At first, Leah Penniman’s new book, Farming While Black, reads like any other aimed at new farmers. In it, she writes about finding land, crop planning, seed saving, and raising animals. When readers get to the chapters called “Healing from Trauma,” “Movement Building,” and “White People Uprooting Racism,” it soon becomes clear that Penniman set out to write much more than a handbook.
Farming While Black is the distillation of Penniman’s work on Soul Fire Farm, an operation in upstate New York where she and her husband have spent the last seven years raising not just organic produce, but a whole new generation of empowered and thoughtful Black and Latinx farmers. Penniman weaves together her experience on the land with the rich, untold history of Black and Latinx farming against a backdrop of what she calls food apartheid. The result is a revolutionary work that opens important doors of opportunity for life and livelihood on the land.
Civil Eats recently spoke with Penniman about her motivation for writing, overcoming the stigma of agricultural work, and why her book is relevant for eaters and farmers of any color. The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
You readily share stories and vignettes about the mistakes you made and the lessons you’ve learned while building Soul Fire Farm. Was it difficult to write with such frankness?
We made so many mistakes along the way and will continue to take wrong turns in our land-based social justice work. It is only our grit, hope, and determination that made Soul Fire Farm possible. I share our shortcomings to interrupt the lionizing that sometimes happens around our project. Folks imagine that we are “special” in some way. Vulnerability and courage are sisters.
You write about discovering early on “that transportation and cultural barriers made farmers’ markets all but inaccessible to the communities that we loved.” Can you elaborate?
Farmers’ markets can be inaccessible to communities of color for many reasons. They can be far away or not on the bus line. Food may be priced out of range, product selection culturally misaligned, or they do not accept EBT. Markets can also be inaccessible for reasons largely invisible to white organizers and patrons. In white-dominated spaces, people of color often experience “micro-aggressions”—long, inquisitive stares; questions as to where we’re from; confusion and dramatization as we try to redeem those little wooden EBT tokens; sideways glances if we speak too loudly or play our music; people pulling their children closer as they walk by; and so on. This is part of what is meant by a culturally exclusive space.
Again and again, your book brought things to light that are important to learn as well as devastating. I am not a Black farmer, but I think this book is an important read for everyone.
While the core audience for this book is the aspiring and practicing Black farmer, and the book uses “we” language to emphasize that there is (finally) a book by and for us, you’re right that it is for everybody. It is incumbent upon all of us who love justice and cherish food and land to understand the inherent racism in the food system. This structural racism concentrates land in the hands of white owners, perpetuates poverty and exploitation among farmworkers and food system workers, and prevents nourishing food from reaching our neighborhoods.
Further, many of the sustainable growing practices that our society assumes are European or ahistorical have roots in Black and Indigenous technologies. We need to confront the inequities in our food system and uplift the people who have created the technologies for repair. Black people certainly cannot solve racial injustice on our own; it’s the responsibility of all members of society to engage.
Why are ancestors and community so important to the concept of farming you write about?
In African traditional cosmology (Ifa, Vodun, Santería), we believe that the ancestors are always with us, guiding us to our correct path, and imparting their wisdom. It was essential to interweave that ancestor reverence into the book. As a young person learning to farm, I devoured books by white farmers—Helen and Scott Nearing, Eliot Coleman, John Jeavons—and struggled with the feeling that the choice to live life on land would be a betrayal of my people.
Had I known about George Washington Carver’s legume fields, Booker T. Whatley’s pick-your-own, and Fannie Lou Hamer’s co-op farms, I would have instead experienced pride in carrying on the wisdom of my lineage into my life’s work. I hope that uplifting Black agriculturalists helps the next generation of farmers like me feel that they belong to this land-based life.
Collective and cooperative ownership are two other topics you discuss at length. What particular benefit do they offer Black farmers?
Also central to African traditional cosmology is the “we.” The individualism of U.S. society is a European construct. Black people have konbit (collective work parties), we pool our money (susu), and we share equipment and marketing (farm co-ops). This is part of returning to our indigeneity as people; it’s also profoundly practical. Right now, the white-Black wealth gap is at least 13:1. We do not have enough to go it alone. By pooling resources, we build our economic power and increase our community self-determination.
You write, “There is a danger in confusing the oppression that our people experienced on land with the spirit of the Land itself.” This felt like a core concept of your work and this book. Such deeply embedded beliefs in a society can be difficult to move beyond. How do you work on changing this for Black and Latinx farmers?
We now understand that trauma is inherited in our epigenetics, the proteins that control DNA expression. This means that descendants of Holocaust survivors and enslaved Africans retain the trauma of their forebears. We witness this firsthand at Soul Fire Farm. When folks arrive and see brown backs bent over the land, their immediate association is with slavery. People arrive with a fear of nature, dirt, insects, sweat, stooping, and sore muscles.
Part of the work we do at Soul Fire Farm is to engage our traditional healing modalities such as song, storytelling, dance, and herbal baths to work through that trauma, to reach back across the hundreds of years of land-based oppression to the thousands of years of dignity on land.
Personally, the earth has been a friend of mine since I was a small child. As a brown-skinned youngster in an almost entirely white, rural town, I experienced race-motivated bullying and assault. The forest was my friend, my solace, and my source of belonging.
What do you see or hope to see as a result of this book, beyond the empowerment and training of more Black and Latinx farmers?
We aspire to “scale out” not “scale up” when it comes to Soul Fire Farm’s impact. We have over 500 graduates of our Black-Latinx Farmers Immersion program. In our last survey, 85 percent of them were growing food for others. That said, we do not create farmers; we just support them in realizing they are farmers and attaining the skills and resources they need to tend the land. And I’d like to give a special shout out to Harmony Farm and Homestead in New York; High Hog Farm in Georgia; and Catatumbo Collective in Illinois—three farm projects led by our alumni.
Our hope is certainly to inspire more Black and Brown farmers, increase farmland stewardship by people of color, inspire respect for ancestral and contemporary Black growers, catalyze reparations, and heal our relationship with the land.
Farming While Black is arriving at a time of great tension in America and even globally. It seems, therefore, more important than ever.
In the long view of history, this time is not more important than ever. It is simply a time when the systemic racism that already existed is [being] laid bare, and people in positions of privilege cannot ignore its realities. I hope we can seize on this moment of awakening to inspire all people with a conscious and logical mind to work diligently to return the land and wealth that was stolen from our ancestors, so that we, too, can provide nourishment for our communities and not have to rely on a system set out to devour us.