How to Grow Change Through Black-Led Agriculture, According to Leah Penniman

The roots of Black food injustice run deep. Here, the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm explores that painful history, and how supporting Black-run sustainable agriculture initiatives can further real change.

Interview with Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm
Photo: Courtesy of Soul Fire Farm

Leah Penniman is the co-founder, co-director, and farm manager of Soul Fire Farm, the author of Farming While Black, and a 20-year veteran in the struggle to build equitable food systems for Black and brown people. She spoke with Food & Wine’s Adina Steiman—while standing in the farm's carrot patch—on why Black-owned farms have become so rare, why food deserts are actually food apartheid, and how sustainable farming can deliver social justice.

Adina Steiman: I am so fascinated by your work because it's kind of like where the rubber hits the road—or where the carrot hits the dirt—in terms of actually enacting change and not just talking about it. There's a statistic that you talk about in your book, that just 2% of land-owning American farmers are Black, down from 14% in 1920. What you see as the root causes of this post-slavery separation of Black people from their farming traditions?

Leah Penniman: As you said, approximately 98% of the arable acreage in this country is white-owned, which is an all-time high, and that is no accident of history, right? You can start with the genocidal theft of land from Native people as setting the stage for the type of racism and white supremacy that we were to have in our food system. And of course, slavery, which is a whole topic unto itself where you're talking about hundreds of years of millions of people doing unpaid labor to build the agricultural wealth in this country.

And then when the Emancipation Proclamation came out—the end of the Civil War—there was a promise made by the Union army to give emancipated Black households 40 acres of land. And that promise was broken, it never came to fruition. In fact, reparations were given to the former slave owners. So [slaveowners] were paid for their “lost property” instead of the slaves themselves.

Completely backwards, right? And so what Black folks did is they found themselves in this condition of neo-slavery, and it had two fronts. One was sharecropping and tenant farming, which is pretty well known. It's a debt-peonage system where the former masters would essentially lease the mule, the house, the seed, [and] the equipment, right to the Black farmer. And then the Black farmer was in debt and had to pay off that debt in a share of the harvest, which is why it's called sharecropping. But in reality, Black farmers got poorer every year and they could not leave the situation because that would be considered breaking contract. And it was so bad that this really rare disease called pellagra, which is a niacin deficiency, became prominent amongst sharecroppers.

And then the other major type of neo-slavery was convict leasing. So all these new laws came into the books called the Black codes, which made it illegal to loiter, illegal to be unemployed. You'd go to jail for being in debt, you'd go to jail for breaking the contract. And those bodies were leased to the plantation. And that system actually continues. Last year was the biggest year for convict leasing since the early 1900's, because of immigration “reform,” leading to shortages of laborers on farms. And so Black men were put out into the fields, and the New York Times did a thing on this. So despite all this, Black people did manage to save money and purchase some land, 60 million acres by 1910, and almost all of that is gone. And there's three main reasons why it's gone.

Could you please tell me what those are?

Number one is that white folks freaked out about the idea of Black people owning land and an upset to the sharecropping system. So the Ku Klux Klan, the white cops, and the white citizens' council set upon people to punish them for the audacity of owning their land. And they killed, they murdered, over 4,000 Black people. Most of them for being too uppity, right, and trying to have land, and they burned their houses and stole their land.

And the second reason is that the federal government, namely the USDA, discriminated systematically against Black farmers, excluding them from prop assistance loans and other types of subsidies that white farmers were getting. And so Pete Daniel, in his book Dispossession, names the USDA as the number one cause of the decline of the Black farmer. And, of course, when you look at the Pigford lawsuit of 1999, you see that the judge agreed, right? And almost $2 billion of payments were divided up among hundreds, or tens of thousands, of Black farmers.

And then the final reason—which is what we're dealing with right now—is called air property. And it relates to the fact that most Black farmers are not leaving wills behind. So their land is collectively owned by their children and grandchildren. And that's a very vulnerable type of land tenure in our system. It makes you ineligible for most types of credit. The way the laws of a lot of states work is that if one developer can convince one person to sell their share, they can make the whole land go up for auction. So there's lots of ways that that's been used as a tool to dispossess people of their land. These systems of oppression and challenge that just make it really, really difficult to hold onto land. So, there's a lot of history.

Interview with Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm
Courtesy of Soul Fire Farm

You pointed out how painfully ironic all of that separation from the land is considering what a deep heritage of farming and agricultural wisdom comes out of enslaved Africans and their descendants.

It's so powerful, and this is something I had to learn as an adult because it certainly wasn't taught, but pretty much anything you can think of that we cherish in organic and regenerative agriculture from raised beds to compost to polycultures, you can trace back to African and African American innovation.

So Cleopatra is the first person in history to have been recorded as a vermi-composter. The Obambo people of Namibia had the first raised beds. We have the 26 different polycultures in Nigeria, and that's the basis of what a lot of people call permaculture today—these mixtures of different plants in a mutually supportive ecosystem and on and on and on.

And then you go to the United States in post-slavery times and Dr. George Washington Carver at Tuskegee is the one who brought regenerative agriculture to the mainstream, to the university. And Dr. Booker T. Washington is the one who gave us the CSA and pick-your-own and farm-to-table. Fannie Lou Hamer with her co-ops, and Shirley and Charles Sherrod coming up with the idea of a community land trust. So these alternative economies as well are traceable to African heritage. So that's super powerful. Again, it's not because folks don't want to farm or don't know how to farm. It's really that the system is not set up to support people of color having access to land and capital.

Interview with Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm
Courtesy of Soul Fire Farm

Obviously, in your work at Soul Fire Farm, you're deeply engaged in advocacy and in farming at the same time. And in terms of how that food gets to the Black community, what do you see as the challenges there?

Soul Fire Farm is in Rensselaer County, New York, and one of the three main projects that we have is to farm using these Afro-indigenous methods on 80 acres, and then deliver that food on a weekly basis to the doorsteps of people living under food apartheid, including Black, Indigenous, Latino, and immigrant communities. It is, again, a systemic challenge, not just on the side of farming, but also on the side of consumers.

We have a system that my mentor, Karen Washington, called food apartheid, which is where based on your race and your zip code, you're pretty much able to predict whether a person is more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure, or other cardiovascular issues. It's not because they don't want to eat vegetables or don't know how to cook, but really because there's just not access. There's not affordable culturally appropriate food in those neighborhoods, and there's often not transportation. We try to address that with the doorstep delivering program, which we call Solidarity Shares.

And then we also have an urban gardening program called Soul Fire in the City. And the idea with that program is to build gardens for people living under food apartheid and to support them in training and materials and supplies and social network with other gardeners. Of course, it doesn't excuse society from making the necessary systemic changes in terms of addressing housing discrimination. Which is really a root of why people are hungry in the first place.

Interview with Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm
Courtesy of Soul Fire Farm

If you're talking about issues of transportation, you could argue that it's even more important to have even more smaller-scale food markets in Black communities than elsewhere, because those issues can really prevent that access to the food that people want.

We're four hours from New York City. We have individuals contacting us from New York City, from Amsterdam, which is way upstate, being like, "Can you deliver food to me?" These are Black parents of children, elders. And so there is such a clamor and it's actually so baffling to me that I hear a lot of white-lead organizations just saying, "Well, we would do that, but there's just not interest." Like, how hard are you trying? Because we are fighting people off who want to get this fresh food, and our farm is small, so we just don't have the capacity to meet all of the need.

Leah Penniman

The land might have been the scene of the crime, but she was never the criminal.

— Leah Penniman

I think part of what I find so important about the work that you do is that it's reconnecting things that were torn asunder or challenging assumptions about what Black people want from their food and their cooking.

I think sometimes, maybe the misconception is that well-meaning white folks in the community want Black people to eat their recipes. And so you go into a Black school and have these after-school cooking programs and be like, "Today we're going to do kale salad, and we're going to do hummus." And it's like, well, that's not what we eat. I mean, people can eat many things, obviously. We all eat cuisines from around the world. But if you want to talk about a starting place, ask the children what their grandparents make. "How do you prepare your collard greens? How do you prepare your turnip greens?" They're going to have ways that vegetables are used, but it might not be kale salad. That doesn't mean there's a deficiency, it just means that there's a cultural misalignment for the starting point.

And of course, then, we can introduce new foods to each other and that's super fun, but we have a lot of youth programs here and I'd never start by saying, "Here's this food you've never heard of, an you really should like it because otherwise you're going to die of diabetes." It's like, let's make gumbo soup, because that's what we eat.

I would wager that a pot of collard greens to be healthier than a raw kale salad any day.

And much, much tastier, I have to say. I don't know, people think I hate kale. I don't hate kale, but I think that kale salad is a really weird thing to do with kale. Like, can we cook it? Can we at least massage it with some lemon juice, break this roughage down a little bit?

Interview with Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm
Courtesy of Soul Fire Farm

Seriously. So I wanted to also go back to your personal experience in the work that you do. A lot of the history of Black people and agriculture and farming is painful. It carries a lot of weight and a lot of trauma, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you see in your work in that context.

It's a really good point. And I will say that it was even a bit of a surprise to me that pretty much every Black person who came to the farm because someone else brought them here would have some sort of slavery comment to make. It would be like, "Wait, are you all slaves?" Or like, "It's cotton, where's the cotton?" All this stuff, right? So even 8-year-olds who are many generations away from slavery.

And my friend, Chris Bolden Newsome, who's a Black farmer in Philly, put it really well in reflecting on this. He said the land was the scene of the crime. It's where all of the lynchings took place. The wilderness is where they took you to beat you and throw you in the river. And so it makes sense that the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are still carrying that trauma in their DNA. Actually, there's studies about this, that of course the descendants of enslaved Africans and sharecroppers are going to carry this trauma and have it associated with the land.

But then I said to him, the land might have been the scene of the crime, but she was never the criminal. In fact, I think the land was probably, without us even realizing, the source of our strength. Because in West African cosmology, the earth is actually an Orisha. She's alive and a spirit, a being, and she is giving us our connection with our ancestors, with our higher purpose, all of this support. Our ancestors did the right thing and are running away from the land to escape all that oppression, but they did leave behind something that I think my generation is going back to pick up, this piece of our culture and our dignified relationship to land that is not defined by that oppression.

And when folks come out to the farm, we find that it actually does not take a lot to get the healing process going. Just being here with other Black and brown folks, of folks' own free will, participating in growing food in a way that is joyful and dignified and giving back to the community, that trauma starts to move and shift. And it's been pretty powerful, actually. I see people being able to get sober after many years of struggling with addiction, or being able to leave an abusive relationship after many years of struggling and so forth. So yeah, we feel excited about that healing potential that the land has to offer when it's done right.

You were talking about systemic change and obviously that's a lot more complicated than signing up for a CSA or shopping for organic food. What actionable steps can people take to support the kinds of food justice work that you're engaged in?

As my daughter would say, she's like, "The food system is everything it takes to get sunshine onto your plate." Which means that if we want to make a just food system, we have a lot of entry points. Everywhere from access to land to marketing and distribution and consumer access.

So I would say just a couple of things people can do: one is check out the reparations map on the Soul Fire Farm website, because it has dozens of projects that are Black and brown-lead across the country, along with what kind of support they need. And it might be anything from a hug to a tractor. And so folks can take a look and see if there's something they can offer. That's one way to support.

Another thing is both on the Soul Fire Farm website and the HEAL Food Alliance, which stands for Health, Environment, Agriculture, and Labor, there is a list of policy demands of laws that need to change so that farm workers are protected, Black farmers are protected, Indigenous people, the land... And so sometimes it's confusing to call your Congressperson and not really know what you're telling them to do, but you can say, "Pass HR 40 and pass the Fairness for Farm Workers Act." So take a look at that policy list, pick something that feels compelling and call your elected representatives and push them on that. Especially that seems to be a moment right now where they actually care about justice.

Or they're seeing that their constituents do, at least.

Yeah, yeah. Or they're pretending to care. They're putting on those fricking kente cloths, that's a whole thing. As far as just getting involved in growing food, we do have a weekly call-in Facebook live show called “Ask a Sister Farmer” that's how people can get started gardening. And you can ask questions and things, and it's fun. It's all Black women farmers who are answering the questions. And that's also a good way to connect to other people and see who's in your area, 'cause there's usually a bunch of folks in the chat and you can be like, "Hey, I'm from Minnesota. Who's near me?" Farming is something you want to definitely get involved in at the local, local level. Those are a few things.

How can people specifically help Soul Fire Farm with its work or help you spread the message?

Oh, for sure. Hold on one second. Brooke, four rows, four inches. Yeah. I know, you got it. I figured you got it, but I abandoned you. I'm sorry, Adina. I left my coworker without the spacing of the spinach.

You're doing the work. I love it.

We're always looking for donations to support the work, especially in this COVID time, we have more people who need food and gardens, so you can definitely donate through our website and also just amplify. On our website too we have all media interviews that we've done and our policy platform. And so if folks want to use their platform to amplify the messages that we're putting out there, we also really appreciate that, because for us, it's just all about freeing the land and freeing the people.

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