The Audacity to Farm

5 Mins read

Growing up in a mostly white, rural community in the North, Leah Penniman often found solace within the forest. “When human beings were an excessive amount of to bear, the earth consistently held firm under my feet and also the solid, sticky trunk from the majestic white pine proposed something stable to grasp,” she explains.

When she was a teen, her race ­consciousness evolved. “I acquired the message loud and clear that black activists were concerned with gun violence, housing discrimination, and education reform, while white folks were concerned with organic farming and environmental conservation,” she says. “I felt that I had to choose between ‘my people’ and the earth, that my dual loyalties were pulling me apart and negating my inherent to belong.”

But a summer job in the Food Project in the Boston area — which merged a land ethic having a social-­justice mission — provided an oppor­tunity to develop food and serve an urban community.

Afterward, Penniman continued farming but found herself immersed in white-dominated landscapes. “I figured that organic farming was invented by white people and worried that my ancestors who fought and died to break away from the land would roll over in their graves to see me stooping,” she writes in Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.

“I struggled using the feeling that a life on land would be a betrayal of my people. I possibly could not have been more wrong.”

Her book outlines black people’s extraordinary contributions to sustainable farming and offers practical advice to a returning generation of black farmers. “People whose grandparents or great-grandparents left the land, usually forcibly due to discrimination, economic factors, or outright violent expulsion, realized that we left something essential — about spiritual as well as material sustenance — behind in those lands from the southeastern United States that we wish to reclaim,” she says.

To help others reestablish their connection with the land, Penniman cofounded Soul Fire Farm in 2011. Led by people of color, the city farm regenerates land using ancestral practices, provides food and medicine at low or cost-free to communities suffering under food apartheid, facilitates farmer trainings, and mobilizes public support for changes to our policy and reparations.

Experience Life | Why did you write a book focused on the returning generation of black farmers?

Leah Penniman | I had been inspired by Toni Morrison, who said that if there is a book you need to read that hasn’t been written, go and write it. This was certainly a book that I needed when I was getting started over Two decades ago in the field. I didn’t have mentors or heroines from my community to exhibit me the way and was counting on being in mostly white spaces to discover farming.

Back then I was yearning to understand that black people’s relationship to land wasn't circumscribed by slavery and sharecropping, but that it actually went back a lot further and was noble and dignified.

EL | Please share a few examples.

LP | Composting using worms was started by Cleopatra; utilizing raised beds and terracing can be traced towards the Ovambo people of what is now Namibia; and rotational grazing was practiced throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

In the United States, Dr. George Washington Carver is widely considered the daddy of organic agri-culture because within the late 1800s, a generation before J. I. Rodale, he was teaching about cover cropping, crop rotation, composting, and how to use heavy mulches without chemicals.

A generation later, Dr. Booker T. Whatley taught about community-supported agriculture, that they called Clientele Membership Clubs, in which you create a membership base for the farm and build a direct farmer-to-consumer relationship between rural and urban spaces.

EL | We hear about the meals system being broken, however, you argue that it’s not broken. Rather, it’s designed to protect powerful interests. Talk a little more about that.

LP | It depends on what you mean by “broken” and just how you frame it, however the current system was built around the DNA of stolen land and exploited labor. It is constantly on the rely upon those two main ingredients, generating immense profits for the few.

Farming is a trillion-dollar industry, and a small number of corporations control our food system. Ninety-eight percent of rural land is controlled by white people. Farm management is the whitest profession in the United States, while as being a farm or food laborer is the brownest. So there’s tremendous inequity in how power and resources are allocated, which is by design.

EL | How can we redesign it?

LP | We need to shift from the fundamental ingredients being stolen land and exploited labor to cooperatively stewarded, shared land and dignified, autonomous labor. We need massive policy changes and a restructuring of the whole economic system, rather than overemphasizing how consumers can change things with their dollars.

That being said, it’s still beneficial for consumers to support farms that are fair with their labor. Look for a certification called Food Justice Certified from the Agricultural Justice Project.

EL | Instead of talking about food deserts, you talk about food apartheid. Why?

LP | Community activist Karen-Washington gets credit for teaching us the difference. “Food desert” is a USDA term for a neighborhood that has a scarcity of grocery stores and fresh food outlets and it is low income. The challenge with this term is that a desert implies an all natural ecosystem.

“Food apartheid,” on the other hand, better describes what we have: a human-created system of segregation that designates certain people for food opulence and relegates others to food scarcity. It’s based on a legacy of institutional racism.

It’s no accident that a white person is four times as likely as a black person to have a supermarket within their ZIP code. We live in a country where we had a couple generations of redlining — the systematic denial of numerous services to residents of specific, often racially associated, neighborhoods or communities — and zoning laws that effectively prohibited black people from owning property or leaving ghettoized neighborhoods.  Those had become the neighborhoods that struggled to draw in grocery stores and retailers.

“Apartheid” calls it what it is while giving us the power to change it. If apartheid is a political system, you can do something about it. A “desert” is supposed to be there.

EL | How has farming and social-justice work affected your lifetime?

LP | I’ve read that the two spheres of work where people suffer most from mental-health issues are farming and social-justice activism, and that we do both at Soul Fire Farm. It can be hard, but my relationship using the earth keeps me going. I am going to the earth and pay attention to whatever instructions and encouragement she's for me, and that is a source of strength. It motivates me to provide opportunities for us to reconnect using the right to belong again with the land.

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