The New Book Farming While Black Isn’t Just for Farmers

Between stories and sage advice, Leah Penniman is bracingly honest in sharing the triumphs and challenges of owning a farm and fighting food apartheid. Photo credit Facebook/Soul Fire Farm.

At first glance, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land seems like a comprehensive, A-to-Z instructional guide for established and emerging black farmers—and it is. However, between stories and sage advice from “how to secure funding” to “humanely raising animals,” Leah Penniman is bracingly honest in sharing the triumphs and challenges of owning a farm and fighting food apartheid. At times, Farming While Black reads as a memoir, with Penniman sharing some of her formative experiences and how it shaped her work and philosophy.

Almost as quickly as you realize Farming While Black is more than a guide, it becomes evident that Soul Fire Farm is more than a sustainable farming model in action: It is an example of how powerful community can be. The impact and power of the farm is more than the food it grows: It is a safe haven for farmers of color, an example of a restorative justice model done right, and a place to nourish community and heal generational trauma. Below, Penniman shares her insights below on building the Soul Fire Farm community, the future of the farm and what we can do to create a more just, equitable food system:

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Leah has several upcoming speaking events in the New York City area listed on the Soul Fire Farm website including one hosted by Pineapple Collaborative on February 5.

Edible Brooklyn: In the book, one of the most resonant themes was the importance of community, which is a major part of Soul Fire Farm’s success. What are some of the most rewarding and challenging parts of creating a sustainable, thriving community like Soul Fire Farm?

Leah Penniman: For us, when we say that community is important, we’re talking about accountability in large part. Soul Fire Farm wasn’t the idea of an individual person. It was never a project to be imposed on the community, so concepts like outreach and recruitment don’t come into play so much with Soul Fire Farm. We started as a group of neighbors in the South End of Albany, New York, who were experiencing food apartheid, which is the system of segregation that relegates certain people to food opulence and others to food scarcity. We banded together and said, “We need a farm for the people.” My family was poised to accept that challenge, having substantial farming experience and the desire to take on that work. Soul Fire Farm has continued to evolve in response to the stated needs of the community to whom we are accountable.

Community is really accountability, and the joys I think are obvious. There’s a flow. We don’t have to force things. We don’t have to convince people this is what you want or need. There’s a satisfaction and a sense of integrity in the work. I think the challenge is that humans are complex. We carry with us our traumas, our neuroses and our different personalities. Trying to make a way where there’s space for all voices and having the work move with efficiency, elegance and clarity at the same time is an ongoing challenge and requires a lot of thoughtful tools, and commitments to authentic communication.

EB: You dedicate one of the Uplift sections of your book to talk about susu, which is a West African and Caribbean microlending strategy where members add money to a pool, with each member taking turns collecting the sum. Can you talk more about your decision in using a susu, especially in a society where individualism is typically encouraged/practiced?

LP: I include the system in the book because it’s good to remember that a lot of these ideas that we cherish—cooperative economics and sustainable agriculture—are not new fads. These are very, very old concepts and we can learn a lot from our elders and our ancestors who pioneered these concepts, and the susu is one of those. We actually used a community lending organization. They didn’t call themselves a susu, but we used a community lending organization in part out of necessity, because of our credit position and the fact that we were starting a farm and building a house out of mud from the earth and straw and timbers. We harvested; we were not eligible for a bank loan. We didn’t have the out-of-pocket money to just put down, and we started looking into alternatives. We joined a community lending organization called Money Game to pool our money and were able to take out a mortgage from a group of our friends.

Farming While Black is a comprehensive, A-to-Z instructional guide for established and emerging black farmers—and more. Book cover image courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing.

EB: The true impact of Soul Fire Farm comes not only from the community it feeds, but the people who come there to learn, heal, and seek refuge. Where you do see Soul Fire Farm and the communities impacted by its work in the next few years?

LP: Well, I try not to do trend analyses too much because I think it’s difficult for one person from my vantage point to be able to speak for a whole community. I will say that, based on what I’ve witnessed from the thousands of folks who’ve come through our programs and who’ve been touched by the training and organizing work, that [the impact] is twofold. There’s a real tangible shift I hope will happen in terms of who is controlling and having access to land, right? Right now, in this country, around 98 percent of the rural land value is in the control of white Americans. We really want to see that shift to be more fair and representative of who comprises this nation. Also, I’m hoping to see shifts in policy; right now, the way the laws are set up are not fair for farm workers. There’s a different federal minimum wage and significantly lower worker protections, with no right to unionize or overtime pay. That is not the way to treat the over 85 percent of the folks who grow our food who are Latinx and beyond. We also want to see a real shift in terms of who has access to healthy and culturally appropriate, affordable foods.

That means fully funding SNAP and making sure that our school lunch programs are able to source food locally, taxing junk food companies and so on. I think that what we see in addition to moving toward food sovereignty is this healing and repair of our relationship to land. There’s no way that a people can experience generations of enslavement, sharecropping and race-based terrorism on land and not carry forward some trauma even at the cellular level, especially in terms of our relationship to land and to sort of relegate land to the status of criminal rather than just the scene of the crime. What I’m seeing and hope to see is a continued healing and restoration of dignity in our relationship to land.

EB: For black, Latinx and indigenous people, community building has been integral to our success, despite historical and systemic discriminatory practices. What advice do you have for folks who want to form communities and implement change, but don’t know where to start?

LP: Sometimes we think we have to start something new — create something, invent something, do it all by ourselves. And the good news is that there are so many folks around us locally, regionally, nationally, who are already doing this work and there are ancestors in every generation who have been doing this work. The first step is to actually learn. Go and volunteer for, work for, seek mentorship from the people who are doing this work. That elegant intersection between what the world needs and what makes you come alive will soon emerge. From there, you can find out what your gift is and the next steps in forming the communities that you want and implementing the change you desire to see.

EB: While Farming While Black is a comprehensive guide for farmers and would-be farmers, it’s also relevant for those who don’t have a background in farming. For those who don’t have a farming background, what are some of the takeaways that you’d like readers to get from this book, especially in these times of racial and political tension in America?

LP: You are right on—Farming While Black is for everyone, because all of us eat, and all of us have some relationship to land, even if it’s just through the food that reaches our table. It wasn’t black farmers who created a racist food system. Many of us and many of our ancestors are complicit. We all have an obligation to do the work to heal and repair the food system. Hopefully Farming While Black is a fun read for everyone, and also provides a lot of ideas on how each of us can engage in that work to create a just, sustainable and dignified food system for everyone—from the farm worker to the processor to the consumer.

Featured photo credit: Christopher Simpson