This week, NYFC’s Michelle Hughes interviews Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, food justice activist, and author of the new book “Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.” Leah talks about her history, her spirituality, and her work training the next generation of black and brown farmers to build a more sustainable and equitable food system.
“Black people have a history in regenerative agriculture that is not circumscribed by slavery, share cropping, and tenant farming. We have tens of thousands of years of history innovating and coming up with dignified solutions to solving hunger in our communities without destroying the planet.”
NYFC members get 35% off of Leah’s book at Chelsea Green Publishing, join today!
Soul Fire Farm:
Farming While Black at Chelsea Green:
Michelle: This is the Young Farmers Podcast. I’m Lindsey Lusher Shute. Today we’re sharing a conversation between Michelle Hughes, a member of our team, and Leah Penniman, farmer and food justice activist at Soul Fire Farm. Leah is also the author of a new book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation On the Land. Leah talks about her history, her spirituality, and her work training the next generation of black and brown farmers to build a more sustainable and equitable food system.
Camille Cody: Hi, I’m Camille Cody, farm manager at Grand Oak Farm in east Tennessee and a leader of the East Tennessee Young Farmers Coalition. I’m a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition because I love growing food and flowers and there’s a real threat to our nation’s food security and local economies as many farmers are aging out of business and young people can’t afford land or healthcare. For $35 a year, you can join this amazing coalition of people too. In addition to being part of a bright and just future for agriculture in the United States, you’ll also get discounts like 33 percent off Growing For Market Subscriptions, 10 percent off Dripworks Irrigation Supplies, and other awesome tools and work-wear. To join, go to youngfarmers.org.
Michelle: I want to say I’m really honored and excited to be interviewing you right now. I think you’re doing obviously really incredibly powerful and healing work for black people at Soul Fire. It’s been really important to me personally. Now you have a really highly anticipated new book out. I guess I just want to start: can you just introduce yourself?
Leah: Absolutely. And thanks so much for having me. My name is Leah Penniman and I am a farmer and food justice activist at Soul Fire Farm.
Michelle: Can you describe Soul Fire Farm today and the work that you’re doing there?
Leah: Yeah. Soul Fire Farm, I sometimes jokingly say, is like our third child after our biological human children, that was very dear to me. We are a black and brown centered community farm that’s dedicated to ending racism and injustice in the food system, which sounds really lofty and abstract, but the work we do day to day is quite practical. Uh, we have three main areas where we work. The first is to run a working commercial farm that provides vegetables, fruits, eggs, poultry, and we center the needs of refugees, immigrants, and those impacted by mass incarceration and police violence in our farm share and food distribution. Everything we grow, we use Afro-indigenous practices and heirloom seeds, and we are very committed to leaving the Earth and the land better than how we found it. So that’s the first thing we do. The second relates to training, equipping and resourcing the next generation of black and brown farmers. So we have a number of training programs ranging from a day to a whole season to support this returning generation of folks to their ancestral rights to belong to the land. And then the final thing is organizing to change the structures that holds up and bolster this racist food system. So we work regionally and nationally on land reparations, on policy shifts and other initiatives to make sure that everybody, regardless of their backgrounds, can have access to lands, can be a farmer with dignity, and also be able to consume culturally-appropriate and healthy foods. That’s like the quick version of Soul Fire.
Michelle: It’s a lot. I think it also sort of explains why the book that you’ve written is so comprehensive. I mean, that was my first impression of it. You know, it’s part black farming history. It’s a technical guide. It’s a cookbook, it’s a teaching manual and so much more. And I love that you say it’s a reverently compiled manual for African heritage people ready to reclaim our rightful place of dignified agency in the food system. It’s a book that I wish that I had as a black girl growing up in New Jersey and feeling the connection to farming and not really understanding it or knowing until much later how to connect. Could you just talk a little bit about who you know, your target audience, who you had in mind, and sort of why you chose the form of the book that you did and such a comprehensive guide.
Leah: I love that you mentioned, you know, being a black girl in Jersey and needing this book, because that really is my primary audience, is my younger self, because I started farming as a teen and felt really disillusioned when I went to farming conferences and was surrounded by white, mostly-male presenters and authors and wondered if I had a place of belonging in the movement. You know, if I was something of a race traitor to be caring about the environment and the lands. What I didn’t know and what I’ve learned through the years at Soul Fire and in writing this book is that black people have a history in regenerative agriculture that is not circumscribed by slavery and sharecropping and tenant farming, that we have tens of thousands year old history of really innovating and coming up with dignified solutions to solving hunger in our communities without destroying the planet. So everything from raised beds and terraces to poly-cultures and firma compost. These things originated in Africa. Having an understanding of this was very healing for me and something that I wanted to share with the broader community. We have a waiting list well over a year long for our training programs, and it seems inappropriate to gate people out of this information. So, by putting it in a book and sharing it, it allows a decentralized access to the true history of black farming, as well as the story of Soul Fire Farm, and a really practical how-to. And to me, that’s so important, because we can theorize all we want and we can tweet insults at each other and talk about everything that’s messed up in the world. But if we don’t know how to actually be and create the change we wish to see, then nothing fundamentally is going to shift. So I wanted this book to be grounded very much in the practical.
Michelle: Could you talk a little bit about how you came to that realization that you were continuing this legacy, this really important legacy, and that it was part of your heritage, and also how you overcame that trauma and how you help other people come through it also?
Leah: Yeah. The trauma runs deep. Even the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Holocaust survivors carry markers in their epigenetics. So trauma isn’t just transmitted socially and culturally, it’s really transmitted cellularly. And I think that’s definitely true for black folks who are descendants of enslaved Africans. Time and again, people come out to the lands and make references, make jokes about slavery or say, “I don’t stoop, I can’t do stoop work, because my grandparents ran away from that and I’m better than that now. I can’t get dirty; I can’t be around insects.” I think that something that’s very tragic about that is while the land was certainly the scene of the crime, the land wasn’t the crime. I believe that in escaping the terrorism that took place on the red clays of Georgia and other places in the south to come to the paved streets of the north, we did leave a little bit of our souls behind, a little bit of this aching space that we aren’t quite sure how to fill. In connecting to the land, whether that means being farmers or gardeners or recreating or eating good food, we restored that contact with that source of wisdom. The earth herself as a source of wisdom and also the ancestors under the ground as a source of wisdom. That is so important to me, and I think the way that we address it at Soul Fire that is really head on is that when we do our training programs, we talk about these things, we talk about what happened with slavery and sharecropping and the lynching that happened on the lands and the role of the black farmers in the civil rights movement. Just this whole beautiful, tangled history we’ve had with soil, and give opportunity to use our ancestral healing methods to address that trauma. So we’ll will be drumming and dancing and use the spiritual bath and telling stories and other ways that we have to process and become free of our trauma. I know for me personally, it was really clear to me from the time I was young that I belong to the earth and that she also felt belonging with me, and I actually use the earth as a way to escape the real life, real time trauma of racial bullying that was happening at my school. So it wasn’t so much how am I going to get back to the land despite feelings of alienation. It was like, how am I going to let all my people know that we can all get back to the land? So a lot of it was a process of research and discovery to understand truer and deeper narratives of wholeness.
Michelle: So, you mentioned spirituality and your farming practices and activism are clearly grounded in a deep and collective spirituality. You’re initiated as a Manya in the Odo Mashe Krobo tradition in Ghana. You also bring in aspects of your husband Jonah’s Jewish faith and many others as well. I think spirituality is something that’s generally lacking in the sustainable agriculture movement and the predominantly white-led environmental movement in the U.S. , but now there seems to be sort of a growing awareness in these movements of the role and importance of spirituality. Can you talk a little bit more about how and why it’s important for you to weave spirituality into your farming and organizing work and what this looks like on a practical day to day level?
Leah: Yeah. So, my spiritual elders who live in Udu Mosecrobo in Ghana, West Africa, among the many things that they taught me, we had one conversation where the queen mothers there were just incredulous to hear that farmers in the United States would plant a seed and not pour any libation, nor sing any song nor dance any dance, nor pray a prayer, and expect this seed to bring forth a crop that would be living and nourishing. They said “essentially, no wonder y’all are sick, because you’re treating the land as a material thing and not a living Orecia, not a living Lua, living spirit. So it’s always been a part of my personal and private practice to use both Jewish and African traditional practices in terms of honoring and revering lands and ancestors. It only came into more public view when I started to observe that despite the fact that our farmer training programs were all about cad and exchange capacity and aggregate stability, people were experiencing a type of healing and connection that wasn’t about the mind alone or the body alone. It was really the psycho-spiritual healing and connection. Seeing that thirst and that need that folks had in the community, I was like, well, let me just try something out. I’ll just mention, “if anyone wants to come over and do this herbal bath, you know, it’s a tradition after you kill chickens or do anything that’s at the nexus of life and death, this is a bath that we do.” And everybody came; everybody wanted to be involved. It’s been profoundly enriching to be able to bring our whole selves to that and not have to compartmentalize aspects of being human.
Michelle: So, once you more publicly brought that into your work, can you talk a little bit more about how you see how that changed you and the farm and other people working there?
Leah: Yeah, I think it’s subtle and profound how a spiritual practice transforms our relationship to the earth and each other. Take for example the fact that we have a housing shortage at Soul Fire. So, a lot of folks come through; we need housing for staff, apprentices, program participants. So we were getting ready to clear a part of the forest to put up some platform tents and a cabin, but our commitment because we believe that the forest is a friend and has a sovereign right to its own life, we don’t just go and cut down the trees, right? We all, as an entire farm team, went to the forest. We made offerings, we sang songs, and we used a divination tool to get a yes or no answer from the forest about whether it was willing to accommodate this human habitat. We did get a yes, but sometimes we don’t. It took us 10 years before we dug out a silted-in pond that we really wanted for irrigation, because the pond was like “nah.” Eventually we realized what the missing thing was; the missing thing was a reverence for a particular Oreshan and Donaboruku, and so, in integrating that, the pond was willing to be dug out and have its ecosystem transform. But in that slowing down process, it obviously has an immediate effect of shifting the way that we have been taught to view the earth and our sense of urgency and our sense of entitlement. But, in the long-term, if you sort of multiply that out and imagine what it would be like if we all came with gratitude and seeking permission with our non-human siblings, you know, we wouldn’t be in a lot of the crises that we’re in now with climate change and dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and topsoil loss, because it wouldn’t just be about short term extraction and profit. It would be about a long-term relationship of mutual respect.
Michelle: I’m also wondering how you see your work building on the work of other black farmers and activists, and I’m wondering how you see your work building on that legacy and how you see it connected to it and moving it forward?
Leah: Sure. We definitely didn’t come up with the idea of regenerative agriculture or community-based farming. You know, our ancestors both here on this continent and abroad have been doing that for a long, long time. So we are standing on their shoulders. I think our food distribution program and CSA is very much inspired by the Black Panthers Free Breakfast Program, which fed 20,000 Oakland children every morning and became a model for the government free-breakfast program. I think about our education programs and community farm as being inspired by the work of Shirley and Charles Sherrod who started the first community land trust in 1969 in Albany, Georgia, which brought together hundreds of black familie. They ran a farm together; they had education. Also, Fannie Lou Hamer’s freedom farm, which was a collective of farmers and families, and they provided scholarships and burial fees and a pig bank, livestock share, for their community. And then when I think about the agricultural practices themselves, certainly we can take it way back to the mother continent, but even more recently, ancestors like Booker T Watley, who came up with “pick your own” and the idea of the CSA. George Washington Carver, who is one of the earliest proponents of regenerative agriculture in the United States. There’s really hundreds of ancestors who inspire us, and we always want to throw it back to that because sometimes we get in an a-historical myth, as a generation where we think that permaculture just sprang up out of nowhere. You know, that it’s not rooted in indigenous and African practices, but of course it is.
Michelle: So I have a question. It’s not fully formed. So, one of the big challenges for black farmers now is heir property. My understanding is that it’s with land being passed down without wills from one generation to the next. Now we have this circumstance where there are so many owners that it makes it really hard for the people who are part of those families who are actually on the land to get loans from the federal government or access programs. In a lot of cases, they’re losing ownership of the land because of other non-farming family members who who want to sell it and are in a lot of cases even being sort of tricked or swindled out of ownership of the land, sort of dishonest practices. There are a lot of black youth in cities in the North who don’t even know that they’re heirs to land in the south. I’m just wondering if you’ve thought about that connection or experienced anything with anyone maybe who was going through that, or how you see your sort of education work being able to help there?
Leah: That’s such a powerful question. Mama Savy Horn of Land Loss Prevention Projects helped me understand heir property in this whole new way. She said that essentially heir property is black people’s efforts to create a commons. So rather than seeing the property as belonging to an individual and being deeded over to an individual or a corporation, that in black families, just like we did, back in Africa forever and ever, the land goes to your unnameable and innumerable descendants. To create a will undermines that ability to have the land be shared by those to come. And there’s a mismatch there between state law mostly and practice in the black community because when a property is considered under heir property ownership, it is ineligible for all types of credit and assistance. Also, one disconnected family member can at times force sale of the entire property and have it go up on auction. So it’s a dangerous legal status. And there are certainly plenty of lawyers and plenty of developers who figured out exactly how to exploit those loopholes. The question about up north folks having access to land is interesting. I hadn’t really thought about youth being heirs and not realizing it. I think what I’ve been exposed to is a lot of returning generation black and brown farmers who would love to have land, but they didn’t inherit any and they can’t afford to buy any. So right now, what we’re working with SAFON to create, SAFON is the Southeast African American Farmers Organic Network, is a north- south land link, so that farmers and land owners in the south who are black, who need someone to pass the farm onto, can connect through this land length that’s specifically around black farmlands, to find a young person who’s trained up and ready to go but maybe doesn’t have that land access, and do a lease to own or do a land trust or do whatever kind of arrangement is going to make sense for that situation.
Michelle: Just following that, I took a really short trip to Georgia and Alabama a couple of years ago. I was really struck by how much land there was, and I visited a lot of black farmers there. It’s almost like they have the opposite problem that we have here in the north, where we have such incredible access to markets. There are so many people and there’s a lot of development pressure on the land. In Alabama and Georgia, it seemed like a lot of people had left and there’s a lot of open land and land was more affordable. But, it also seems like there was a question of access to markets, but then also rebuilding that social network. So I’m just wondering if you’ve thought through farmers from the north going down south, building those connections with the black farmers who are there?
Leah: That is so true. I don’t think it’s confined to the south in terms of the challenges of cultural isolation and rebuilding social infrastructure. Certainly up north, we have high development pressure. We have more access to markets. So the economic considerations are different. But one of the reasons we created the Northeast Farmers of Color Mutual Aid Network is because time and again, black and brown farmers who are living rurally and actually farming are like “I’m the only one out here, it’s a little scary sometimes. I feel isolated. I need my people.” And so, folks will drive like four, six hours to get to one of these potlucks, one of these gatherings, to be with folks like them. And I think that there are some things that may be adaptable to the south from that model of both thinking about what are those networks, but also what are the ways that we can think beyond the family farm as being rooted in the nuclear family and have more freedom farm style or new community style cooperative farms? I would really hesitate, for example, to match a Brooklynite urban farmer with someone in rural Alabama and just say, “yeah, just go have fun on that tractor.” That’s not going work. We don’t have those structures in place yet. I think we need them. I want to applaud Dennis Derek and Corbin Hill Food Project for doing some thinking about how to create markets up north for black farmers down south and figuring out the shipping and trucking. I think that will be really powerful. I’ve actually talked to some farmers at the Black Farmers Conference just a couple weeks ago in Durham, who were saying that when they figured out how to tap into New York City, Chicago markets, things really shifted for them.
Michelle: Yeah. I was also, when you were talking, thinking about your experience starting Soul Fire in a very rural white community. So I’m wondering if you could just talk about some of the challenges that you’ve had with Soul Fire, both getting it started in the community where it is and also just constantly having this beautiful community, but also how you, as an activist and a farmer, have like self care. Sorry, that’s two questions.
Leah: Well that’s a lot. Let me see if I got all those questions.
Michelle: That’s like two different questions probably.
Leah: I mean, as I’m sure most people that listen to this podcast know that farming is real, and everything that has to do with farming and food system work is not prancing through a field of daisies and a white skirt and harvesting them into a basket. You know, it’s cold, it’s tiring, the hours are long, we get discouraged, we fight with each other. So all of that is really important to know. And I think that having self care routines in place, if you can do it like power to you. It makes a lot of sense. I definitely make sure I at least get my run in every day and that’s the chance to be by myself and get some exercise that’s not producing product for other people. Living out here, it’s a joy and a challenge. It was interesting when we were running up to the last election, you know, our whole community is just filled with Trump signs. A friend of mine had to remind me that if you look straight ahead, that’s what you see. Right? But if you look up, you see the sky and the mountains and the tree tops, which is so much bigger and so much more powerful and so much more enduring. I feel like that’s a grounding that I have to keep bringing myself back to, like we’re here for the long game. We’re part of a 10,000 year old story. We’re not part of a four year election cycle story, you know. On a practical level, we’ve certainly made sure to make as many positive relationships with our neighbors as we can, even if that means omitting sensitive topics. You know, we’re human beings and there’s goodness in most people. And so we try to find points of connection around that goodness and you know, other times you just got to keep your head down and mind your business.
Michelle: There is a chapter where you talk about the finances of starting your farm. You were a public school teacher before. I actually don’t even know if you’re still doing that part time. So I’m just wondering if you can maybe talk about that and talk about when you were starting the farm and sort of what that process was like.
Leah: Yes, I am still teaching high school part time. I know I’m not alone. Last time I looked, it was well over 90 percent of small farms had some kind of side hustle outside job. So that is the case. And, but yeah, it was, I was working in public school before that and did save between a third and half of our salary from that to build up the project. It was all our own labor and labor of friends. It was totally out of pocket. You know, we’ve only had a nonprofit for about two years and been able to pay anyone and we started in 2006. You know, grit is an important ingredient. I think of this one particular time when we didn’t have money to hire someone to do excavation for us. So we thought we could use our little tractor and shovels to dig the foundation of our home and education center. We’re mad stubborn, and despite the hard pan clay and boulders in the soil of the mountains, we were like “we’re going to do this.” It took us months and we dug it, and then right before pouring the foundation, we realized that we had actually made a mistake. We wanted the home to be a passive solar, which means it has to face solar self, and it was about 13 degrees off, because magnetic self, which is what you see on a compass, is not the same as solar self. So we’re in this hole, covered in mud with bloody calluses and crying and Jonah’s like, “do you want to quit?” I was like, “no. do you want to quit?” He was like, “no.” You know, so we just re-dug it, reoriented the whole thing 13 degrees. And here I am right now in my warm and cozy straw-bale passive solar home. But you know, there were so many points along the way like that where it would just be easy to walk away and do something basic, and we never made that choice.
Michelle: What gets you through that? What is it that got you to the other side and didn’t make you want to quit?
Leah: I mean, the honest answer to that is we’re just both mad stubborn and we’re not quitters. We have sometimes dangerous complimentary personalities that just push each other, because neither of us is going to back down or say it’s impossible. If it needs to be done it, it will be done. But also getting the feedback and seeing the impact of the work makes a big difference. You know, if nobody cared if we were doing this, I’m not going to be killing myself out here for it. But because so many folks come through and are like “this training program not only was one of the most powerful in terms of leveling up my skills as a farmer, but I feel like for the first time I’ve tasted, smelled, touched freedom, and I’m not going to settle anymore for anything less than being my full magical self.” Getting feedback like that time and again from folks also keeps us going because we feel accountable to what the community is expecting of us.
Michelle: So one particularly important question for the National Young Farmers Coalition is allyship and how to be an ally in racial justice work. The organization right now has predominantly white leadership and in the last few years we’ve kind of started on a path to work to dismantle racism in agriculture. A question that comes up fairly often is what does it mean to be an ally? How do you hold yourself accountable to people of color in this work? I know that more recently you’ve started, in addition to the sort of healing and liberation work with people of color, you’ve started dismantling racism work with white people. I know from personal experience that this work is really exhausting and retraumatizing, and you talk in the book about one day having to go dig a hole after doing a workshop, because it was so hard. So yeah, I guess a two part question: what does it mean to be an ally? And then also how do you recover from doing dismantling-racism-work with white people?
Leah: It’s a great question. Yeah, it definitely can be taxing to hold that space. But, I do think as a black woman with light skin and as someone with education privilege, to the extent that I’m able, I see it as my responsibility and duty to do that type of work, but it needs to be rationed out for sure. And as far as what folks can do to be allies and accomplices, certainly no one should listen to the voice of one person. I can’t speak for all people of color and all black people or all anything. I can say that some of the work we’ve done to collaborate with allies is around creating a policy platform and action steps to support black and brown farmers, and it’s on our website, soulfirefarm.org, under support and take action. And what that is is a whole compilation that comes from us deeply listening to our constituency, to folks who are coming through our program saying “this is what needs to shift if we’re going to be able to have lives of dignity, dignity, and financial sustainability on land.” Similarly, we started a reparations map which came out of one of our alumni, Viviana Morino, who said, “wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just put all of our asks in one place? These are black and brown farmers who maybe need land. They need tractor technical assistance, money for their projects. So we’ve developed a map where farmers put on the map what their needs are and then people who are motivated towards reparations can go ahead and contribute directly to those farmers. So I think what those two things have in common, and I guess the thread that I’ll pull out there, is that the role of white folks and allies and accomplices is to follow the lead of people of color in terms of what we’re asking for and what we’re saying needs to be done and how we say it needs to be done. I’ve heard it termed white followers, which I haven’t figured out how I feel about that term, but I think it’s jarring enough and interesting enough that I think it provokes the right conversation about what it means to not try to be white savior and go and make everything according to your own image.
Michelle: I wanted to say that in your chapter on Finding Land, you quote Ralph Page at the beginning from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives saying “land is the only real wealth in this country, and if we don’t own any then we’re out of the picture.” At the National Young Farmers Coalition last year, we did a survey of young farmers across the country. Land access is the number one challenge that we found. I know that right now you’re working with the Northeast Farmers of Color Network to launch a land trust. Can you just talk a little bit about why it’s so important for black people to own land and what you’re hoping to achieve with the new land trust?
Leah: Absolutely. The original sin of this nation, I believe, was the genocide and dispossession of millions of native people from their land. That legacy of land theft has continued. So black folks, post-reconstruction, managed to purchase a 14 percent of the nation’s farmland at the time, some 16 million acres. And almost all of that has been taken back by the white community to the point where right now nearly all the land is in European control, European heritage control in the United States, with black farmers having just over one percent. And while I don’t necessarily adhere to the European idea of enclosure and private property, it is important to own land collectively. Whether that’s through land trusts or LLC’s or other mechanisms, because ownership is the currency of self determination in the United States. There is no way to create intergenerational wealth or to have longterm security without ownership. So that is very important and the work that we’re doing with the Northeast Farmers of Color to create a land trust is a collaboration between indigenous communities in the northeast and black and brown farmers to catalyze reparations, to catalyze people, to give land back that can be held in a common trust and then in turn leased out with long term secure leases to farmers and land stewards. We’re moving at the pace of trust. So it’ll take a little while, but we should see a launch in 2019.
Michelle: Is there anything else that you want to tell us that I didn’t ask you about?
Leah: I think the one thing I want to say is I just want to shut out the whole Soul Fire team. I think sometimes we get into the celebrity activism trap where we think it’s just one or two people who make their project work, but of course we’re a whole team. So Ceci, Olive, Leticia, Demaris, and the Larisa are our farm team. Jess, Amani, and I do programs. And Jonah and Shimon Emmett work on infrastructure, and we really could not do any of this without all of us. So if anyone ever tells you that they figured out their whole life and farming organization by themselves, they’re not telling the truth. It’s a we thing. It always has been and it will be going forward.
Michelle: Thank you Leah. You want to know more? Please check out the Soul Fire website. It has a ton of resources. We’ll link to it in today’s show notes and on our Instagram @YoungFarmersPodcast. For those of you who voted this week, nicely done people. It was awesome to hear about the turnout across the nation. If you have a second, please pick up the device you’re probably using to listen to this podcast on and rate us on Itunes. Seriously, it cannot be more important. Also, I promise I will personally thank anyone who writes us right on this podcast. As always, this podcast was recorded at Radio Kingston and edited by Hannah Beal. We’ll talk to you next week.