A hundred years ago around 14 percent of farms in the United States were owned by black Americans. Today only 1 percent are. And although more than 80 percent of farm labor in the U.S. is currently performed by Latinx workers, they own just 3 percent of farms.
Leah Penniman is trying to change that. In 2011 the author, educator, and activist cofounded Soul Fire Farm with her husband, Jonah Vitale-Wolff. Located in Grafton, New York, the working farm also serves as a training ground for aspiring farmers of color who come there to learn about sustainable agriculture and reclaim a connection to the land severed by centuries of trauma and oppression. Many black people, Penniman says, disdain farming because they associate it with picking cotton on plantations. She helps them see how growing their own food fosters independence in the face of systemic racism. More than 80 percent of Soul Fire’s graduates go on to work as farmers and food activists.
As a child, Penniman grew up with her father in rural Massachusetts. Hers was the only multiracial family in the neighborhood, and she was bullied by her white schoolmates. She and her sister found solace playing in the forest among the trees, rocks, and streams. As a teen she spent time with her Haitian American mother in Boston and discovered agriculture when she took a summer job with the Boston-based Food Project. She went on to work at the Farm School, then to co-manage Many Hands Organic Farm. Though she enjoyed farming, the sustainable-agriculture movement was dominated by white people — mostly men — and she began to question whether she belonged.
Penniman’s future spouse also worked at Many Hands, and the two went to Clark University together. After graduation they got married and cofounded the urban-farming program YouthGROW in Worcester, Massachusetts. A few years later the couple moved to the South End neighborhood of Albany, New York, where, Penniman says, “it was easier to get weapons and drugs than healthy food.” There were no grocery stores or farmers’ markets, only fast food and corner stores selling processed junk and alcohol. Such urban areas are often referred to as “food deserts,” but Penniman rejects the term, as it makes the scarcity sound like a natural phenomenon. She prefers to call it “food apartheid” — an organized system of unequal food distribution.
In 2007, wanting to provide fresh food not just for their family but for the South End community, the couple purchased seventy-two acres of mountainside farmland in Grafton, forty minutes outside the city. They spent three years building a post-and-beam, straw-bale house on the property while both working full-time: he in construction and she as a teacher. And they began to restore the soil and plant crops using a mix of Western agricultural science and indigenous African traditions and spirituality.
Today Soul Fire’s team of eight people operates a sliding-scale CSA (Community Supported Agriculture program) called Ujaama — Swahili for “cooperative economics.” Through it Soul Fire provides naturally grown produce, eggs, and chicken to about a hundred families in Albany, Troy, and Grafton, half of whom identify as “low income” (soulfirefarm.com).
Penniman’s first book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, came out last year. She holds a master’s degree in science education and was awarded a Fulbright Distinguished Award for her years of teaching environmental science and biology at the high-school level. (She continues to teach part-time.) The James Beard Foundation recently honored her with a leadership award.
Last fall, on a cold, windy Saturday, I joined about eighty others for a community work party at Soul Fire Farm. People of different colors, ages, and genders washed and sorted flats of seedlings, removed plastic-tarp mulch, and picked rocks from the soil. At noon we laid out our potluck dishes, expressed our gratitude, and socialized. I returned to interview Penniman on the morning of the November 2018 midterm elections. She poured me a mug of homegrown peppermint tea, and we sat in her sunny living room to talk about the African inspirations for her work and the long history of people of color being dispossessed from the land. By the time I left, lunch preparations were underway, and the Soul Fire Farm team was about to assemble for a planning meeting at the dining-room table.
Frisch: You do more than grow food at Soul Fire Farm. You’re working with young people, training food activists, and creating a new food culture. Did you intend to do all this when you started?
Penniman: We started out with a goal to increase food access for our neighbors, who were living under food apartheid in the South End of Albany. We were struggling ourselves to get fresh vegetables for our infant and our toddler because there were no grocery stores or farmers’ markets near us. So we joined a CSA that cost more than our rent. I had to walk more than two miles to pick up the food because we didn’t have a vehicle. Our neighbors encouraged us to start a farm and grow food for ourselves.
Since then, we’ve expanded. There’s a Ghanaian proverb: “There are three stones that make the cooking pot stand firm.” In honor of that, we provide three services. One is, of course, feeding people. We use Afro-indigenous methods to grow food for those who need it most. The second stone is training, equipping, and inspiring the next generation of farmer-activists from the black community. And the third is organizing to change the way resources are shared, so that black and brown farmers will have what they need to do their work.
Our ancestral grandmothers braided seeds of okra and millet and rice and sorghum — all their cherished crops — into their hair before being forced to board transatlantic slave ships. They believed, against the odds, in a future in the soil. And with those seeds they also braided cultural tradition about how we interact with land, how we take care of the soil, and how we share resources and labor. African Americans brought these traditions to North America with us, and the colonial empire tried to stamp them out through centuries of enslavement and sharecropping and exclusion from fair-labor protections.
The work of Soul Fire is about reaching back over those four hundred years of oppression and rediscovering our noble and dignified heritage of belonging to the land. We’re reviving that ancestral wisdom, defining a relationship to the land based not on the ways we’ve been harmed, but on the ways that our ancestors achieved dignity and sustainability.
Today we have food apartheid, a system of segregation that relegates certain people to food abundance and others to food scarcity. If you’re a black child in America, you are twice as likely to go to bed hungry tonight as a white child.
Frisch: You say that racism and injustice pervade the food system. How?
Penniman: They are built into the DNA of the food system. The system is not broken; it’s working as it was designed to, concentrating wealth and power into the hands of the few at the expense of the many. It started with the original sin of this nation, which was the genocide of Native Americans and the theft of the entire continent. We are still living on stolen land. That hasn’t been resolved.
The discovery doctrine, first proposed by Pope Nicholas V in 1455, basically gave white Christian nations the religious authority to enslave, colonize, and pillage so-called heathen nations. In 1823 the Supreme Court decision Johnson v. M’Intosh codified the discovery doctrine into U.S. law. Nicknamed the “finders keepers law,” it says that when white folks put down a flag, that’s their land, including the moon and the South Pole.
The discovery doctrine isn’t ancient history. It was most recently upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005, when the Oneida Indian Nation of New York sued to get their ancestral land rights back. It’s so ingrained into U.S. property law that we don’t often think about it. But the idea is that native people, because they’re brown skinned and non-Christian, don’t have the right to their own land. They’re not “sovereign.”
The current food system was built on the labor of 12.5 million skilled African farmers who were taken by force from their homeland. Europeans did not know tropical and subtropical agriculture, so they kidnapped experts to build the sugar, cotton, and tobacco plantations of the Caribbean and the U.S. South. That forced labor, performed on stolen land, became the basis for the wealth of this nation. And it didn’t end in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation. Southern whites, fearing economic decline post-Emancipation, instituted the Black Codes, which effectively criminalized being black. For the first time, vagrancy and loitering laws were passed, making it illegal not to have a job. That was used as an excuse to round up black people, especially at harvest time. They would be imprisoned, then leased to landowners to work on the plantations, in the mines, and on the railroads. In the late 1890s 73 percent of the state of Alabama’s income came from convict leasing.
Sharecropping and tenant farming were another strategy for maintaining the oppressive structure of the Southern economy. Sharecroppers still worked on the plantation in exchange for a share of the harvest, but they typically ended up in debt to the landowner for food and supplies. It was essentially a debt-slavery system.
In the early 1900s the Great Migration began. Black people were leaving the South in large numbers, but they weren’t seeking economic opportunity, as we’re often told. They were fleeing racial terrorism. The KKK targeted black landowners. There were 3,500 documented cases of lynching, not to mention other attacks on black people, maiming them and burning down their houses.
To fill that labor vacuum, the U.S. created the bracero program in 1942, allowing contract laborers from Mexico to come into the country. Now we have the H-2A guest-worker program, which lets agricultural employers hire seasonal foreign workers. They come here on special visas, are contracted to a particular farm, and don’t have the same labor protections as U.S. citizens. There are examples of rampant wage theft and sexual abuse, especially on larger farms in the West and the South. Farmworkers don’t have a lot of recourse and are at risk of losing their labor contracts if they report abuses.
Frisch: If they are undocumented, it’s even worse.
Penniman: Exactly. And when we discuss racism in the food system, we can’t just talk about how food is produced. We also need to talk about who gets to eat the food. Government food programs have long been used as a weapon against black people who engage in civil-rights activism and other political activity. For example, in the Greenwood Food Blockade of 1962, the White Citizens’ Councils in Mississippi prevented food aid from getting to communities that were registering black people to vote. County officials — all members of the Councils — voted to stop administering the federal programs that provided black farmers with much-needed food during the winter.
Today we have food apartheid, a system of segregation that relegates certain people to food abundance and others to food scarcity. If you’re a black child in America, you are twice as likely to go to bed hungry tonight as a white child. Diet-related illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity disproportionately afflict black and indigenous people. And land ownership is over 98 percent white. So racism is embedded in the food system.
White people often want people of color just to jump to the kumbaya moment and let all that painful history go: “Why even bring it up? Let’s just move forward together.” But we want acknowledgement of what happened, both for our own healing and to heal the culture. We have to face what happened before we develop solutions for the future.
Frisch: Explaining the alienation many black people feel from the land, black farmer Chris Bolden-Newsome says, “The field was the scene of the crime.”
Penniman: We know that trauma is inherited. Recent scientific studies suggest that traumatic experiences can alter people’s DNA. For example, researchers have found that the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors bear the markers of their grandparents’ trauma.
When people of African heritage come to Soul Fire Farm for the first time, they almost invariably make references to slavery. They say things like “I don’t stoop,” “I don’t touch bugs,” “I left the plantation long ago,” and “My grandfather told me never to get dirty.” We have this notion that the land herself was the oppressor, rather than the place where the oppression took place. When we let trauma estrange us from the land, we lose a lot. The playwright August Wilson said that when we left behind the red clays of Georgia, we left a bit of our souls, too.
In traditional African cosmology, there’s an understanding that the earth has wisdom to share with us. Not only that, the ancestors are transmitting messages to us through our contact with the earth. I often think of the way that trees communicate with each other. Their root systems are connected via networks of mycelium — the fine, rootlike filaments of mushrooms. Trees will share their minerals through these networks and also give warning signals to other trees, and to different plant species. So there’s interspecies collaboration.
My belief, which goes beyond the science a bit, is that when we have direct contact with the tree, with the soil, with the mycelium, we’re able to absorb messages about how to live in community. What does real collaboration look like? Herbivores are a threat to the survival of nut trees. If all the nuts the trees drop get eaten, they can’t reproduce. So the trees will coordinate to produce nuts at the same time. That way there are too many for the herbivores to eat them all.
To me, and to our ancestors and their cosmology, direct contact with the earth is essential. Otherwise we forget what it is to be human, to be part of the community of species on earth.
When people come to Soul Fire Farm for the BIPOC Farmers Immersion program [BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color], they are often skeptical and wounded. That’s why we don’t spend all our time learning about technical agricultural strategies. We also heal trauma using ancestral healing methods: dancing and drumming and song and story and herbal baths. These methods help us reclaim that healthy relationship with the land.
My mentors in Ghana . . . were incredulous when they heard that, in the U.S., people planted seeds and did not sing over them, or pour libation, or pray, or make offerings. And yet Americans expected those seeds to grow and create nourishing food. They were completely baffled: No wonder y’all are sick!
Frisch: In your book you say the first step to healing from racial trauma is to look at the long history of it with open eyes and really feel the pain.
Penniman: It feels like old knowledge: to grieve properly, we first need to face reality. For example, during our BIPOC Farmers Immersion, we make a timeline of a hundred events in history related to land-based and food-based oppression against black and brown people — genocide, enslavement, sharecropping, and so forth. We write each traumatic event on a sheet of paper, and at dusk we hang the sheets from trees in the forest. In silence we move through them, reading and witnessing. Then we pull down the ones that we most need to release, the ones we feel would bind us and future generations, and we play New Orleans funeral music and dance around the fire and throw these events into the flames, saying, “I acknowledge that this happened. It will not define my future, and it will not define the future of my descendants.”
Alumni of our programs have told us that this event is a turning point for them. White people often want people of color just to jump to the kumbaya moment and let all that painful history go: “Why even bring it up? Let’s just move forward together.” But we want acknowledgement of what happened, both for our own healing and to heal the culture. We have to face what happened before we develop solutions for the future.
Frisch: The prominent place you give elders and ancestors is unusual in this fast-paced, youth-oriented culture. You write, “Each one of us has innumerable ancestors who have endured suffering and emerged intact. Our ancestors are rooting for us, loving us, and attempting to share their wisdom with us. Our job is simply to listen.” Did something in your life make you particularly receptive to those who came before you?
Penniman: As a young child I had some clue that my ancestors were rooting for me, but I didn’t have the language to articulate it. My sister and I invented our own religion based on nature and spirits. We would go into the forest and make offerings and build little temples and have services and rituals. I categorized it as play — until I had the good fortune to travel to Ghana, in West Africa, when I was twenty-one years old. While I was there, I had a dream that I was planting maize on Krobo Mountain, the sacred ancestral home of the Krobo people. I’d never had any experience with prophetic dreams, or ancestors, or spirits, or anything like that. I was raised by a Christian pastor in a progressive church. I still have deep respect for Christianity, by the way, and for all religions.
I told my best friend in Ghana, the son of a Krobo chief, about this dream, and he said, “That’s the type of dream you need to get interpreted. We’re going to the priest,” meaning the traditional priest of the local religion. I remembered some words I’d heard in the dream, in a language I didn’t understand, and I told them to the priest. He said the dream was telling me that Krobo Mountain was my ancestral home, too, because you cannot plant maize on that mountain unless you belong to that community. Later I took a DNA test and found that the largest percentage of my black ancestors came from Ghana. This taught me that there are other ways of knowing, other ways of understanding.
Since then, my ancestors have visited me in dreams many times. They provide so much guidance for me. For example, my grandfather Samuel Cornelius Smith spoke only French and Creole when he immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti as a teenager, but he graduated from Boston University and went on to MIT and became one of the first black engineers to work for NASA. He helped design the steering for the Apollo 11 spacecraft. He would examine my report cards before letting me into his house, to make sure I had all A’s. He was all about black excellence and the immigrant ideal. He passed away in 1995. I still deeply love and respect him. At points in my life, when I’ve needed help deciding what to do, I’ve asked him for guidance, and he has come to me in a dream and given me the right advice.
That sense of our ancestors knowing us well, loving us, and being there for us is essential to traditional African cosmology. Whether you’re Yoruba or Krobo or you practice vodun or hoodoo, it’s almost taken for granted that you will reach out to the ancestors for support.
The Western Judeo-Christian tradition, and a relatively small number of other religions, departed from that. But if you scratch the surface of Judaism — which I have because I converted to Judaism — you find that in the festival Sukkot there is a prayer called Ushpizin, which directly calls on the ancestors. It is minimized, though, because rabbis worry about people talking to anyone other than God. Usually prayers address “God of Sarah” or “God of the Ancestors,” but this prayer says directly, “Abraham, come into my tent. Sarah, come into my tent. Rachel, come into my tent.” You could argue — and I’m sure my mother, who’s a scholar of religion, would argue — that almost all religions have roots in ancestor worship. It’s only more recently that humans have diverted from that.
Frisch: How does what you call “ancestor work” give people fortitude in the face of obstacles and uncertainty?
Penniman: One of the dangers of our culture’s worship of youth is this idea that we’re supposed to have it all figured out by a young age and don’t need to go to our elders for help. Matthew Raiford, a farmer in the South, tells a story about how he planted peach trees on his land, and they all died. Later he talked to his grandma, who said that if he had asked her what would grow on his land, she could have told him pecans, not peaches.
The arrogance and know-it-all attitude we’re taught is a problem. If we would ask our elders — and, by extension, our ancestors — they could provide a lot of advice and support. It’s practical, and it also helps relieve our isolation, the sense that we’re all alone and no one’s looking out for us.
The secret to escaping the hopelessness and despair that can characterize modern life is to internalize the fact that we have countless ancestors who want us to succeed. Who doesn’t love their children, and their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren?
Frisch: You left a successful career as a teacher to work on Soul Fire Farm. How were you able to make that transition?
Penniman: It wasn’t easy. Growing up in relative poverty, being a descendant of recent immigrants, I felt a yearning for security. So I was happy to get a job as a public-school teacher. I enjoyed doing science with young people and connecting to the community. But it was also a safe choice. I had my pick of jobs, a generous salary, a retirement package, and excellent benefits — all good antidotes to growing up hungry in a trailer.
The most challenging thing about leaving my full-time teaching job was the voice in my head — and the voices of my colleagues — saying, Are you out of your mind? You’re going to leave behind eighty thousand dollars a year and a pension to work on a farm?
I was already farming on the side and working way too many hours — and still am. I was commuting, so I’d leave home in the dark and come home in the dark, and I was trying to do Soul Fire in between. As Soul Fire grew, I became really ragged.
Frisch: Was anything happening at the school that dampened your excitement about teaching?
Penniman: For me the meaningfulness of the work was declining because the curriculum was shifting away from environmental science and toward the high-tech field of nanoscience. I used to take students to the river and do invasive-species monitoring, and to community gardens to do soil testing. That was changing.
Mostly I felt the pull toward Soul Fire. I needed to honor what I felt was my destiny: to be doing land-based social-justice work. But I had to find the courage and trust that if I stepped away from my imagined control and security, I wouldn’t fall.
Frisch: It seems like at the school, only part of yourself could be realized.
Penniman: Yes, here at Soul Fire, all parts of me are relevant: My nerdy science self, who loves to figure out proxies for carbon sequestration in the soil. My spiritual self, who wants to anoint my friends with warm water and marigolds as a way of connecting them with their ancestors. My storytelling self, who weaves together our ancestral connection to the land and our resistance to oppression. My dancing, singing, goofy, creative self — all these parts of me make sense here. In the public schools I was paid to use a certain part of me. The rest remained hidden in order not to offend anyone or distract from our organizational mission. The same is probably true in most jobs.
I certainly had some latitude at the school. I took kids to Haiti to do relief work with farmers. For the most part I got to design my own curriculum. But as the school became more rigid and more test-focused, I felt a dimming of my spirit.
At Soul Fire I got a taste of what it’s like for my whole self to be able to show up, and that generated an insatiable hunger for more.
Frisch: Farming While Black discusses not just agriculture but also spirituality and the sacred. What does it mean to cultivate a relationship with the earth that honors the spirits of the land?
Penniman: My mentors in Ghana are the women leaders called Manye. They are responsible for the moral fabric of the community — for holding ceremonies and taking care of orphans and so on. They were incredulous when they heard that, in the U.S., people planted seeds and did not sing over them, or pour libation, or pray, or make offerings. And yet Americans expected those seeds to grow and create nourishing food. They were completely baffled: No wonder y’all are sick!
African spirituality assumes that the earth is alive, and if you treat the earth as lifeless material, then you will not succeed in the long term. Your society will be sick — if not physically, then sick in emotional and spiritual ways.
The Manye taught me that when you put a seed in the earth, you make an offering to the earth in exchange for the harvest you will get. You pour oti or you pour klerin — rum or alcohol — onto the earth. Or you put some maize down. Or, if you don’t have something physical to give, you sing a song.
Before you transform a landscape, you also ask permission through dream work or divination. Before we cut down a bunch of trees to open a new field at Soul Fire, we ask the earth if it’s OK. We don’t always get the answer we want. It took ten years before the land gave us permission to dig out the pond. We weren’t sure what we were missing. Eventually we hit on it: There’s a particular spirit of forest waters named Nana Buruku to whom we had never prayed. When we started making offerings to her, we got the permission we needed. It’s a conversation with a sovereign being. There is no assumption that the earth is here for us to use.
Frisch: Your spirituality takes multiple forms, doesn’t it?
Penniman: Yes, but first I want to say that folks of all faiths or no faith are welcome here, and by no means are we limited at Soul Fire to the practices that I follow.
My family is Jewish. I converted to Judaism after I married Jonah, and our children are Jewish. So Jewish practice is important here. We use the shmita year, the fallow year: Once every seven years the land gets to rest and does not produce crops for human consumption. Most recently we did that in 2015. It’s good for humans, too, because we need a break and time to focus on other things.
We do mikveh, a ritual bath, periodically throughout the season. It’s a way of experiencing the embrace of the divine and reaffirming our values.
We also follow pe’ah, the practice of leaving the corners and the gleanings for the poor. We don’t do that literally, because we don’t live in a society where poor people come through and pick the gleanings, but we do reserve a portion of the harvest — more than the 10 percent that’s required — for low-income people. A third of our crop goes to people who have low incomes and/or use government assistance for their food. We price our farm shares on a sliding scale, so folks who have more money pay more, and those with less money can pay less.
Frisch: Don’t you also have refugee shares?
Penniman: We do. Fifteen of our shares this year are completely free. They go to refugees, immigrants, and those whose lives have been affected by incarceration.
My family also practices vodun and Ifá — traditional religions out of the Dahomey and Yoruba regions of West Africa, via Haiti. Asking permission of the land and making offerings are West African practices. After killing chickens, we do a certain bath to reorient ourselves away from death. My son recently received the first step of initiation toward the priesthood in Ifá.
Every spring we have AfroSeder, which is a combined African American and Jewish ritual that honors the legacy of Harriet Tubman and other freedom fighters using the structure of the Jewish Passover Seder. It brings the Jewish community, the black community, and black Jews together to set intentions for what freedom will look like for us in the coming season.
Civil-rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer said, “If you have four hundred quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, no one can push you around or tell you what to do.” She understood. To free ourselves, we must feed ourselves.
Frisch: You’re also engaged in rediscovering lost non-religious traditions. You’ve talked about black herbalists being erased from history. I’m thinking, for example, of Harriet’s Apothecary.
Penniman: Harriet Tubman is best known for helping slaves escape to the North on the Underground Railroad, but during the Civil War she worked as a nurse and used plants to heal people. And when she harbored fugitive slaves, she would use certain plants to quiet babies and treat the sick.
Harriet’s Apothecary was founded four or five years ago by healer and educator Adaku Utah. Every year the organization does a healing village here at Soul Fire Farm that brings together black healers and community members for Reiki, herbal medicine, herbal baths, trauma counseling, and more. It carries on the legacy of Harriet Tubman and puts the spotlight on black healers, who are often ignored.
The Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs has done a shameful job of erasing the black origins of a lot of herbal medicine. Some 1800s herbal guides specifically say that such and such plant was used by enslaved Africans for such and such ailments. A few decades later the guides say only that the folk cure came from the South. We’re reaching back and trying to find the indigenous and African origins of that knowledge about wild plants. We’re giving credit where it’s due.
This year we have increased our attention to African and indigenous crops. We’re growing more varieties that are culturally relevant to our people, some of which are at risk of extinction. Molokhia, for example, is an Egyptian spinach. We’re growing black peanuts, the Moyamensing tomato, the Paul Robeson tomato, Green Glaze collards, the Gilo eggplant, Lenape Flint corn, and the Cherokee Trail of Tears bean.
Frisch: The caption on the last photo in your book reads, “To free ourselves, we must feed ourselves.” Why is land so important for black liberation?
Penniman: It’s astounding to me that while black people in the late 1800s were dealing with all the oppressive laws and systems that followed emancipation, somehow they still managed to save up their “Sunday money” — the money they could make on the side — and purchase 16 million acres of land by 1910. That’s an incredible feat, and it just shows how important land is to black folks.
When we have land, we can create businesses, build homes, grow food, and so on. Independence and agency come with land. We see this very clearly in the 1960s with the civil-rights movement. When activists from the North wanted to come down and do voter registration for Freedom Summer, they had to rely heavily on landowning black farmers. What hotel was going to put up these rabble-rousers from the North? What restaurant would feed them? What cobbler would fix their shoes? Nobody. It was the landowning black farmers who provided all that. They were literally the hotels for these activists. They held “Bible studies” that were actually organizing meetings; the Bibles would be open with pamphlets inside of them.
I recently interviewed Donald Halfkenny, a civil-rights veteran, and he talked about how, when activists stayed at the homes of black farmers, the farmers would cut down trees and block the roads to keep them safe from men who wanted to lynch them. The farmers would put their land up as collateral for bail money to get people out of jail. They would be first in line to register to vote and to sign a petition because they couldn’t get fired from their jobs. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers could get kicked off their land, but if you owned your land, that couldn’t happen. Landowning black farmers were the backbone of the civil-rights movement.
When Malcolm X says land is the basis of all independence — and the basis of freedom, justice, and equality — he means it quite literally. If we don’t have land, we are dependent for our basic survival upon the systems that want to destroy us.
The documentary Mississippi Inferno, which came out in 2015, was the first time I’d seen a mainstream historical account of the role of black farmers in the civil-rights movement. I had already learned most of this by interviewing people.
Civil-rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer said, “If you have four hundred quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, no one can push you around or tell you what to do.” She understood. To free ourselves, we must feed ourselves.
Frisch: And Fannie Lou Hamer knew that from first-hand experience, having grown up as a sharecropper and been kicked off the land for her civil-rights activities.
Frisch: I don’t think many Americans are aware that, a hundred years ago, a couple of hundred thousand black farmers owned their own farms. How did government policies conspire to push them off the land and out of agriculture?
Penniman: In the early 1980s the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights identified the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as the number-one cause of the decline of the black farmer. It said the USDA would soon be responsible for the extinction of the black farmer. This conclusion came out of reviewing decades of records, which showed that the Farmers Home Administration and the USDA discriminated against black farmers when distributing crop insurance, crop allotments, technical assistance, and other support that all U.S. farmers have the right to access.
For example, in the 1960s a black farmer might submit an application for a loan for an irrigation system, only to be told to his face that his application had been thrown in the trash because of his civil-rights activity. Sometimes it was more subtle, like delays in processing applications. White farmers’ loans were processed with much greater speed than black farmers’ loans. And farming is very time sensitive. If you need an irrigation system and don’t get the funds for it until the end of the season, you’ve lost a whole season of crops. That puts you at risk of potential foreclosure on your land.
This discrimination was so rampant by the 1990s that a class-action lawsuit was filed against the USDA on behalf of more than five thousand black farmers, who won the largest civil-rights settlement ever in 1999, in Pigford v. Glickman. The settlement totaled about $2 billion, with an average payout of $50,000 per farmer — a largely token amount. But it was important for the record to show that discrimination was a major factor in the decline of the black farmer. Black farmers didn’t leave the land of their own volition. The U.S. government was responsible for their dispossession, and it should be responsible now for the return of the black farmer to the land. Institutional racism has not ended. There still are racial disparities in USDA programs. They’ve tried to improve their outreach, but they haven’t succeeded in making sure that public money is distributed in an equitable fashion to all members of the population. We’re not there yet.
Even if the USDA were to start today distributing funds in a way that’s racially equitable, it wouldn’t solve the problem, because white folks already have all the land. We can’t just assume there’s a level playing field. We need reparations. We need to redistribute the resources that have been stolen.
The racial disparity in landownership isn’t just in farmland. It’s also found in homeownership, largely due to housing policies in the 1930s. The federal government commissioned maps to classify neighborhoods from “most desirable for lending” to “too risky.” The no-lending areas — mostly black and brown neighborhoods — were outlined in red. Banks used these “redlining” maps to deny mortgages to people of color.
When black World War II veterans returned home, they could not take advantage of the GI Bill’s no-interest home mortgages because banks still wouldn’t lend in the neighborhoods where black people lived. And homeownership is the number-one way Americans generate intergenerational wealth. According to the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of wealth is inherited. Just in my lifetime the white-black wealth ratio in this country has increased from 8:1 to more than 13:1.
The government policy of redlining is primarily responsible for the racial wealth gap and the disparity in access to housing. It’s the reason why your zip code today largely determines your access to education, supermarkets, safety, and all the rest — because we use property taxes to fund basic municipal services. If you don’t have high rates of homeownership in your community, you’re not going to have good schools and other benefits.
The National Housing Act of 1934 not only commissioned the redline maps; it also created model zoning language that was adopted by municipalities all around the nation. Some of that language included strategies for how to prevent the mixing of “inharmonious racial groups.”
Frisch: Many communities, both developments and entire towns, did not allow people of color to buy houses in the mid-twentieth century. My family moved to Levittown, Pennsylvania, when I was very young. When the first black families tried to move in, crosses were burned on their lawns. This was racial terrorism in the North.
Penniman: After my mother’s family became one of the first black families — if not the first — to move into their neighborhood in Newton, Massachusetts, in the 1960s, they had a brick thrown through their window.
To help undo the long-term effects of those redlining maps, we at Soul Fire Farm are creating a reparations map. The idea came from a Soul Fire alumna named Viviana Moreno, who runs the Catatumbo Cooperative Farm in Chicago. I was sharing with her how a couple of farms in our area had received their land through individual acts of reparations. Harmony Farm in the Hudson Valley of New York, for example, received land from a graduate of Soul Fire’s Uprooting Racism Training. In Millerton the WILDSEED Community Farm & Healing Village received land from a wealthy white person who was coached by Soul Fire Farm. Hearing this, Viviana suggested we create a database listing projects that need resources. Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian people submit forms about their land-based projects — we have between forty and sixty right now — and people with access to resources can directly donate. We’ve made over a dozen matches.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates beautifully lays out the case for reparations in an article that appeared in The Atlantic a few years ago. He talks about how, even if we start today on equal footing, we’re still many generations away from true parity. We need our land back. One of my mentors, Ed Whitfield of the Fund for Democratic Communities, has a perfect metaphor for this: Imagine that your neighbor stole your cow, and then a few weeks later he came to you and said, “I’m really sorry that I stole your cow. That was wrong of me. I’d like to make it up to you. So every week I’m going to bring you half a pound of butter.” Of course you wouldn’t want a half pound of butter. You’d want your cow back. But most suggestions for undoing our legacy of racism are just a half pound of butter.
Frisch: A handout.
Penniman: We’ll give you a handout and say we’re sorry, but we’re not actually going to address the root cause, which is that we’ve taken away your ability to provide for yourself. You don’t own a home, you don’t own land, you don’t own a business, and you can’t afford a college education.
Frisch: We’re talking about structural racism. How is that different from interpersonal racism?
Penniman: That’s such an important distinction. Most people can agree that they don’t like interpersonal racism: they don’t use the N-word; they don’t engage in hiring discrimination; and so on. But racism is baked into our institutions. It has to do with who has the power and the resources.
There’s also implicit, rather than explicit, bias. If I am the white CEO of a corporation, I might have an implicit bias toward hiring people who talk like me, look like me, and remind me of my aunt Janet. I might look through the résumés and think that Shanequa doesn’t sound like a person I’d want to work with, so I’m just going to put her application in the no pile.
We definitely have to deal with implicit bias and our assumptions about each other. But I think the deeper question is: Who has the land, and how do we redistribute it? Who has the seats in Congress, and how do we redistribute them? Access to resources and power is really what determines people’s quality of life.
Frisch: What was the condition of your farm at the time you bought the land?
Penniman: The soil was degraded. When we were looking at properties on the mountainy slopes of Grafton, other farmers thought we were out of our minds. The land is heavy clay and full of rocks. To top it off, the land we purchased was severely eroded from being overgrazed by cattle. The topsoil had washed down to the bottom of the slopes. I took a shovel to it and got through maybe six or seven inches of topsoil before hitting hardpan, smelly gray clay.
But as young twenty-somethings we were undeterred. Inspired by years of remediating lead-contaminated soils in urban areas, we dug up the topsoil from the bottom of the hill and put it back on top, and we used a no-till farming method with layers of mulch and cover crops and compost. We put in semipermanent raised beds and built the soil back up. And the farmers who were shaking their heads are now nodding their heads.
Aside from the practical considerations of being able to afford the land, we also understood that, with the world population heading for 9 billion people by 2050, we’re going to have to use marginal lands to feed ourselves. It’s important for us to show that it’s possible, without a lot of resources, to restore degraded soil to health and grow good food.
Frisch: What principles inform your agricultural system?
Penniman: We like to imitate the forest, in terms of always keeping the soil covered and having plenty of organic matter. The forest never leaves the soil bare. We use heavy mulches and cover crops—
Frisch: Explain what a cover crop is.
Penniman: A cover crop is a plant that you grow not to feed humans but to feed the soil. It can take carbon, and sometimes nitrogen, out of the atmosphere and transform it into nutrients that can be drawn up by plants’ roots. Examples of cover crops are clover, vetch, rye, oats, and sorghum. Some of these could be grown for grain, but as cover crops you either crimp them or till them under to feed the soil.
We also copy the forest in terms of biodiversity, structural diversity, and layers. My favorite part of our farm is the jaden lakou, which is an intercrop agroforest. There are apple, peach, and plum trees with an understory of perennial herbs, sage, rhubarb, mint, lemon balm, and pasture where chickens can graze. It’s a holistic, integrated system. We’re trying to move more toward intercropping, even in our annual rows. We’ve had a few successes. Scallions grow really well on the outer edges of most beds, where they deter pests and don’t take up a lot of space. We’ve also mixed in lettuce beneath broccoli and collards.
With the world population heading for 9 billion people by 2050, we’re going to have to use marginal lands to feed ourselves. It’s important for us to show that it’s possible, without a lot of resources, to restore degraded soil to health and grow good food.
Frisch: You mentioned no-till farming. What is that?
Penniman: No-till means not turning the soil with a tractor or rototiller, because when you turn the soil, you release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which drives climate change. I recently learned a pretty devastating fact: the first generation of white farmers tilling the soil in the Great Plains lost 50 percent of the soil’s organic matter. There was a corresponding loss in productivity of about a third. So tilling can be very damaging, especially to fragile soils. Instead of tilling, we’ve been using silage tarps, which we spread and weigh down with rocks. After about four to six weeks, all the weeds die back. And if it’s hot and sunny, tarping also can kill the weed seed. By the time we take the tarps off, we have a seedbed that we can plant right into.
When we first started, we used the cardboard method: You take waste cardboard and lay it over the soil to smother the weeds. Then you poke holes and plant right through the cardboard. When we got bigger, we thought we had to till, and we did for a few years, but it caused all kinds of problems with our soil.
Frisch: How does the degradation of land worsen climate change?
Penniman: Carbon dioxide is the most significant greenhouse gas due to its quantity. It doesn’t have as much heat-trapping capacity as methane and nitrous oxide, but there’s so much more of it. And soil is a huge carbon reservoir. Organic matter in the soil is very rich in carbon. When you destroy that organic matter through farming practices, you release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But when you increase organic matter in the soil, you sequester carbon. We’re trying to create a bank of stable carbon in our soil.
Frisch: How big is your farm?
Penniman: Soul Fire Farm is on seventy-two acres, of which we conserve approximately sixty in forest for wildlife. We actively manage two acres of intensive vegetables, another acre of fruits and herbs, and a couple of acres of pasture where we raise chickens — approximately 250 broilers a year and an educational flock of twenty-five laying hens. We also do a little bit of mushrooms and occasionally maple syrup and other forest products.
Frisch: I understand you’re a vegetarian. Why do you raise chickens?
Penniman: I’m mostly a vegetarian. We really believe that animals are an important part of a holistic farm. We use the chickens to improve the soil, and we graze them throughout the pasture. They produce manure for fertilizer and eat a lot of insect pests.
Also we want to provide a complete diet to our community. For a lot of folks the CSA share is the only thing they get to eat that’s not packaged corner-store food. The eggs and meat help provide protein they need.
Black folks have a history with the guinea fowl that goes back more than ten thousand years. And post-emancipation, black Americans were not allowed to raise most types of livestock, because they would compete with white farmers, but they could have chickens. Poultry became the mainstay of black farmers, and it’s important for us to keep those traditions alive.
Frisch: What do you mean when you say, “Soil wants to be alive”?
Penniman: Soil consists of a few ingredients. There’s the mineral component — the sand, silt, and clay. There’s the organic matter. There’s the water and the air. But as important, if not more important, are the micro- and macro-organisms: the bacteria and nematodes and earthworms. These organisms break down organic matter into a usable form, provide aeration and channels for water infiltration, and improve soil texture. We need the soil to be alive.
One of the tragedies of industrial agriculture is that it sees soil as a lifeless medium in which you put your seed. You till it, you bake it, and you poison it until it is quite literally dead. This has consequences for the sustainability of our agricultural system. We take a different approach at Soul Fire. Larisa, our farm manager, likes to say we invite the life back into the soil. We welcome it home.
Frisch: Many U.S. farmers send soil samples to a laboratory for chemical analysis. Are there indigenous ways of testing soil?
Penniman: Yes, in our BIPOC Farmers Immersion program we spend the first third of our soil-science class interacting with soil through our senses. I put out a sample of the degraded soil we found when we got here, alongside soil from the forest, some purchased compost, and the soil we’re growing broccoli in. I ask people to touch it, smell it, taste it, listen to it, and draw conclusions. What’s astounding is that they can figure out almost everything they need to know about the soil in a few minutes with no training. If the soil smells rich, if it’s crumbly and moist and has earthworms and roots, then it’s healthy.
When I researched the history of indigenous soil testing, I learned that pretty much every African community has a soil-testing procedure as complex as Western soil classifications. And these procedures are often based on taste. In Malaysia they can tell the acidity of the soil by tasting it: Is it sweet? Is it sour? In Nigeria they have a texture flow chart that’s similar to the one we use in Western science. They have more than a dozen soil-texture classifications.
That said, at Soul Fire we still send our soil samples to the lab for certain tests. Obviously you can’t tell with your senses if the soil contains lead or mercury. I’m not recommending people go out and taste soil from an urban vacant lot! [Laughter.]
Frisch: At Soul Fire Farm you embrace several forms of cooperative social organization that originated either in Africa or among people of African descent. How have you adapted them?
Penniman: At the center of African cosmology there’s a “we,” not an “I.” Individualism is a Western worldview. We’re looking to revive our communal nature. One way we’re doing this is by reviving the tradition of konbit — a work party. For example, this Saturday I might help you plant your beans, and next Saturday you might help me, and on the third Saturday we both might help Farmer Jacques. That way our harvests will be staggered as well. There will be music and food at these parties, and a chance to socialize as well as to support each other in doing work that would otherwise be monotonous, mundane, or too difficult to do on our own.
Another practice is the sous-sous, or the West African lending society — a kind of community bank. When we started Soul Fire, we didn’t qualify for bank mortgages, both because we’re a farm and because the construction of our home is unconventional — a straw-bale, post-and-beam house with a wood stove. We had to rely on a lending society in our Albany community to get money to build our house.
Frisch: Your book showcases the contributions of your black forebears and an ally or two in more than fifty sidebar stories. Could you share a couple?
Penniman: I really revere ancestor Booker T. Whatley, who was one of the first to come up with the concept of the CSA. He called it a “clientele membership club.” Because black folks were being excluded from wholesale markets in tobacco and cotton, he became a proponent of diversified horticulture. People thought he was out of his mind when he suggested a pick-your-own system: City folks will come to the farm and pay us to pick their own vegetables? Of course, now it’s commonplace for customers to pick their own apples and strawberries. But in the 1950s and 1960s he was really ahead of his time.
Vermicomposting — composting using earthworms — is thought to have originated under Cleopatra’s reign in ancient Egypt, though this is disputed by some scholars. Cleopatra believed that worms were sacred; her subjects were not to harm one, on pain of death. She had a cadre of priests dedicated to studying the habits of worms. Scientists have examined the depth of earthworm castings in the Nile Valley and found that it far exceeds that of other places in the region. Cleopatra was trying to increase the worm population, having realized they provided the best fertilizer.
Frisch: In your Uprooting Racism Training you speak about the importance of calling people in, rather than calling them out. That struck me as significant.
Penniman: Yes, people are not disposable. Rather than dismissing, shunning, or shaming those who make mistakes, I believe it’s our responsibility to call them into awareness and support them in their learning journey, so long as they have a desire for healing. We can’t excommunicate one another. We’re all here on this planet. Let’s try to figure it out together.
Frisch: You describe your business plan as a blueprint for the “tangible love” you want to manifest in the world. Why do you make love explicit?
Penniman: We put love at the front to remind us why we’re doing what we’re doing. If we’re not coming from a place of love, we really have to question whether we’re on the right path. I have to credit my best friend, Enroue Halfkenny, for this. When I asked him about his life goals, I expected to hear a list of different places he might want to visit, or professional achievements, or whatever. Instead he said, “I want to live a life with heart.” I didn’t understand. I wanted a measurable goal.
Now I get it. I, too, want to live a life of wholeness, with love at the center. What are we here for, if not to manifest love? There’s really nothing else.