Farming While Black: Part 2 – Farming and Food Justice at Soul Fire Farm

Spring 2021

By Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman is the author of “Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land,” and serves as founding co-executive director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, a people-of-color-led project that works toward food and land justice. The first part of Penniman’s 2020 Common Ground Country Fair keynote, “Farming While Black: Part I – African Diasporic Wisdom for Farming and Food Justice,” ran in the winter 2020-2021 issue of The MOF&G. The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. Penniman’s full keynote address is available on MOFGA’s YouTube channel.

I want to talk about the “rememberers.” As long as there has been oppression, there has always been resistance – wider, deeper and more purposeful than that oppression. I believe that in every generation there are those who have remembered the lessons and the legacy of the seeds that were braided into our ancestors’ hair [when they were kidnapped from the Dahomey region of West Africa; see Part I of this article in the winter 2020-2021 MOF&G for additional history].

Leah Penniman

What would it be like to start a farm based on the legacy of those seeds? What would it be like to go back into our history, look at these examples of strength and try to carry them forward? When we started Soul Fire Farm in 2010, we started with this idea that to free ourselves, we must feed ourselves. Or as Fannie Lou Hamer put it: If you have 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, no one can push you around or tell you what to say or do.

One example of a rememberer is Dr. George Washington Carver, arguably the founder of the modern organic movement. In the late 1890s, at Tuskegee University, Dr. Carver was preaching the gospel of soil health, saying we can’t just be monocropping cotton year after year after year, depleting these soils. We need to plant whole fields of leguminous cover crops to restore the nitrogen in the soil. We need to be going out and mucking out the swamps and using that rich muck as compost and mulch. We need to be silvopasturing our livestock in the forest, grazing them on acorns to finish them off. He was a couple of generations before Rodale, talking about these principles of chemical-free soil care.

Booker T. Whatley, also out of Tuskegee University in the mid-1900s, is arguably one of the founders of the farm-to-table movement. He noticed that wholesale just wasn’t cutting it for Black farmers and started talking about direct consumer marketing: diversified horticulture, pick-your-own and the proto-CSA, which he called “the Clientele Membership Club.” Many farmers today base our economic model on this idea of direct consumer marketing through our CSAs, through pick-your-own, through our farm stands – which were championed by Whatley as early as the 1950s.

At Soul Fire Farm, we use our ancestral methods of cover cropping, of permanent raised beds and no-till, of grazing our livestock interspersed with our crops. In that way, we were able to restore our soils to a pre-colonial level of organic matter. We started out with 3% organic matter, which is pretty typical in our area for soils that have been heavily degraded. When colonizers came to the Great Plains, within a generation, they had burned half of the organic matter out of the soil through heavy tillage and plowing, burned it up into the atmosphere. Through these no-till methods, taught to us by our ancestors, we were able to restore our soil carbon to its current level of 10 to 12%.

Survival Programs for the Community

Who else are the rememberers? The Black Panther Party are often remembered for their use of armed self-defense in support of the rights of life for Black people, but a lot of folks don’t know that the majority of their time was actually spent doing what they called “survival programs.” They were feeding 10,000 children breakfast every morning in Oakland. They were taking elders to their doctors’ appointments. They were running shuttles so folks could visit political prisoners who were incarcerated. They were giving out free groceries.

This powerful idea of paying attention to our community’s basic survival needs became the basis for our farm’s Solidarity Shares. We take our harvest, box it up like CSAs every week and bring it to the doorsteps of the people who need it most in our community. These boxes include vegetables, herbs, eggs, pasture-raised meat and value-added products. Instead of charging market rate, we charge on a sliding scale where people pay what they can afford: Folks who have less pay less, folks who have more pay more than market value. The farmer gets their wage and their costs covered, and people are able to enjoy these foods regardless of what wealth they’ve inherited or their zip code or the color of their skin.

Teaching Opportunities on the Farm

As we continued to explore the rememberers, we came across the first-ever extension agent and extension agency in the United States out of Tuskegee University. Mr. Thomas Campbell led the Tuskegee Movable School, which was originally just a cart and a mule. The extension agent would go out and share the good news of regenerative agriculture at farms in different counties all around the rural South because a lot of these farmers, for good reason, couldn’t get to the university. The mule and the cart, with all of its equipment, would roll up to the most dilapidated farm in the community. They would get out, prune the trees, nurse the livestock back to health, install fencing and plant cover crops, and that farm would become the demonstration site that all the other farmers would come to when they wanted to learn these agricultural techniques.

What does it look like to embody this ethos of “each one teach one” on Soul Fire Farm? My partner and I and the people who work here have worked at many other farms. It doesn’t make sense to just keep that knowledge to ourselves. We were getting phone calls from people across the country saying, “Is it true that there’s Black folks farming in a rural space? Can I come apprentice with you? Can I come learn with you?” So we started our training programs. The most popular one is the Soul Fire Farming Immersion. It’s a week-long, 50-hour intensive course that covers everything from soil to harvest to market, as well as the proud  agrarian history of Black and Brown people, healing from trauma and organizing for a just food system.

People come live with us on the farm in groups of about 25. At least half of our graduates go on to become farmers and growers, and we train thousands of people each year in this program and related programs. We have a youth version of this, our beloved Liberation on Land, where teens come for a farming camp. It’s like the Black Future Farmers of America. The alumni of these programs are forever part of what we call our “Soul Squad,” and we’ve made sure that our alumni have access to funding, a mentor and job referrals. This is a lifelong commitment that we have to our alumni to make sure that they can succeed in the very difficult world of farming.

It’s not just commercial farmers that we’re raising up. We really believe in the value of home provisioning and community gardening and farming. It’s so important to be able to harvest fresh food just 20 feet from your doorstep, bring it inside, teach your children about growing their own food, teach your children about nature. For that reason, we have our Soul Fire in the City program, which builds raised bed gardens in folks’ backyards as well as at schools and churches that request them. Then we provide compost, seeds and plants, classes and technical assistance to support folks in getting established as home gardeners.

Land Trusts and Cooperative Farming

Marching through history with this theme of who are the rememberers of that sacred seed braided into the hair of people who were resisting oppression, we come to this movement around land trust and co-ops. We need to shout out New Communities, which was founded by Charles and Shirley Sherrod and 500 other Black families in 1969 and was the first-ever community land trust in the United States. Since then, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of land trusts have sprung up.

We need to shout out Fannie Lou Hamer, who didn’t just talk about canning soup; she  started the Freedom Farm Co-op, a cooperative farm made up of sharecroppers who were kicked off the plantation for the audacity to exercise their right to vote, who found themselves homeless and jobless and were able to join into this new co-op farm.

Building off of that legacy, we wanted to make sure not only do we have our own cooperative farm – the land of Soul Fire Farm is owned by a co-op and there’s a nonprofit organization that leases some of the buildings and property as well – but we want to make sure that we’re supporting other land trusts and co-ops. So we became one of the founding farms for the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, which is 300-plus members strong with a mission around returning land to Indigenous people and making land available to Black and Brown farmers.

We also support our alumni who are starting their own co-ops, land trusts, and other businesses and initiatives. One of the ways that we support this is through the reparations map. With the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, we put together a map where these Black- and Brown-led farming, food and land projects can be listed – and people who care about making things right in this country can go find a project to support. We’ve had many gifts of land, of capital, even a tractor, given over to help these farmers get started. While we definitely think the government should do wholesale reparations, we can’t wait for that. As people, we need to act.

Forming Organizing Networks

Another example of rememberers are the Black farmers in the civil rights movement. There would be no civil rights movement without Black farmers: They literally provided the shelter, the meeting space, the food, the clothing, the organizing support for all those activists who came down to work on the civil rights movement. They even had lookouts that would pay attention. If the night riders were coming to attack the activist, they would cut a tree down across the road to slow them down and then help the activists escape. If you look at the Haitian peasant movement, they’re organizing against Monsanto and GMO crops – literally burning GMO crops at the port. You look at the Immokalee workers organizing for their rights as tomato pickers and building off the legacy of [Cesar] Chavez and [Dolores Clara Fernández] Huerta with the United Farm Workers. This is some next level of remembering.

We felt like we had to look beyond our particular farm and our alumni and think about how are we part of these wider organizing networks. In collaboration with national organizations like the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, the HEAL Food Alliance, the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, we started rabble-rousing for systems change, root cause change, reparations and policy shifts. Some examples of that include helping to draft provisions of the Green New Deal to make sure that farmers of color are included; helping to draft provisions of the BREATHE Act around food sovereignty and land sovereignty; establishing finance vehicles like the Black Farmer Fund, led by Olivia Watkins and Karen Washington, which provide capital when the USDA fails us.

A Racially Just Food System

Finally, I want to mention that there’s a spiritual component to this too. When we think about rememberers, we think about people who don’t just remember cover cropping or cooperative economics, but also remember that the earth is not a commodity to be bought and sold:

The earth is a relative. My teachers are the queen mothers in Ghana, West Africa. I’ve spent many months living with them over my adult life. They really challenge us as Americans. They’re like: “Is it true you put a seed in the ground and you don’t pray or sing or dance, or even say thank you to the earth, and then you expect that seed to grow? That’s why y’all sick. That’s why y’all struggling – because you don’t see the earth as actually part of your family.” It’s very important to us that we recognize that psychospiritual component of the work, so you see us here dancing, singing, pouring libations, praying, giving thanks to the earth and really restoring that ancient covenant that we have with the planet.

Even though the DNA of the U.S. food system is built on stolen lands and exploited labor, we’ve seen that throughout history there have been people who remembered those seeds that our ancestors braided into their hair, believing against odds and a future of tilling on and reaping on soil, believing we would exist to inherit the seed. I believe that you all are also ready to inherit that seed. We’re going talk a bit about the strategies that we can use to make it right, because anything that humans create or do, we can also undo. If we created a racially unjust food system, we can go ahead and fix that and create a racially just food system.

We can engage around land redistribution, farm workers’ rights, food access and policy change. We need people engaging using resistance: the strategy of boycott, of protest, of hunger strike, of lockout. We need people engaging as builders of new institutions. That’s the strategy of creating land trusts and co-ops and farmers’ markets. We need people engaging with reform. That’s the folks working on policy and public education, making speeches and campaigning, auditing their own organizations for equity. And we need the healers who recognize that there’s no way we could beat through all of this and not have inherited some trauma; we need therapy and story and art and prayer. There’s a place for all of this.

And there’s a place for you in helping with these solutions. But the commonality, regardless of what strategy we take, is that we absolutely must be following the lead of the people most impacted by the issues. In the case of a racially unjust food system, that means Black, Indigenous and people of color who are working in farming and food. Period. Those are the leaders. Those are the folks who we defer to – people like Karen Washington, Malik Yakini and JoVonna Johnson, and organizations like the Black Dirt Farm Collective, Farms to Grow, Inc., Black Farmer Fund, the Land Loss Prevention Project, Fresh Future Farm, Black Urban Growers, The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Black Church Food Security Network and HEAL Food Alliance. We need to make sure that we are transferring power, resources and dignity over to frontlines-led organizations. That’s how we can solve the problems together.

For more detailed action steps, check out Soul Fire Farm’s website. The “Take Action” page has a list of hundreds of things you can do: policies that need to be changed, ways to source from Black and Brown producers and so on. And remember, as John Lewis said, “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”

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