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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Gabriel

Seed Keeping at Soul Fire Farm: Interview with Danielle Palaez


Seed Travels delegate from Guatemala, Sabina Ajcot Sosof, harvests amaranth grown at Soul Fire Farm for seed saving during a Spanish-first event co-organized with Garden's Edge and the Hudson Valley Farm Hub's Language Justice Program
Seed Travels delegate from Guatemala, Sabina Ajcot Sosof, harvests amaranth grown at Soul Fire Farm for seed saving during a Spanish-first event co-organized with Garden's Edge and the Hudson Valley Farm Hub's Language Justice Program

I first visited Soul Fire Farm in 2017 as part of a group of 14 community food activists and youth and adult farmers. We left Ithaca at 5am so we would arrive close to 9am for a Saturday Community Work Day. It was a late autumn day, and the beauty of the landscape, which sits upon a rolling hill on Mohican Land in Troy, NY, outside Albany, was striking. There were about 90 volunteers there, and of course, there was a diversity of ages, genders, races, cultures, classes and farming know-how. We were invited to jump in with the work groups already underway, which included processing garlic to prepare it for planting, prepping terraces and planting fruit trees, harvesting carrots and brussel sprouts for Soul Fire’s CSA, chopping firewood and more. Over the years, I’ve visited the farm to attend an Uprooting Racism workshop (when the multi-racial workshop was held on-site - today, this can be taken virtually, and I highly recommend it) and a couple more Community Workdays. Not to my surprise, even though it was a Tuesday, there were over 200 attendees at a workday earlier this year.  


Soul Fire is well known for their work. Co-founder Leah Penniman's book Farming While Black brought considerable attention to the farm and its programs. She and the entire Soul Fire team are - among many other things - challenging systemic racial barriers in the food system, rethinking land ownership and privatization methods, regenerating landscapes, providing affordable and healthy produce to the greater Troy community, and building solidarity with Indigenous Nations. One approach to this solidarity work has been seed-keeping, so I contacted Soul Fire to learn more about their seed work and ways.  


Danielle Pelaez is the Farm Education Manager at Soul Fire Farm. She is a daughter, partner, farmer, educator, and land steward who lives just outside of Troy - not far from the farm. As she and I spoke over Zoom, she shared the meaning of seed keeping to herself personally and about Soul Fire’s multifaceted seed work.


I highly encourage you to learn more about Soul Fire Farm by visiting their website, listening to their presentations, taking a workshop, and checking out the work of some of their partners, like NEFOC (the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust) and the Black Farmer Fund. You can also learn more about the work they are doing through the books written by their team, including Leah’s new book Black Earth Wisdom, A Darker Wilderness by Erin Sharkey and featuring work by Naima Penniman, and In the Upper Country by Kai Thomas.


Interviewed by Elizabeth Gabriel


Elizabeth Gabriel, TNF: Briefly tell us about your seed work and that of Soul Fire’s.


Danielle Palaez: I am the Farm Education Manager here at Soul Fire Farm. We are an Afro-Indigenous-centered community farm on about 80 acres of the sacred land of the Stockbridge Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation. Our farm and work are grounded in uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system. We grow food for the community and program participants in a regenerative way; we reach over 50,000 people each year through our education work - virtually and in person, and are rabble-rousers for systems change, including efforts of reparations and rematriation. We aren’t a focused seed farm, but we started saving seeds after getting trained by Trulove Seeds. This year, we’re growing seven seeds for Truelove.


TNF: Tell me about your first memory of seed keeping. 


Danielle: One of my earliest memories of visiting Guatemala was with my grandfather, who, amongst other things, was a farmer. He always tended to the milpa, growing a big plot of corn and was desgranando el maiz (shelling) it when I was there, and I silently joined him for that afternoon and several others. I remember it was this tangible, satisfying, peaceful experience and movement. I learned that some corn would be set aside for family use – to make tortillas and masa, and some for planting for the next year. As I saw the food he grew in so many of the foods we ate during the day, I realized you didn’t have to buy these foods and seeds in a store, but you could save them and plant them.


TNF: Would you share with me an introduction to your rationale for this work? Why is seed-keeping important to culture?


Danielle: This year, we’re growing seven seeds for Truelove and as a form of seed rematriation for the Stockbridge Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation. Rematriating ancestral seeds that are culturally important, ensuring land access through a cultural respect easement, paying a voluntary land tax, and supporting language revitalization efforts are all tangible ways (among others) we are in solidarity and accountable to this land's original stewards. We grow Bee Balm #6 (Bergamot #6) and Mohican Blue maiz, which are indigenous to this area and are important food and medicine crops for the nation. Bee Balm #6, called Wteehaskwal in Mohican - I learned more about this plant medicine from Misty Cook; in her book Medicine Generations, she explains that it’s called #6 because it serves six (and more) medicinal purposes for colds, flu, and pneumonia. The plant was historically used and is still used today for medicine. Even though the US government forced this specific band of the Mohican Nation to move to and are now in Wisconsin, these are still seeds important to this Nation. Seeds were and are a tool of colonization, disrupting access to them, attacking them during harvest, burning plants or storage areas. This type of destruction follows a history and continued pattern of land theft from the First People and of stealing people from their homelands and enslaving them to build this country.  


At Soul Fire Farm, we often speak of inspiration from the great great great grandmothers who wove seeds of millet and okra and sorghum into their hair before being forced on transatlantic slave ships. This action tells us they had hope of survival. 


These stories are recent, also. In my own roots, in Guatemala, as recently as the 1960-1996 civil war, fields of amaranth were burned by state forces - calling back to Spanish colonizers, who did the same in the 16th century. Indigenous farmers hid amaranth seeds buried under floorboards and are now encouraging all to plant and grow this sacred, nutritious plant. Today in Palestine, olive groves are being burned as a tool to suppress and dispossess Palestinians. We see this repeated in history over and over again, and we know that protecting land and seeds is resilience - and hope.


Here at Soul Fire Farm, we’re growing Red Amaranth, Sweet Annie, Plate de Tomato (a Haitian sauce tomato), calendula, Skunk Bean, and Pretzel Bean for our Truelove seeds partnership. They have been great in training us in best practices to save, clean, and store the seed. We’ve also been to their offices and farm in Philadelphia to hand deliver the seeds to Owen and see where they’re stored. Knowing about their journey and getting to know Owen, Chris Bolden-Newsome, and Truelove weaves us into a part of this story: a community, a lineage of hope and of partnership.


With the amaranth, we had been collaborating with another project called Garden’s Edge and with the Hudson Valley Farm Hub’s Language Justice Program to host indigenous farmers from Guatemala at harvest time (see the article “Seed Travels” on page B-21 about Garden’s Edge). We burned copal, offered prayers of gratitude, and harvested a 50’ row of amaranth together. We brought it to the pond side, where the Guatemalan delegates showed us how to thresh it and use the wind to winnow the seed. We ended the day making alegrías, toasted amaranth seed mixed with heated honey and shaped into a delicious granola-like treat, often a skull-shaped treat made for Dia de los Difuntos/Muertos, Day of the Dead. This was so special also because I had coincidentally met many of these folks in my last visit in Guatemala earlier this year.  There, I learned how they store seed in beautiful handmade clay pots so the seeds can breathe, which is different from how we store them here, which is always in glass.  


TNF: How does seed saving fit into Soul Fire’s day-to-day work and the experience of participants at Soul Fire?


Danielle: We all work together to grow and care for the plants. The CSA / Solidarity Share

Assistant Manager Brooke does most of the harvesting, cleaning, and shipping for Truelove. Since my main work is in education at Soul Fire, many of our curricula are focused on seed saving, especially when youth come to the farm. We love harvesting and involving kids in this work and connecting them to larger issues (depending on their age) around preserving culture but also the monopolization of seeds. People get really excited about seeds and it's a very tangible experience to be able to take a dried seed head of a marigold, for example, and see the seed, take that home, and plant it, or make a seed ball out of clay and compost.  


TNF: Are you worried about the future of seeds? 


Danielle: It’s hard not to be because there’s so much consolidation of farming and predatory practices around the world; I see them firsthand. One plant I grow at home is a maiz colorada, a red corn from Guatemala that my uncle shared with me. When the Guatemalan farmers visited my garden at home and saw this corn, they said it was important to keep growing it. It’s harder to find in Guatemala these days; it’s mostly easier to find white GMO corn. They emphasized the importance of growing this in the face of these seed corporations' power. Although I’m worried about the future of seeds, I shifted into food sovereignty work because it feels hopeful. The painful history and ongoing traumas are real, but there is also much hope and resilience from our ancestors, human and non-human. I feel lucky to be part of Soul Fire Farm, where I am connected to people doing amazing and radical work, who are so inspirational - and people who are saving seeds.  


TNF: What do you think organizations like NOFA can and should do to impact the state of seeds, seed sovereignty and seed futures?


Danielle: I’ve seen some shifts in conferences to include more on seed-keeping tracks and similar topics of interest. It’s not that simple for small-scale farmers to grow and save seed, even though it may seem so. Proper seed saving does take time and equipment, even if it is DIY. More cooperative work around seed efforts would be helpful and important. Part of it is a lack of knowledge among small farmers about the critical importance of saving seeds. Many people assume they can buy the seed they want from companies every year. It wasn’t until the COVID wake-up call when plants and seeds were sold out, that people realized there actually isn’t an unlimited supply. Making plans available for more DIY setups for people or establishing easy community-driven ways to share equipment and tools throughout a region would be great work for organizations like NOFA and make resources and training opportunities accessible. If NOFA doesn’t do this work directly, NOFA can support the policies needed for these shifts to happen at a more local level.  Organizations, especially the larger ones with more power, like NOFA, need to do things that support networks and boost community resiliency. 


TNF: What two books/blogs/podcasts/resources do you suggest people read about regarding seeds and the importance of your work?


Danielle: Tuelove’s Podcast, Seeds and Their People, Rowen White’s work at Sierra Seeds and her writing, and also the work of Amirah Mitchell of Sistah Seeds and Ujamaa Seed.


TNF: Is there anything else you would like to tell me in regards to seeds and their stories?


Danielle: I started this work as a community gardener in Baltimore, and that’s when I first started saving seed. I grew these mammoth, massive sunflowers, and I just had to save their seeds. One head made so many seeds - I was just floored by the abundance. I ordered these little envelopes to package and gift them, and then I started realizing my cilantro, kale and radishes had all gone to seed too. I made holiday gifts with all these seeds. I think I hold on to that surprise and joy every season I get the chance to save them. It’s so fun and abundant; it’s such a joy to see the plant in this stage in its life cycle - with endless generosity, zest, and determination. I invite everyone to experience this joy and generosity.


Danielle Peláez, Farm Education Manager (she/they), is a daughter, partner, farmer, educator, and land steward based outside of Troy. Danielle dreams of serving her community through connection to the soil. Her experiences in harm reduction, education, community garden spaces in Washington DC and Baltimore, and her strong roots in Guatemala, all deeply inform her work. She loves being outside in all forms (gardening, hiking, camping, napping in hammocks) and sharing meals with friends.

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