Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
I grew up with parents who keep a garden that can produce just about anything. I’ve helped plant lettuce seedlings, tie-up tomatoes and dig bright carrots and pearly potatoes from the ground. To this day, their asparagus bush is the stuff of (Viroqua, Wisconsin) legend.
If I was pleasantly intrigued by the garden as a child, and wholly disinterested as a teenager, things have now come full circle. Someday I’ll have the space for a garden of my own, but for now I make do with a fair amount of writing and thinking about food and agriculture. It’s a topic that fascinates me and it’s always germane—everyone has to eat, after all.
The food system, like many of today’s industries and social structures, is tangled and complex. It also requires a not insignificant amount of land, which inevitably involves rural communities. There’s the conundrum of feeding everyone while navigating the effects of climate change and ideally not contributing to it, the problem of food waste, a recent increased interest in sustainable and regenerative agriculture practices, and questions of equity, inclusion and appropriation that have come with it.
My first encounter with the work of Soul Fire Farm was years ago, when I heard founder Leah Penniman interviewed on a podcast. A farm dedicated to the success of BIPOC growers exploring regenerative ag practices and working to uproot racism was a totally new concept to me, at the time. And I couldn’t stop thinking about how the existence of a place like Soul Fire was at once so cool and also so telling of the interconnectedness of our systems of oppression.
Recently, I was thrilled to correspond with Azuré Kauikeolani Iversen-Keahi, a member of the Soul Fire team. She and I share a rural upbringing that involves lots of delicious food, only in very different parts of the world.
Enjoy Azuré’s description of growing up in rural Hawaii, thoughts on uprooting racism and classism in agriculture, and a peek at what she’s growing in her garden, below.
Caroline Carlson, The Daily Yonder: When folks talk about “rural America” they’re most often referring to rural areas in the contiguous 48 states. However, your childhood included foraging for native foods on the eastside of Oʻahu, Hawaii. What was your experience with rural spaces and communities growing up?
Azuré Kauikeolani Iversen-Keahi: Growing up in Hawai’i certainly afforded me unique life experiences, especially with relation to the land. I actually spent the first decade of my life in Kailua which is quite overrun with tourists in present-day, but was mostly a quiet suburb when I was growing up. My kupuna (great grandma) used to tell me, “It was just dirt when we moved here.” I moved to Hau’ula after that which is much more rural and closer to remnants of sugar plantations, other agricultural land, and what I always saw as “country life.” Growing up, the slogan, “Keep the country country!” was very comfortable and familiar to me, and though I couldn’t fully grasp the activism behind this statement as a youngster, I always felt a great sense of pride in my connection to my homeland, its so called wild-ness, and the magic of the place.
I am well aware that the reasons I cherish my upbringing in rural Hawai’i are also part of the reason why my homeland is at risk of being pillaged for the pleasure of others who have been wooed by its beauty. For me, I think being born and raised on an island—one’s connection to land is enhanced and, even, imperative.
Living rurally on O’ahu offered intimacy with the landscape and gave me opportunities to find safety and fun in the foods I could forage—it fulfilled my need to indulge in curiosity while accidentally learning the power of “wild” and fresh foods provided by the land. These practices were simply learned by being with the neighborhood kids. It was something to do and not offered to me by classroom studies. In fact, I was being taught to forget these ways, but still, after school, we’d run through old sugar cane fields to hide amongst the trees and break off stalks of cane to taste the sweetness. The magic of the privilege of rural life in Hawai’i has become more apparent as I raise children in the post-industrial city of Troy, New York.
DY: Do you have thoughts about how rural communities on the islands are similar to—or different from—rural communities on the continent? What sorts of challenges does rural Hawaii face?
AK: It seems to me that issues of class are certainly found in rural communities on the islands and on the continent which may have something to do with the historical decline in popularity of agricultural work. Overall, I’ve gleaned that as values and the demands of a capitalist society have shifted, people have departed from land-based work for more “conventional” 9-5 desk jobs. I know, for me, as a descendant of plantation workers, my elders seemed to infer that working in the field was a sign of a lower class and to get yourself out of the sun and into the office meant success.
I’ve observed both on the islands and on the continent, family farms are abandoned and land is left to wait for us to return to honor it. Food is more commonly bought and no longer self-produced because time and energy are scarce. In this process, culture and skills are forgotten in the name of financial need.
The challenges Hawai’i faces could be an entire article in itself, but a key difference between rural life in Hawai’i and on the continent is that the land in Hawai’i is much more recently stolen and still hoarded by those who can afford it. The cost of land is extremely high and inaccessible. Historically, resources from rural communities in Hawai’i, especially those of Native Hawaiians, have been diverted to benefit the military, tourism industry, and harmful, big ag companies. As a result, rural communities in Hawai’i are at risk of harms inflicted by these societal monoliths.
DY: Currently, you work at Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, NY. The mission statement on the Soul Fire website describes it as a “community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system.” I realize this is an enormous topic, but I’d love to hear a little bit about what drew you to this work and to Soul Fire itself.
AK: Before I worked for Soul Fire, I felt like I didn’t have the language to describe what my food origins and experience were. This led me to explore my cultural identity through growing food—reconnecting with my ancestral origins in an attempt to understand how and why I was so inspired by land-based work.
My proximity to Soul Fire seems like a stroke of luck. When I moved to Troy seven years ago, I learned of Soul Fire through a farmer I was collaborating with. I had never heard of a farm dedicated to the success of BIPOC growers and honestly could not have even imagined such a thing ever existing. I was raised to escape the plantation life that my ancestors had worked so hard to move out of, but for years I sensed that I was missing something. It’s only in the last few years, as I’ve grown closer to land-based work, that these ideas really solidified in my consciousness.
Soul Fire’s work to train the next generation of black and brown farmers and growers through on-farm and inner city programming centers voices that have been underrepresented for far too long. This reunion with skills and land-based healing brings us closer to a place where we can help each other undo racism in the food system through the thoughtful action of growing food, sharing resources, and uncovering the truth of the systemic racism ingrained in the systems that run the world.
DY: Petersburg, NY is a town of about 1,500. What has the reception to Soul Fire Farm been in the immediate community? I ask because I grew up in a pocket of rural Wisconsin where there is a lot of organic farming, but also many conventional farmers who’ve been there for generations—some were curious about the “new” (but of course in many ways old!) methods, others wanted nothing to do with it. I know Soul Fire has received national recognition and I’m curious about what things are like in your immediate area, too.
AK: To be clear, I don’t live on the farm, but I am aware that our teammates who reside at Soul Fire have been committed to cultivating relationships with their immediate community. For the most part, we do our best to find the commonality in our practices. When we have the opportunity, we find ways to collaborate with our neighbors.
For example, if we want to supplement our egg supply for Solidarity Shares, we buy surplus from a neighboring farmer. We buy our hay from local suppliers as well. We have a neighbor who we compensate to maintain our farm roads and our vehicles. Another neighbor helps prepare food for our farm programs and contributes to the operation of our online store and pitches in with various farm tasks when needed.
We understand that myriad skillsets reside within our rural community and we are happy to be creative about finding ways to work more closely together. When I go to the post office to drop off online store orders, the postal workers are always curious about what we’re up to over at “Soul Fire”, and we often share laughs over farm happenings and the huge Santa Claus sacks of packages I bring in.
Overall, it seems folks are curious about the work we are doing and pleased with what they can see. The farm itself is a beautiful site and demonstration of biodiversity and regenerative agriculture; it’s pretty hard to not see the bounty of the land and what it holds—the structures, the crops, the people, and the productivity is inspiring to many walks of life.
DY: My hunch is that you’ve done a fair amount of gardening in your own right. What are your favorite things to grow and eat?
AK: I have been spending a lot of time growing things for seven years. The practice nourishes my mind, body and spirit. I do what I can to grow crops that naturalize or self-sow, especially herbs and cold hardy greens that rise early and coax me out of the winter fog.
Perennial herbs like sorrel and lovage are two of my favorites. Sorrel is a leafy green that tastes like lemon, and come May I am pulverizing it with green garlic and chives to make a tart, green delight to spread over toast and fish. A few sprigs of lovage, which has the flavor and fragrance of an incredibly potent celery, does wonders for flavoring beans and salads. Greens like Komatsuna, Osaka Purple Mustard, and Tatsoi self-sow and provide a bounty of early spring greens that reinvigorate me after months void of fresh, edible verdure. I adore these generous plants that remind me rebirth is possible each year.
In high summer, I am a huge sucker for vining crops and growing in vertical arrangements—I tend to grow things like luffa, honey nut squash, pole beans, and cucumbers over arch ways that provide lush shade and a fun environment for my children to climb and harvest.
DY: Lastly, do you have any recommendations for folks interested in learning more about food sovereignty and regenerative agriculture? What books (or other media) have you enjoyed?
AK: There are so many resources out there! I certainly recommend folks read Leah Penniman’s Farming While Black. One of the books that attracted me to land-based work was The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing. Some of my favorite agricultural anthologies come via the Greenhorn’s who publish their annual New Farmer’s Almanac; I highly suggest grabbing a copy each year as it’s full of diverse content from recipes, to poetry, to essays on land sovereignty and cooperative history. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is also an incredibly important and poignant text that drives me to gasp with delight each time I flip to a page to remind myself of the treasure of its words and the way Kimmerer articulates the power of interspecies connection.
Above all, though, my preferred media are plants and soil. There’s nothing like tucking a new specimen into rich, dark organic matter, singing to seeds and patting a planting into place with deep love and intention. Reading the landscape and its instructions will always be my educational resource of choice.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.