We Can’t Talk About Farming Without Talking About Race
Leah Penniman is helping BIPOC become food sovereign at her 80-acre farm
When nationwide hoarding left supermarket shelves empty in early March, many were forced to get innovative about how they filled their refrigerators. Since then, the popularity of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs has surged, allowing consumers to bypass the corporate middleman and buy directly from farmers.
However, becoming less reliant on industrialized food systems can seem impossible for those with limited access to nutritious food in their communities. Through her work with Soul Fire Farm, Black Kreyol farmer and food justice activist Leah Penniman is making it easier for those communities to become food sovereign and reclaim their rightful relationship to the land.
Penniman co-founded Soul Fire Farm in 2010 on 80 acres of Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican territory in Grafton, New York. The farm works toward a goal of ending racism and injustice in the food industry with immersion programs that train BIPOC in regenerative farming practices, anti-racist trainings for environmentalists and food justice activists, and no-cost doorstep delivery of fresh produce and garden-building for people living under food apartheid in New York’s Albany-Troy area.
Zora spoke with Penniman about the legacy she’s contributing to as a food sovereignty activist, systemic racism and injustice in America’s food systems, and how Soul Fire Farm is adapting amid a global pandemic.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ZORA: In your book, Farming While Black, you tell the story of your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother, Susie Boyd, who braided seeds into her hair before being kidnapped from West Africa and taken to the so-called New World. How does this legacy of food sovereignty inspire your work?
Leah Penniman: Part of healing my own relationship to land as a Black person has been understanding that it goes beyond slavery, sharecropping, and land-based oppression.
I do this by diving into the legacies of people like George Washington Carver, who was one of the founders of regenerative agriculture, and Fannie Lou Hamer, who was a major force in the co-op movement. I think about the role of Nigerian farmers in giving us what we now call permaculture in terms of intercropping, and Ghanian women, who have some of the best compost in the world, and the ways we’ve learned from that. There are countless examples of how Black agrarians have revolutionized the way we connect to the earth and to each other. It’s been a great joy to research that history and try to implement it and try to teach it at Soul Fire.
“Farmers, as in landowning farm managers, are the Whitest profession in the United States, and being a farmworker is the Brownest profession in the United States.”
How does Soul Fire Farm’s work serve as an example of how we can leave the legacy of racism and injustice in our food system behind?
The bottom line is we can’t actually talk about farming and food without race. Farmers, as in landowning farm managers, are the Whitest profession in the United States, and being a farmworker is the Brownest profession in the United States. We’re in the most racially skewed sector in terms of power, and I think we all have a responsibility to engage in solutions.
We have a food apartheid situation where Black and Brown folks are much more likely to be hungry in this country and much more likely to have diet-related illnesses. It’s not because we don’t know how to cook or eat right, but because of housing discrimination and poverty and ghettoization and all of these systemic factors. So, figuring out how to not just fully fund entitlement programs like SNAP and so forth, but also figuring out how we as a society can address the root causes of poverty and access to the means of production. Growing our own food in urban spaces is going to be really important in order to have a just food system.
There is a generational trauma that many BIPOC encounter when attempting to reclaim their relationship to the land. How does Soul Fire Farm work with BIPOC to heal that trauma and restore that connection?
As my friend and fellow Black farmer says, “The land was the scene of the crime.” It’s where the slavery and the sharecropping and the lynchings took place. It makes sense that when many folks come out to the farm, their immediate reaction is a trauma-response of, “What are y’all, slaves?”
The good news is that we’ve had thousands and thousands of people come through our programs at Soul Fire Farm, and I can’t think of a single example where healing and reconnection didn’t happen just by being here, where there is dignity and belonging and people look like you. I’ve had adults say, “I’m finally sober after years of addiction. I was able to leave a toxic marriage or a dead-end job.” That’s been super powerful.
“We have a food apartheid situation where Black and Brown folks are much more likely to be hungry in this country and much more likely to have diet-related illnesses.”
How have Soul Fire Farm’s programs and offerings transformed as a result of Covid-19 and the global pandemic?
We’ve mostly shifted our emphasis. Since it would be irresponsible to fly in people from all over the country and snuggle in close quarters on the farm during a pandemic, we’re not doing that program. Instead, we’re taking those resources and building more gardens locally for people with Soul Fire in the City. We’re increasing the amount of fresh food we’re delivering through our Solidarity Shares, and we’re turning some of the content from our immersion into a webinar and video series called “3D On-Farm Skill Shares” (3D stands for Daylong Deep Dive). Everyone who got into the in-person programs here is delayed until next year; in the meantime, we’re offering different courses, like mushrooms, beekeeping, seed saving, and marketing.
What first steps would you recommend for someone who is interested in supporting food justice?
An easy place to get started is the Reparations Map by the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust to see what local projects are happening near you and how to support them, whether that’s fundraising or offering technical assistance or volunteer support. Acting locally is a great way to get involved.
How do you remain optimistic and grounded in this work you’re doing in the midst of global chaos?
The earth and the ancestors are everything, so I get out to the land every day and do the work that needs to be done. I make offerings to my ancestors and call on the strength of Oya, whom I’m initiated to. These are the things that help me stay connected to purpose and remind me that I’m not alone and powerless.
My ancestors have been through much more challenging things than I can ever imagine, and somehow they managed to not just survive, but also make the conditions possible for me to exist and have the life that I have. So, I’m not going to give up on my descendants, and I just have to keep calling on that strength of lineage to help get through.