Growing up in a mostly white, rural community in the North, Leah Penniman often found solace in the forest. “When human beings were too much to bear, the earth consistently held firm under my feet and the solid, sticky trunk of the majestic white pine offered me something stable to grasp,” she explains.
When she was a teen, her race consciousness evolved. “I got 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 right to belong.”
But a summer job at the Food Project in the Boston area — which merged a land ethic with a social-justice mission — provided an opportunity to grow food and serve an urban community.
Afterward, Penniman continued farming but found herself immersed in white-dominated landscapes. “I thought 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 with the feeling that a life on land would be a betrayal of my people. I could not have been more wrong.”
Her book outlines black people’s extraordinary contributions to sustainable farming and provides practical advice to a returning generation of black farmers. “Those of us whose grandparents or great-grandparents left the land, usually forcibly because of discrimination, economic factors, or outright violent expulsion, realized that we left something essential — about spiritual as well as material sustenance — behind in those lands of the southeastern United States that we want 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 community farm regenerates land using ancestral practices, provides food and medicine at low or no cost to communities suffering under food apartheid, facilitates farmer trainings, and mobilizes public support for policy changes and reparations.
Experience Life | Why did you write a book focused on the returning generation of black farmers?
Leah Penniman | I was 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 20 years ago in the field. I didn’t have mentors or role models from my community to show me the way and was relying on being in mostly white spaces to learn about farming.
Back then I was yearning to understand that black people’s relationship to land was not circumscribed by slavery and sharecropping, but that it actually went back a lot further and was noble and dignified.
EL | Please share some examples.
LP | Composting using worms was started by Cleopatra; utilizing raised beds and terracing can be traced to 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 father of organic agri-culture because in 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, which he called Clientele Membership Clubs, where you create a membership base for your farm and build a direct farmer-to-consumer relationship between rural and urban spaces.
EL | We hear about the food system being broken, but 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 how you frame it, but the current system was built on the DNA of stolen land and exploited labor. It continues to 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 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 is also low income. The challenge with that term is that a desert implies a natural ecosystem.
“Food apartheid,” on the other hand, more accurately 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 not an accident that a white person is four times as likely as a black person to have a supermarket in their ZIP code. We live in a country where we had a couple generations of redlining — the systematic denial of various 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 became the neighborhoods that struggled to attract 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 life?
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 we do both at Soul Fire Farm. It can be hard, but my relationship with the earth keeps me going. I go to the earth and listen to whatever instructions and encouragement she has for me, and that is a source of strength. It motivates me to provide opportunities for us to reconnect with the right to belong again with the land.