My first day as a farmer at The Food Project in Massachusetts was a homecoming for me. I carried a lot of pain and trauma in my 16-year-old body and was burdened with both personal and ancestral violence and loss. I felt unsure whether there was a place for me on this green earth. This summer job wasn’t an explicitly healing space, just a program to get urban and rural youth together to grow food and learn leadership skills. Still, the land worked her magic on me. My task that first day was to harvest cilantro. I’d never interacted with this powerful plant before, and the aromatic oils lingered in the creases of my fingers long after my train ride home, infiltrated my dreams, and called me to the present. The next eight weeks of farm labor awakened me to who I was meant to be.
While farming was initially healing for me, for many African heritage people, it’s triggering and re-traumatizing. Almost without exception, when I ask Black visitors to Soul Fire Farm what they first associate with farming, they respond, “slavery” or “plantation.” As Chris Bolden-Newsome, co-director of Sankofa Community Farm, explains, “The field was the scene of the crime.” Hundreds of years of enslavement devastated our sacred connection to land and overshadowed thousands of years of our noble, autonomous farming history. The societal abuses heaped upon Black farmers include the broken promise of 40 acres and a mule; lynchings that targeted landowners; government discrimination; and heirs’ property exploitation. As a result, the number of Black farmers in the U.S. has declined from 14 percent in 1910 to less than 2 percent today, which means they’ve lost more than 12 million acres of land.
Many of us have confused the terror our ancestors experienced on land with the land herself, naming her the oppressor and running toward paved streets without looking back. We don’t stoop, sweat, harvest, or even get dirty, because we imagine that would revert us to bondage. And yet, we’re keenly aware that something is missing, that a gap exists where once there was connection. This generation of Black people is becoming known as the “returning generation” of agrarian people. Our grandparents fled the red clays of Georgia, and we’re now cautiously working to make sense of a reconciliation with land. We somehow know that without the land, we cannot return to freedom.
We Made a Home in This Rock
In 2005, Jonah Vitale-Wolff and I lived with our two young children in the South End of Albany, New York, a neighborhood that was classified as a “food desert” by the federal government. Karen Washington of Rise & Root Farm taught us that “food apartheid” is the more appropriate term for the system of race-based geographical segregation that relegates communities of color to food insecurity.
On a personal level, this meant that, despite our deep commitment to feeding our young children fresh food, structural barriers to accessing that nourishment stood in our way. The corner store specialized in chips and soda. We would’ve needed a car or taxi to get to the nearest grocery store, which served up inflated prices and wrinkled vegetables. There were no available lots where we could garden. Desperate, we signed up for a community-supported agriculture (CSA) share, and walked more than 2 miles to the pickup point with our newborn in a backpack and our toddler in a stroller. We paid more than we could afford for those vegetables, and we literally had to pile them on top of the resting toddler for the long walk back to our apartment.
When our South End neighbors learned that Jonah and I both had many years of experience working on farms, from Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, Massachusetts, to Live Power Community Farm in Covelo, California, they asked whether we planned to start a farm to feed this community. We hesitated. I was a full-time public school science teacher, Jonah had his natural building business, and we were parenting two young children. But we were firmly rooted in our love for our people and for the land, and this passion for justice won out. To capitalize the project, we cobbled together our modest savings, loans from friends and family, and 40 percent of my teaching salary every year. The 80 acres in Grafton, New York, that chose us were marginal and affordable, just over $2,000 per acre, but the necessary investments in electricity, septic, water, and dwelling spaces tripled that cost. With the tireless assistance of hundreds of supporters and volunteers, and after four years of building infrastructure and soil, we opened Soul Fire Farm, a project committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system, providing life-giving food to our community, and transferring skills and knowledge to the next generation of Black and brown farmers.
On the Shoulders of Our Ancestors
As young farmers, we attended scores of organic agriculture conferences across the region. There, we noticed that all the speakers were white, all the technical books sold were authored by white people, and conversations about equity were considered irrelevant. I thought organic farming was invented by white people, and worried that my ancestors who fought and died to break away from the land would roll over in their graves to see me stooping. I struggled with the feeling that a life on land would be a betrayal of my people. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
With a little digging through the literature, I learned that “organic farming” was an Afro-indigenous system developed over millennia and first revived in the U.S. by a Black farmer, George Washington Carver, while he was a professor at Tuskegee University in the early 1900s. Carver conducted extensive research, codified the use of crop rotation in combination with the planting of nitrogen-fixing legumes, and detailed how to regenerate soil biology. His system of regenerative agriculture helped move many Southern farmers away from monoculture and toward diversified horticultural operations.
Another Tuskegee professor, Booker T. Whatley, was one of the inventors of community-supported agriculture, which he called a “clientele membership club.” He advocated for diversified pick-your-own operations that produced an assortment of crops year-round, and he developed a system that allowed club members to access produce at 40 percent of supermarket pricing.
Further, I learned community land trusts were first started in 1969 by Black farmers, with the New Communities movement leading the way in Georgia. Black farmers were some of the first to demonstrate how cooperatives could provide for the material needs of their members, such as housing, farm equipment, student scholarships, and loans; as well as organize for structural change. The 1886 Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union and Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farms Cooperative in 1969 were salient examples of Black leadership in the cooperative farming movement.
Most powerfully for me, I learned that our ancestral grandmothers in West Africa, before being forced aboard trans-Atlantic slave ships, gathered up their mother seed — their millet, their okra, their cowpea, their black rice, their egusi melon — and braided it into their hair because they believed against odds that we, their descendants, would exist to inherit that seed. It’s so important for us to remember, even when we’re facing daunting obstacles, our ancestors didn’t give up on us. In turn, it’s up to us to collect and plant that seed so the next generation has something to inherit.
Catalyzing a Movement
Beginning in 2015, Jonah and I transitioned Soul Fire Farm from a family operation to a community farm. We formed a housing cooperative to hold title to the land, and a nonprofit organization to house the educational operations of the farm. Our team grew to nine dedicated land stewards, and we now reach over 10,000 learners each year.
There’s a proverb in the Krobo language of Ghana: Late ete no no da. It means, “Three stones balance the cooking pot.” Echoing this wisdom, we’ve established three pillars of our operations at the farm: regenerate, equip, and mobilize.
We use Afro-indigenous agroforestry, silvopasture, wildcrafting, polyculture, and spiritual farming practices to regenerate 80 acres of mountainside land, producing fruits, plant medicine, pasture-raised livestock, honey, mushrooms, vegetables, and preserves, with the majority of the harvest provided to people living under food apartheid. Our ancestral farming practices increase topsoil depth, sequester soil carbon, and increase biodiversity. The buildings on the farm are hand-constructed using local wood, adobe, straw bales, solar heat, and reclaimed materials.
We annually equip hundreds of adults and youths with skills to reclaim leadership as farmers and organizers in their communities; to heal their relationship with Earth; and to imagine bolder futures. Using land as a tool to heal from racial trauma, we work to reverse the dangerously low percentage of farms being owned and operated by people of color, and increase the leadership of people of color in the food justice movement. Our graduates receive ongoing mentorship to access resources, land, and training, and they’re invited to join our speakers collective so they can amplify their voices in the food system.
We’re mobilizing the public to create a racially just food system. We collaborate with regional and national food justice networks to advance reparations, establish action platforms, and work on campaigns for farmer survival and dignity. Each year, we inspire thousands by speaking at conferences, publishing articles and book chapters, and facilitating workshops for activists to share tangible methods for dismantling racism in the food system and increasing community food sovereignty.
The response to our work has been humbling. Our reach is national, and our program waiting lists are 2 to 3 years long in some cases, because of the overwhelming passion among this returning generation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers. Still, we’re committed to a model of scaling out and not up, working to train dozens of people each year to create or augment similar programs across the nation. Examples of programs our alumni have created are Catatumbo Cooperative Farm in Chicago, Illinois; WILDSEED Community Farm & Healing Village in Millerton, New York; and High Hog Farm and its Ubuntu program in Grayson, Georgia.
Where We Go Next
Nearly 98 percent of this nation’s farmland was controlled by white people in 2002. This is no accident of history. The foundation of this country rests on the theft of land from indigenous people, followed by the displacement of Black and brown people from their holdings. As Ralph Paige of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives explains, “Land is the only real wealth in this country, and if we don’t have any of it, we’ll be out of the picture.”
Starting in 2017, alumni of Soul Fire Farm and other BIPOC farmers in the Northeast began meeting for winter potlucks to break the isolation of rural life and offer one another mutual support. These informal gatherings coalesced into a new organization, the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC), which is working on land tenure for stewards. NEFOC currently has around 250 members, and is incubated and fiscally sponsored by Soul Fire Farm Institute Inc.
In its early stages of organizational development, NEFOC is working on board formation, fundraising, nonprofit filing, strategic planning, governance, network building with existing land trusts, and indigenous consultation. We believe that all projects involving land require the approval of the original people of that land, so NEFOC is building relationships with more than 10 indigenous governments to honor this value. While building its foundation, NEFOC also manages a reparations map, which connects people with wealth to BIPOC farmers who need capital or land. So far, over 30 farmers have received resources for farms and land projects. We expect the land trust to launch at the end of 2020, with the first deed transfers and easement acquisitions taking place in early 2021.
Reviving Love for the Land
My mentors in Ghana are the women leaders called manye, or “Queen Mothers.” They’re responsible for the moral fabric of the community — holding ceremonies, caring for orphans, and stewarding natural ecosystems. They were incredulous when they heard that, in the U.S., people plant seeds and don’t sing over them, pour libation, pray, or make offerings. And yet, Americans expect those seeds to grow and create nourishing food. They were baffled, saying, “The earth is a relative, not a commodity. No wonder you are all so sick!”
The process of land return isn’t just about the physical transfer; it’s about re-indigenizing our relationship to land so we don’t replicate colonial patterns of oppression. It’s about reviving our noble and dignified heritage of belonging to the land, reviving ancestral wisdom, and defining a relationship to the land based not on the ways we’ve been harmed, but on the ways our forebears achieved community care and sustainability.
May we heal our relationship to soil and to seed. May we heal our relationships to one another through accountable love. May we be free of this sickness. Ase.
Leah Penniman is the author of Farming While Black and the co-founder and co-director of Soul Fire Farm. She received the prestigious James Beard Foundation Leadership Award in 2019. The Soul Fire Farm team includes Larisa Jacobson, Jonah Vitale-Wolff, Naima Penniman, Justin Butts, Cheryl Whilby, and Kiani Conley-Wilson.
Expressing reverence for the abundance the land offers is an important component of Afro-indigenous stewardship practices. Visit Community Chickens to learn how Lytisha Wyatt incorporates this into her care of Soul Fire Farm’s chickens .