection with community and the Earth; the opportunity to pass on important values and skills to my children. 
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