Feeling like home: A Highland Park gardener reflects on her visit to Soul Fire Farm

Social media introduced me to Soul Fire Farm, an Afro-Indigenous-centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system. I would see their posts and photos of Black, Brown and Indigenous people digging and planting and tending animals and think, one day, I will visit that farm. 

I finally got the opportunity last week when I traveled to Soul Fire Farm for a weeklong Farming Immersion experience designed for new growers of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx heritage. Soul Fire Farm received over 380 applications for the four immersions this summer. They accepted 72 applicants, and I was one. 

To say that I am grateful is an understatement. It has been a difficult year financially for my family. I’m grateful for a mini-grant from the Detroit Women’s Leadership Network that helped me get there. My ancestors must have been working overtime to ensure nothing stopped me from connecting to this healing land and the people who came.

Author Angela Lugo-Thomas at Soul Fire Farm. Photo by Angela Lugo-Thomas.

I was born in Puerto Rico, and we had a backyard full of things to eat, like bananas, mangoes, avocados, limes, cherries, herbs, passion fruit, and chickens. When I was young, I thought that things only grew where it was warm, so I had no idea that so much could grow in colder climates like ours. 

But when we moved to Detroit, my maternal grandmother often had beans, tomatoes, peppers, and other herbs growing in her backyard. My grandmother grew up on a farm in Germantown, Ohio. She had a hard childhood and never talked about farming in a positive, healing way. Not in the way that I felt while at this weeklong farm immersion at Soul Fire Farm. 

I started gardening in Detroit and Highland Park in 2008 through a local non-profit organization called Keep Growing Detroit. At that time, I never knew that the city had so many backyard and community gardens. The organization has grown and currently supports 2,000 family, community, school and market gardens in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck. I started my home garden in 2009 and recently purchased land in Highland Park to develop what will become Liberty Farm and Boricua Garden. This is why I wanted to do this farm immersion training. It felt like the perfect next step in my journey.

Soul Fire Farm is located on 80 acres of land in Grafton, NY, that historically was stewarded by the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation. Founders Leah and Naima Penniman started the farm in 2010 and it became a nonprofit organization in 2016. I was in awe as I looked around at the variety of beautiful homes and structures that have been built since then. 

Although we had tent accommodations for the weeklong stay, there were nice shower and bathroom facilities – very welcomed since this was only my second time camping outdoors. We had access to electricity, a full kitchen, tables, a large tent, benches, chairs and hammocks. 

At night, I could hear animals nearby and the sounds of mosquitoes in my ear, just beyond the netting around my tent. Oh, and in the mornings, I was also visited by several long-legged spiders. (There was a time when I was terrified of spiders. I still am a little bit). The roosters woke me up every day at around 3:30 am. That sound reminded me of being home in Puerto Rico – except my face wouldn’t be freezing from the cold night air.

An enclosed gazebo structure called the Sanctuary served as a classroom space and as a place to go relax, read or charge our electronics. It also held our ancestral altar for the week. We were asked to bring something of significance to us to add to the altar. I brought the Puerto Rican flag with the right color blue, and shared that Puerto Ricans proudly display the flag because there was a time when it was illegal to do so. It was my great-aunt and abuela who told me that the blue color was changed to match the American flag, but it was originally ocean blue. At the end of the immersion, we passed the items around the circle so we could feel the energy from each one and further connect us to each other.

Photo by Angela Lugo-Thomas.

A lot of planning goes into this type of training. We were broken up into participant teams called Earth, Fire and Water, and each team was put on a rotating schedule to work together on the farm, cook and clean. The Kitchen Magicians cooked us nutritious farm-to-table meals and assisted each team in cooking meals during the week. This showed us the importance of working together. We got a lot done as a group, which was also a way to build trust. We all had to do our part for the collective.

Each day was packed full of conversations to build community, farm work which they called “Hands on the Land,” and workshops on a range of topics such as farm planning, analyzing soil, historical facts, what the future could be, growing mushrooms, agroforestry, plant medicine and food sovereignty. Intermingled throughout the week were moments of meditation, reflection, exercise, spiritual cleansing, and getting to know each other. We harvested produce and eggs and added a value-added product into bags and boxes for the weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) that helps feed over 50 families for free, thanks to the generous support of donors.

One day, a small group of us signed up for a night hike through the woods. Earlier in the day, I had been excited but was having second thoughts because it had been raining most of the day, and it was still raining. It was also pitch black outside when we started hiking. Sometimes, we were told, the hike is done without lights because the moonlight is sufficient. We opted to use lights and turn them off at designated points. 

I am familiar with hikes in Michigan, on mostly flat surfaces with some inclines and declines. This hike was nothing like that. There were so many large rocks made slippery by the rain. It seemed like there were never-ending climbs up and down and over and under fallen trees and limbs. Along the way, we saw what undisturbed nature looks like. It was magical. We hiked for longer than I felt comfortable, but I was glad that I did not miss it. My body was sore during the hike; I felt every bit of it the next morning.

Our visit to the Grafton Peace Padoga was an unexpected trip highlight. Nestled in the woods was a magnificent architectural structure near a Japanese Buddhist Temple. I had never been inside one, so I was grateful for the experience. During a participant talent presentation, I performed a short Bomba dance for the first time around a firepit while the group sat in a circle, much like the tradition was done many decades ago in Puerto Rico. Bomba is a folkloric dance that has its roots in the enslaved African people in Puerto Rico. I got to be my authentic self in that space and felt free.

Photo by Angela Lugo-Thomas.

Being at Soul Fire Farm made me wish for more spaces like this in Michigan. In Detroit, the closest thing to this space is D-Town Farm which is run by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. One of the organization’s co-founders is Baba Malik Yakini, who is highly regarded as a leader by many people doing this work – his name was mentioned early on during my time at Soul Fire Farm. There was also mention of the up-and-coming Detroit People’s Food Co-op, of which I am a current board member. It felt good to hear that the work we are doing in Detroit is inspiring others. During the growing season, D-Town Farm welcomes volunteers on the farm every Saturday and Sunday from 8:00 am until 12:00 pm.

I sat on the same side of the table for every meal because I loved the view of the farm from where I sat. The farm is on a mountain, and from where I was seated, I could see the farm, the line of trees, and just over the trees, the sky on the horizon. Most days were clear, sunny and with beautiful blue skies. I could not get enough of that view. I have missed it every single day since. I knew that I would. 

If you identify as Black, Indigenous, and/or Latinx and want to feel whole, like you belong, as if your ancestors are right there with you, go to Soul Fire Farm for their Farming Immersion Program. If you are open, it will indeed be an experience you will never forget and will forever hold in your heart. I cannot wait to go back. It will feel like I am going home.

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