Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

Uprooting Racism, Seeding Sovereignty

Introduction by Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant

I’m delighted to introduce Leah Penniman—author, activist, and leader in our national conversation about land, race, and liberation. Leah has over twenty years of experience as a soil steward and food sovereignty activist, having worked at the Food Project, the Farm School, Many Hands Organic Farm, Youth Grow, and with farmers internationally in Ghana, Haiti, and Mexico. The mission of her organization, Soul Fire Farm, is to reclaim our inherent right to belong to the earth and for Black and Brown people to have agency in the food system. At Soul Fire Farm, which she co-founded in 2011, Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian growers participate in agricultural training workshops that focus on healing people as well as the land.

Soul Fire Farm is also responsible for the Black-Indigenous Farmers Reparations Map, a project to promote people-to-people reparations. In an article published by YES! Magazine (April 27, 2017), Leah urges us to make a paradigm shift around race, food access, and land that challenges the very foundations of our country by 1: creating food access for everyone; 2: honoring the people who grow our food; 3: stopping apartheid in food access in our country; 4: supporting farmers of color. I want to intentionally repeat and amplify Leah’s words: “[Black] farmers are not just growing food, either. The ones you’ll meet here rely on survival strategies inherited from their ancestors, such as collectivism and commitment to social change. They infuse popular education, activism, and collective ownership into their work. As we work toward a racially just food system, abandoning the colonizer mentality that first created the problems is crucial. The communities at the frontlines of food justice are composed of Black, Latinx, and indigenous people, refugees and immigrants, and people criminalized by the penal system. We need to listen before we speak and follow the lead of those directly affected by the issues.” (YES! Magazine, May 5, 2016)

In Leah’s work I hear echoes of Black feminist author bell hooks, one of my heroes. In Belonging: A Cultural Place she writes, “Living in modern society, without a sense of history, it has been easy for folks to forget that black people were first and foremost a people of the land, farmers.” Hooks also said, “When we love the earth, we are able to love ourselves more fully,” which brings us back to Du Bois; Du Bois also loved the land, as demonstrated by his 1930 speech to the Great Barrington High School graduating class when he spoke of saving the Housatonic River that runs through what he called his beloved community. Du Bois said: “Always when I come back here, I go down to look at the river in spite of the indignation and almost physical nausea which most of it invariably causes me today, and then I remember that brook. It came down from the slow sloping of the western hills; it wandered miles up Castle Hill Way, through groves and meadows, and finally, mirabile dictu, it went right through my front yard. That brook had everything to delight a boy’s soul, rushing falls, gurgling murmurs, placid bits of lakes on gravelly beds, trees, bushes and little waterfalls. It was a complete and long and magnificent brook, and it brought its water down the hills and through the yards and across town, and emptied them at last in triumph into the Housatonic.”

As I officially welcome Leah to the stage, I feel Du Bois is welcoming Leah too for his 150th birthday year. Thank you.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak. It is a deep honor to be here with a hero of mine, and I thank Baba Ed for everything he said. I am definitely not one for theoretical framework either. I put on the muck boots and the gloves and the warm jacket, plant the crops, and do the work on the ground, so I’m really excited to bring to you a story about the food system—a story about race and the food system and how we can decolonize and re-indigenize our relationship to land and to sustenance. That’s what we’re going to do.

My people as indigenous people are very clear in our cosmology that we are not the beginning, that we owe all our accomplishments and capacities to those who have come before us. I’m going to ask those who are able to stand up with me now to give honor and homage to the earth and to the ancestors who made sacrifices for us so we could be here today. I know that I particularly want to call in my grandma’s grandma’s grandma. Her name is Susie Boyd. She is the ancestor we can trace who was kidnapped from the shores of the Dehomey region, now southern Benin, of West Africa in the late 1700s for her agricultural expertise. She and other mothers in their community took what was most sacred to them, which was their seed—their millet, their sorghum, their rice, their cowpea—and they braided it into their hair and braided it into the hair of their children because even though there were no reports back from across the Atlantic Ocean, they believed against the odds in a future of tilling and reaping on the soil, and they did not give up on their descendants. On the count of three we’re all going to think of an ancestor who did something big or small to allow us to be here, and we’re going to call out their names with a strong and reverent voice. One, two, three. [Audience responds.]

We need to make sure we remember that the land we stand upon is stolen land. In the area of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, it’s Stockbridge/Munsee Mohican land. Some of those folks are still here, but many were forced off their land in the 1800s and sent to Wisconsin, where they have a very small reservation and are still struggling to retain their land. I think it’s imperative not just to name them but to ask ourselves, when we talk about economic justice and racial justice and a new reconstructed economy, what we are doing in the way of repatriation and reparations for native folks.

I want to shout out “we.” Even with ancestor Du Bois, there’s a way we have of focusing on a celebrity activist as a hero in our Western culture. Who was the person with a certain idea? Who invented the lathe, one of the factors leading to the Industrial Revolution? There’s always a community behind that person, and that’s true with Soul Fire Farm as well. We have my sister Lytisha Wyatt, who is our livestock manager; we have wonderful children, Neshima and Emet; we have Isa, who’s a graduate of the Black/Latinx Farmers Immersion, and many other community members who make Soul Fire what it is and by extension make the community of the Black and Brown returning generation of farmers what it is. Let’s always remember, even as we hear the individual names, that they all had scores of people at their back.


All right, history time. If we don’t know our history, we’re a rootless tree, and a rootless tree cannot survive. The reason we’re going back in history is because—if we’re going to talk about what we’re doing as we move toward Black agrarianism and toward new economies for Black and Brown people—we really need to understand that the food system isn’t broken. It’s working exactly as it was designed to. It was built on stolen land with stolen labor, and that continues today in an unbroken chain that started in 1455. Manifest Destiny, for those who don’t know, is the erroneous European concept that white folks have the God-given right to settle the entire continent of Turtle Island—a name for North America used by many Native Americans—and to displace the buffalo and all of nature and all of the First Peoples who stewarded the land for the past 20,000 years. This idea, which was very popular in the 1800s, goes back to a decree from the Catholic Church by Pope Nicholas V in 1455 that said, “Go forth, enslave, colonize, and pillage all non-Christian nations.” In 1823 the Supreme Court upheld this doctrine, calling it the Doctrine of Discovery. In common parlance it was called the Finders Keepers Law, the idea that when you plant your flag— on the moon, on the Poles, in the west—the ground it’s on is yours. And it relegates Native people, who therefore don’t have any right to inhabit their land or decide the future of their land, to so-called domestic dependent nations. Most recently, in 2005, the Supreme Court again upheld the Doctrine of Discovery against the Oneida Nation, which sued several towns in western New York for trying to reclaim their territory from which they had been displaced. The Supreme Court said: “Sorry, you are a domestic dependent nation. You have lost rights to your lands because they were settled by white colonizers.” This is not ancient history: 98% of the rural land in this country is controlled by European-descended people. So it’s not only labor that’s involved, it’s also land, of course.

Twelve and a half million African people were kidnapped from their homes to do unpaid labor against their will in the colonies. Our folks weren’t kidnapped just because we were strong; we were kidnapped because we had knowledge that was needed. White people didn’t know how to do tropical and subtropical agriculture. Europe is cold, y’all! Rice doesn’t grow there; tobacco, cotton, and sugar don’t grow there. They had to find the agricultural experts, and slavers were very good at targeting those folks in the community. The book Black Rights: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas by Judith A. Carney debunks the notion that it was only about labor—it was also about knowledge. As Baba Ed said, slavery was cruel everywhere. In my ancestral homeland of Haiti, scholars believe it was the most cruel of all because slaveholders found it more beneficial to keep importing folks—stealing them from Africa—rather than keeping them alive. Once Black persons landed in Hispaniola, their average lifespan was eight years. They were worked to death. One of the reasons Haitians had a successful revolution that ended in 1804—it had to do with spirituality, it had to do with unity across languages, there are many reasons—is that almost everyone was born in Africa, almost everyone knew exactly what it was to be free, knew how to fight, and as a result how to overthrow Napoleon’s army, the most powerful army in the world at that time, with machetes and fire and poison. They definitely had to have the backing of their Orisa and Lwa spirits, but they also had to know what freedom was. They had to have experienced peace and freedom.

We may think that all ended in the United States in 1865 with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery except when one was convicted of a crime. And suddenly by 1866 the prisons were filled with Black people, not because Black folk started murdering and raping and pillaging. That is not what happened. What happened was that new legislation called the Black Codes was enacted by Southern states after the Civil War. For the first time there were laws on the books prohibiting loitering, which means standing around, and vagrancy, which means not having a job. There was disproportionate sentencing for being accused of stealing a neighbor’s pig. Children could be taken away from parents who were not industrious and honest and then be apprenticed back to their former master. That was when the states began kidnapping children away from families, which raises deep racial issues today. Why did the Black Codes restrict African Americans’ freedom and force them to work for low wages? It was because as soon as they were in prison, they could be leased out to the mines, to the railroads, and then back to the plantation. From 1866 to 1868, 73% of the Arkansas state budget came from leasing Black people to plantations. This was a way of keeping the Southern economy intact for the white supremacists of the time.

Sharecropping and tenant farming became the dominant system of agriculture. It meant debt peonage, the system where the one who calls himself master or owner of the land, has all of the land, the resources, the housing, and the seed, whereas the Black people working the land have to buy all they need by using the crop as credit and go deeper into debt every year. What’s astounding about this, though, is that despite the system, which was really a trap, a neo-enslavement trap, people saved both their Sunday money and their pocket money in addition to renting themselves out to the cobbler, for example, not just in order to buy their freedom; by 1910 they had also been able to purchase 16 million acres of land, 14% of the nation’s rural farms. Now it’s almost all gone.

At the peak of Black land ownership in 1908-1910 there was an upswell in lynching in an outbreak of white supremacist violence. In fact, most of the round-up of Black folks happened around harvest time because the prisons could be filled, and the prisoners could be sent back to the plantations. What was really insidious that I just recently learned when I read some studies about white supremacist groups, which were full of folks from the government, was that they targeted Black land owners in particular for the audacity of getting off the plantations, for being too uppity, for not staying in their place. In 1908 in Kentucky, for example, there was a Black man who actually refused to let his white neighbor take over his land. It was only 2.5 acres. The lynch mob came, and they said, “You better get out here and take a whipping, Mr. David Walker, for the impertinence of what you’ve done,” and he refused to come out. Then they started shooting at his house, and they set fire to it. His wife came out crying and screaming, holding the baby. He had five additional children, who all ran out of the house except one, who was trapped in the fire. The mob shot all of them and took the land. That land is still held by a descendant of someone in that lynch mob, a young woman in Kentucky who still owned it as of 2017. In this way the land was taken, taken by force. The preceding case study is an illustration of a push factor of the Great Migration when six million Black people fled the South. It was actually a refugee crisis, an exodus from the white supremacist violence that they faced. People were fleeing racist violence, and they were also fleeing government discrimination.


You all know that farming is a highly subsidized industry. I think the Farm Bill, at a cost of billions of dollars, is the biggest piece of legislation we have. Crop insurance, technical assistance, crop allotments, loans, grants—all of this goes to farmers in order to bolster the economy. At the time when there even were price supports, Black farmers didn’t get them. During a drought they would go to the U. S. Department of Agriculture office in their county, and they’d say, “I’d like a loan for irrigation equipment.” They’d be told to wait; they waited all day, eight hours, and the next day again eight hours, only to be told, “Oh sorry, we lost your application.” By the 1960s this routine was sharpened into a weapon to punish civil rights activity. If someone showed up at the USDA office who had signed a petition or registered to vote or joined the NAACP, the official literally balled up the registration and threw it in the trash. Foreclosures and expropriations ensued. This wasn’t impacting only Black farmers, though. From 1934 to 1936, however, we had an amazing renaissance in our federal legislation for workers’ rights. Do you know what was going on around then with FDR? The New Deal, Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act. There was a defined limit on the work day, there was overtime pay, the right to unionize, restrictions on child labor—adding up to an incredible package of legislation to protect the rights of the worker. To the federal government’s credit, originally this was supposed to be for all of us. But the Democrats and the Republicans switched on race, so it was now the Southern Democrats who would not vote for legislation if it benefitted people with melanin. I’m not exaggerating; you can look at the transcripts of these legislators, who said, for example, “We are not voting for this if Black people and immigrants are going to be included.” White legislators excluded two sectors categorically—farming and domestic work—because it was in those areas that Black and Brown people were working.

Social Security was remedied about a generation later, but to this day if you work on a farm, you have a different minimum wage. If you work on a farm with fewer than seven people, you have no minimum wage because federally there is no minimum wage for farm workers on small farms; some states do have one. You don’t have the right to overtime pay, you don’t have the right to one day off in seven, you don’t have the right to unionize. Children don’t have to go to school; they can work on a farm instead. Why do we have a whole different set of legislation for the most important job that we all depend upon?

A friend of mine teaches at a land-grant university out in the mid-West, and he had a roomful of white aspiring farmers in his class. He asked them, “How much would you need to be paid to work at the meatpacking plant in town?” Every one of his students agreed: “There is no amount of money you can pay me that would be enough for me to work at the meatpacking plant. That’s Mexican work.” Meatpacking plants are dangerous, they’re disgusting, they’re dehumanizing. Has anyone here tried to kill 2,000 pigs in an hour? How is it that we have created a food system in which one aspect of providing nourishment, the most important thing for humans to do, is so dehumanizing that aspiring farmers won’t do it for any amount of money? Instead, we create international economic conditions that presuppose a refugee crisis and a constant supply of humans who have no other choice than to do subhuman work so that people can eat. It started in the late 1800s with Filipino and Chinese workers; in the 1940s it was the Bracero program of mostly Mexican workers, which is what it is today. Now it’s the H-2A program, and I’m not saying that every farm with H-2A workers is bad, but I am saying that we’re colluding in a system that fundamentally relies on stolen land and stolen labor so that we can survive.

A slavery ring was broken up in Florida by the Immokalee workers in 1999. For freeing 1,200 farmworkers trapped in involuntary servitude, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers won the 2015 Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts in Combatting Modern Day Slavery. When Black folks were leaving the South, a labor vacuum was created, which is why the migrant-worker program started to grow. What’s incredible about the Black farming movement is that even as people were being dispossessed of their land, both by governmental discrimination and by outright racist violence—lynchings, burnings, dispossession, and stealing of their land—our folks did not go down quietly. In the 2010 caravan to Washington, my friend John Boyd from Arlington, Virginia, was one of the farmers who drove a tractor to D.C. He parked it right on the Mall in protest.


I don’t know if you are aware of the Pigford v. Glickman case. Black farmers sued the federal government in 1979, and they won the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history, a $2.3 billion settlement, because the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found unequivocally that the U.S. government was the number one cause of the decline of the Black farmer, and if the Black farmer became extinct, it would be the government’s fault. It was a largely symbolic case, with an average of $50,000 going to each farmer. Most of them were in their 80s and 90s, their land already gone. Yet it was a very important case because so often we’re told as Black people that somehow we had a choice, and we chose to give up our land because we were traumatized by slavery, but that’s not true. We left part of our souls behind in those red clays of Georgia. We left our ancestors behind, and we’re trying to reclaim that inherent connection, that right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system. Part of that process is reclaiming our story: no, we didn’t walk away, we ran because we were fleeing danger, and where did we flee to? To Chicago, to Pittsburgh, to Boston, to New York—following the railroad lines from the South to the North.

It turned out that we still encountered racism when we got here, but it was different. A little more insidious, with a little more pretending. Probably the most important form I want to mention—because it does relate to land, in this case urban land—is redlining, which was started in the 1930s when the federal government commissioned maps to be made, maps with areas in different colors. All of the areas in these cities were ranked from most desirable to least desirable for lending. Of course it’s no surprise where folks of color lived. What happened is that banks did not give mortgages to them, which meant you could not become a homeowner in your own community. If you cannot become a homeowner, you are deprived of the number-one way that people in this nation accumulate intergenerational wealth. Eighty percent of wealth is inherited, and most of that is property—your house and your land. When I was born, and I’m not that old, there was an 8 to 1 wealth gap between white and Black people. A couple of years ago the Pew Research Center reported a 13 to 1 wealth gap and rising because we never were able to own anything. We were driven off our land and then into the cities, where we had to rent from slumlords or buy houses with credit mortgages, which were later taken back. How can you be in charge of your own destiny, how can you keep the product of your labor, when you don’t have the land and you don’t have the home, which are the foundations of wealth? This doesn’t impact us only as producers but also as consumers.

One in six children in this country will go to bed hungry tonight, which is an atrocity; one in three Black children will go to bed hungry tonight. It’s not only food insecurity that’s disproportionately impacting our communities, it’s also the type of food we get to eat. If I have a few dollars in my pocket and there’s only a bodega and a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and a package store available, I can get hot Cheeto snacks and I can get artificial juice, called a blue drink, but I can’t get anything that’s going to nourish my developing mind and certainly won’t give me the strength to go down to city hall and resist the situation in my community. People in our communities are burdened with diabetes, heart disease, obesity, poor eyesight, ADHD, and depression, all of which are diet-related illnesses caused by the poisoned food we eat. This is a system of food apartheid. Not a food desert: a desert is a natural ecosystem. Apartheid is a human-created system of segregation that relegates certain people to scarcity and others to opulence. Certain people with no choice and others with too much choice.

Right now in this country 85% of the food we eat is grown by people who were not born within U.S. borders and who speak Spanish; 2.5% of the farms are managed by people who weren’t born here and who speak Spanish. It is the most dangerous job there is in this country, with the highest level of workplace injury and death. Pesticide exposure is widespread. Monsanto just lost a court case brought by a man dying of cancer who had been exposed to Roundup.

As I mentioned, we no longer have the land we once had, and it’s really easy to say, “Well, yes, we should have reparations for our lost land.” I love what Baba Ed said in his story about the cow: “I don’t want butter every week; I want my cow back.” We want our land back. We want the unpaid wages that we never got, which would be worth $4.7 trillion today according to YES! Magazine. It’s really easy to say, “Yes, we should have this land as reparations, just as long as it’s not my land because I have a cute garden, a cute house, and I’m not ready to give them up.” Or “We want everyone to have a job, but I want my job, and we’ll figure out how to make work for someone else. Or “I need this wealth because I need to put my kids through college. I know I didn’t earn it, it just came down through the generations, but I’ll think later about how to redistribute.” All of us, including me, need to look within ourselves. We’re landowners on Mohican territory. I’m Cherokee, and I’m Black, but I’m not Mohican. That’s not my land. And so we have to do some really hard inward looking because it’s easy to get defensive, asking: “What about the people who are more privileged than I am? They should be the ones sharing.” I called up the Stockbridge/Munsee Mohican folks and talked to Bonnie. We’re working out a sharing agreement for the land. It’s very important for all of us to think about how we’re participating materially in the return.


I also want to talk about the earth, which I very much love. I hope you all love the earth too because it’s not just people who are harmed by the food system. When you build a whole food system based on stolen land and stolen labor and the extraction of life from the human community, that plunder exists for the living earth as well. I’m going to digress and tell a quick story. A metaphor for the way that most human beings and the earth are harmed at the same time by the design of the food system comes from the Haudenosaunee people, also called the Iroquois Confederacy. They have an origin story that starts with Sky Woman, a deity and the ancestral grandmother of all human beings. She was looking down on the Haudenosaunee people ten thousand years ago and saw that they were starving. It was February, the time of the Hungry Moon, and they had no food to eat, so she clothed herself as a beggar and left the realm of the sky to come down to the people, going to their homes with her palms outstretched, asking for food. The people, generous of heart, took their baskets and scraped the seed that they had been saving to plant in the spring and the chaff and every scrap of food they had left and prepared her a stew, which she ate. As she ate, she realized the generosity and goodness of the people and decided that they merited a gift. The gift she gave them was her three children—corn, beans, and squash: the sacred Three Sisters and the sacred milpa crop-growing system. Corn is considered the most sacred plant, the mother of all life. When you combine all three, they work together. Maize grows tall, beans fix nitrogen, and squash shades out the weeds and even has an insecticide it produces that protects the maize. When you eat these sacred foods together, they provide all the essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids needed to keep you strong.

The First Nations people shared these three sacred foods with the Europeans, and then an ironic intercontinental transfer took place. Maize was brought to Africa as a food that Black people would grow on the shores, and then it would be used on the transAtlantic slave-trade journey to keep folks alive. Black people even braided maize into their hair. What did Euro-Americans do with corn? They have turned it into a GMO monocrop laden with pesticides and fertilizers, which led to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. They converted it into the corn syrup that’s pumped into our children, leading to a diabetes and obesity crisis, sterile terminator seeds, genetic drift, suing of small U.S. farmers, and displacement of the indigenous farmers in Oaxaca, who brought forth the first maize from the earth They now no longer have that heritage seed because it’s contaminated with Monsanto genes, which have taken the gift from Sky Woman and turned it into a weapon.

We need to think seriously about how to re-colonize and re-indigenize our relationship to the earth. It starts with the seed, with how we revere and honor the original intention of the seed, because right now, if you include land-use conversion, agriculture is the number one cause of climate change, the number one cause of the loss of habitat, of water withdrawal, and so forth. Yet we have the means to do agriculture right. Seventy percent of the world’s food is still grown using Afro-indigenous methods that could feed the planet without destroying it. We’ve got to give credit where it’s due, and we’ve got to make a change.

It’s oftentimes so easy for me to identify myself and my ancestors in the places of history where we were victims. It’s a lot harder to talk about complicity because complicity implies responsibility. I would put forth that all of us have an intersection of ways that our identities have been targeted and also ways that we have participated in oppressing and targeting others. No one is exempt from either of those. All of us should ask ourselves what we’re doing to change the system, to heal and repair, because if we do nothing, then we’re actually voting for the status quo.

I haven’t come to the good news yet. I’m going to tell you what Soul Fire is doing and how that emanates from some of the powerful work of our ancestors. Then we’ll get to some things that we can all do. Soul Fire is a Black-and-Brown-centered community farm working to end racism and injustice in the food system. We work on this in three ways. My elders in Ghana, the Queen mothers, taught me the beautiful proverb, “Late ete nono da a,” which means that three stones make the cooking pot stand firm. One or two will fall over, so it has to be three. Similarly, there are three basic things we’re working on: the farm, the training, and the organizing.

The first is feeding the people. Thanks to Lytisha and the farm team at Soul Fire, we have 72 acres that we steward. We actively cultivate about five of those acres for a combination of pasture-raised chicken and eggs, vegetables, herbs, flowers—all those things. We do this using the methods of our ancestors. For example, we use raised beds, which come from the Ovambo people of Namibia. They knew how to control water by mounding soil. We use a kind of terracing called fanya juu, “throw it upwards,” which comes from what is now Kenya. We use polycultures that come out of Haiti, mixing trees in with herbs and fruits and vegetables. It’s called jaden lakou, which translates as “courtyard garden.” What’s amazing about all of these technologies is that they make the earth better. Our topsoil is three inches deeper now than it was when we started. There are more pollinators, there is more biodiversity, there is less water contamination, less erosion. People aren’t inherently enemies of the planet; there are ways to work together.

We box up all the food every Wednesday and bring it to one hundred families in the New York state capital district, using a system called a sliding-scale Farmshare, which means that people pay what they can afford for the food, and the produce is then delivered right to their homes. There are many families who don’t pay anything at all, not because we want to undermine anyone’s dignity by not allowing them to contribute for what they need but because when folks first arrive in this country as refugees and new Americans, their neighbors take the opportunity to buy groceries for them through this program. So we can intervene before that Western diet takes over and really support people in continuing to connect to their ancestral ways of knowing food. That’s what we do, because food is a basic human right. It shouldn’t be a privilege. What’s so powerful about this is that farmers and chefs who know about what we call whole foods are coming to this country. They resettle in neighborhoods that don’t have any real food. We at Soul Fire didn’t come up with the idea of feeding our community. We got that from our ancestors.

In Oakland, California, 20,000 children are getting free breakfast every day. That was the beginning of the free-breakfast programs that we now have in many schools, so while the Black Panthers did have amazing fashion and did advocate for the right to self-defense, their survival programs were what they spent most of their time on. They gave people rides, took them to clinics, ran their own clinics and food distribution. That’s what we should remember. I get so tired of just a lot of theorizing and people criticizing everything. Do something. Do something. The non-negotiable Soul Fire Farm is our survival program. If we get rid of everything else, we will always be growing food and feeding people, making the planet better. And I just want to mention too that we use ancestral methods and grow ancestral crops like okra and what we now call Paul Robeson tomatoes, but there’s a spiritual component as well. You know, the Queen mothers in Ghana said to me incredulously: “Is it really true that in the United States people plant seeds and don’t even pray over them? They don’t make any offerings? They don’t dance, they don’t sing? No wonder you are sick people. What’s wrong with you? You think the earth is a material thing? You didn’t even say thank you?” No, we didn’t. But here we are now, dancing over our seeds.

We didn’t come up with the idea of spiritual connection to the land, not even of organic agriculture, which J. I. Rodale often gets credit for. I was at a conference yesterday, and Rodale was praised for initiating organic agriculture. I’m sorry, but the first person to teach organic agriculture in the university was Dr. George Washington Carver in the early 1900s. He did a lot more than bring the peanut to prominence. He gave lectures to farmers every fall and told them they were all lazy and should not be relaxing yet. They needed to go to the swamp and drag up the muck; they needed to go and gather the leaves from the forest and make compost piles. Then they could spread the compost over the land in spring, and that way they wouldn’t have to use fertilizers. In addition, they should rotate the beans and put the released nitrogen into the soil. This is what Carver was talking about in the early 1900s. His protégé, Booker T. Whatley, an agricultural professor at Tuskegee University, saw that Black people were excluded from all of the markets. Because the wholesalers weren’t buying from those markets in the mid-twentieth century, Whatley wrote in Booker T. Whatley’s Handbook on How to Make $100,000 on 25 Acres: “You know, we’re just going to do for ourselves. I have an idea. Are you ready for this?” Here is what he said: “We’re going to get city folks to come out to the farm to pick apples and vegetables such as pumpkins, and they’re going to pay us. I think I’m going to call it ‘pick your own’” He also came up with the idea of community supported agriculture. Our members affectionately call it Netflix for vegetables. It works by subscription; people pay upfront, and then at harvest time they get their dividends in vegetables every week. That was Whatley’s idea in 1960, so we need to remember that none of these ideas is new.

The second thing we’re up to is training the next generation of farmer activists. Hurray! Many of you are in this room. And it really matters because our people have an “each one teach one” philosophy. Certainly Du Bois and certainly Booker T. Washington were always talking about educating, about sharing knowledge and not being proprietary, so as soon as Soul Fire Farm got going we started doing training programs for Black and Brown farmers. We now have a two-year waiting list! What’s exciting about the training is that almost everyone who has come through Black Latinx Farmers Immersion or other programs is taking back to their communities all that they’ve learned so that they are growing food, and they are teaching others—like Keisha Cameron, who participated in the Black Latinx farmers immersion in 2016. She then started a training program outside of Atlanta, Georgia, for Black Latinx farmers who wanted to transition to organic. There are many others like her. But again, not a new idea.

Fannie Lou Hamer said, “When you’ve got 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup canned for the winter, nobody can push you around or tell you what to say or do.” She founded Freedom Farm, which not only fed families but also provided scholarships and burial fees. Her farm had a revolving loan fund; it also had a pig bank, which means that when you give livestock to a family, the first-born of that livestock goes to another family, which in turn gives an offspring to another family. The Heifer Project stole that idea from Fannie Lou Hamer.

Bob Swann, co-founder of the Schumacher Center, introduced the concept of the community land trust in the United States. Swann and Slater King, a leader in the Albany, Georgia, civil rights movement, created New Communities Inc. in 1969 to give Black farmers in rural Georgia access to land. When King was killed in a car accident, New Communities lost its prime mover and was never fully implemented. Two of the founding members, Charles and Shirley Sherrod, remained dedicated to empowering the community. They were living on the five-thousand-acre farm, but they were driven off by white-supremacist violence. Their offices were bombed, their fertilizer was diluted, and their animals were stolen. Someone asked, “How can you have Black people owning 5,700 acres of land?” Again, although the CLT was new in structure, communities sharing knowledge and resources in a collective way are not new.

The third thing I want to talk about is our movement-building work, which came out of a challenge from a couple of my elders: Baba Curtis Mohammed, civil-rights veteran and former Black Panther, as well as Donald Halfkenny. Both of them said to me that the civil rights movement would not have been possible without Black farmers, not in a metaphorical sense but in a quite literal sense. Mr. Halfkenny told me that when there were meetings during Freedom Summer, the participants would have to gather on Black land in Black farmers’ homes because there was nowhere else; they weren’t going to meet in some conference center to plot the revolution, so they would pretend to have Bible studies, putting their pamphlets inside the Bibles in case anyone hostile rolled up. Sometimes that did happen, like when Night Riders would come for them. The Black farmers would cut down trees from their land and barricade the road so that the Night Riders couldn’t get through. And then when one of the farmers was arrested, the others would put up their land as bail money. They fed, clothed, and protected the activists who made the front-page news.

Baba Curtis Mohammed, an old man now, was sitting in my living room a couple of years back with his all-white areesha outfit and his all-white long beard. He asked: “How is your farm doing? Are you going to support the revolution?” A lot of what we’re doing now extends beyond the impact we can have by staying on the land as well as by reaching out to community and entails our support for social justice movements. We’ve been doing a lot of training, training our people around strategies, not just theories, to uproot racism. How do we catalyze reparations? We’ve been gathering the needs of the Black and Brown farming community onto a reparations map so that we can do people-to-people referral and exchange. We’ve had seven folks just this year who’ve received land or resources so that they can get their farms going. The government used to do that too, but it might take some time for it to happen again. We’re also working on policy, and when I was helping with the movement for the Black Lives Matter platform, I came to appreciate the criticism of the Universal Basic Income plan because even though I tend to err on that side of things too, we have made some very powerful policy changes to the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, NOFA, HEAL Food Alliance, and so on. We do need to change laws like the one that makes it possible for twelve-year-olds not to go to school but to work on a farm instead. We need to change such laws at the same time as we do the work within our own communities.


I’ll mention one more thing and then go to the last part about what we all can do together. As we think about decolonizing and re-envisioning our relationship to land and food, we have to question the concept of the border. The border itself. Why can capital and resources move across borders but not human beings? Central to our work at Soul Fire Farm is the belief that the folks who are closest to the earth, to the land, know the most about the food system. What needs to happen is for peasant farmers and smallholders across borders to collaborate with each other. Because of borders, oftentimes folks from Ghana, Mexico, and Haiti can’t afford to come to collaborations or gatherings, so we make it possible for those farmers to attend. We coordinate solidarity delegations, and we don’t tell the farmers what they should be doing. I think technical assistance is overrated, if not outright paternalistic, but we do transfer resources and catalyze reparations that enable farmers to do the things they want to do, such as install post-hurricane irrigation systems so that they can put in a second crop or help people build their houses by planting trees. Because the French demanded 150 million francs in 1825 in compensation for the loss of “their slaves,” Haiti had to cut down trees to pay it off.

I want to talk a little bit about action steps. Something I’m very excited about—because I’m a real nerd about documents—is that we spent a lot of time over the past couple of years talking to Black and Brown farmers, farm workers, and aspiring farmers, asking “What needs to change so that you can do what you want to do, which is essentially to enjoy and have your community enjoy the products of your labor on a farm?” This led to a whole list of action steps, and you can get involved if you go to our website, To point out what’s essential, it’s really good if we follow the lead of the people impacted by the problems we’re trying to solve.

The whole white savior complex is not an appropriate social justice strategy anymore. In communities that are experiencing hunger, we need to support their front-line leaders with resources and provide time for them to do things that they decide to do, not move in and try to save or fix or take the jobs that they should have at nonprofit organizations. White people from outside the community should advocate that people of color within the community have jobs at nonprofits that serve their own communities rather than siphoning off resources in the form of salaries and benefits. It is people of color living in the community being served, not outsiders, who deserve the jobs. Those who benefit most in monetary terms from the nonprofit industrial complex—a system that applies to both large ad small organizations—are the staff, who are paid salaries and receive benefits. A relatively small amount of money “trickles down” to those served. When people from outside the community take the jobs, relatively little benefit stays with the community; also, the decision-making and power are removed from the communities most impacted.

White people need to educate themselves about racism and white supremacy. And of course policies need to change: junk food shouldn’t be marketed to children, the food-stamp program needs to be expanded, we need workers’ rights, heir property-theft needs to end, and so on. I can explain more of all that later in the question period.

Here’s a shortened list of the hundreds of organizations that are led by people of color working in the food space: Black Farmers and Urban Gardens, Farms to Grow, Freedom Food Alliance, National Black Food & Justice Alliance, NOFA NY, Via Campesina, and Youth Food Justice Program. Oftentimes folks will say, “I put out a job posting and only white people applied, so Black and Brown people aren’t interested in food and agriculture.” But we are: we’re running our own organizations, so let’s find ways to support and collaborate with the existing efforts, putting faces to some names. Dennis and Gail and Kirtrina Baxter are just three of the farmers and food-justice workers who are making amazing positive change in their communities.


We’re going to end with a quote, my favorite. It’s from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Emet, will you help me read this? Emet is my son. He’ll start by reading a line and then we’ll read alternately:

See? See what you can do?

Never mind you can’t tell one letter from another, never mind you born a slave, never mind you lose your name, never mind your Daddy dead, never mind nothing.

Here, this here, is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back in it.
“Stop sniveling,” the land said. “Stop picking around
the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage.”

We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this county right here. Nowhere else!

We got a home in this rock, don’t you see!

Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too.

Grab it. Grab this land!

Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on—

[Both:] can you hear me? Pass it on! Thank you.

Question and Answer Period

Ed Whitfield: I have a question for you. I had a conversation with a wonderful person who told me that he thought food should be free. What do you think about that?

Leah: It depends on the context. If we were to have a gift economy, which we don’t, where the currency of the community is generosity and so on, theoretically free food could work, but I think in our current economic system it would be an insult to the producer and the consumer. I’ve experienced it in my community that sometimes, in an effort toward reparations or giving back what’s stolen or addressing white guilt and privilege, people may dump a resource on a community that is not ready to receive that resource or to organize for that resource, so the project falls apart. I had to work two jobs and drag my snot-nosed wonderful toddlers along while we built our house. They’re big now, but they were little then and they had runny noses because it was cold. We were digging a foundation with shovels raised, and our blood went into that hole. There’s a sense of ownership—we were talking about this earlier—of that project, there’s a “This is me,” and my honor, my dignity, are tied up with how it goes. If a couple of folks I don’t really know that well were to drop a house all finished right into my lap, I would say we didn’t earn that, we didn’t have any part in it, and so as a result we would feel in a way that it’s not going work. Projects like that don’t work. They will fail. That’s how I think about food too. Even if I have only a dollar to pay for my food, if I pay that dollar, then the food is mine. Not to mention that farmers obviously need to get paid. Even though we have a nonprofit, there’s a reason why we run our farm as a business: we think it would be disingenuous to train the next generation of farmers to chase grants. We’re going to train the next generation to run a business that works; they won’t make a lot of money, but they can make a living farming if they live the way we live. So I disagree with your friend. I do believe, though, in a social safety net; I think that there are various reasons—from whether you’re new to the country or you’re nursing a baby or you’re out of work—why it makes sense for society to chip in from its surplus to make sure that you can purchase food, but it shouldn’t be free.

Q: I’m an anti-war activist, and I know that to end war I have to end the war economy, so we encourage folks to grow their local peace economy. In the process what we’ve really seen is that we live in a culture that is the war economy, and because you spoke to habits, I want to ask: What are the habits we need to develop that aren’t encouraged in the capitalist culture that we live in?

I think listening is a habit we need to develop, especially when we’re doing movement work and we’re thinking about community self-determination and being the change we want to see. Then we’re supposed to come up with a 5 or 10 or 15 year strategic plan with a group of people who probably aren’t even from that community. To me there’s a fundamental disconnect there because if we’re not listening responsively, are constantly shifting course, and if we aren’t willing to change, we can’t be effective in our work. At Soul Fire everything we do came out of community members saying they didn’t have food. Our youth are getting locked up. We need a place for them to go now. Can they go to Soul Fire? Can we do something for those who say, “There’s no farmer-training program” or “I don’t have any land”? And I don’t know what it’s going to be next year; I don’t know what it’s going to be in two years. It’s not that we mission drift and then just do whatever comes into our heads. I think we have to be very humble; we have to be willing to say, I don’t know. That’s hard to do because we’re trained in this system to pretend to know, pretend to have all the answers.

Listening extends beyond the human community. I personally believe that the earth and our ancestors are clamoring for our attention, and they have a lot of the answers, but we’re not taking the time or we don’t have the skills or we lack the technologies to really listen. I don’t know if Baba Ed’s religion agrees with this, so I might be diverging from him here, but science even agrees that trees talk to each other. Using radioactive carbon, scientists are able to trace that mother trees, hub trees, are feeding sugars, they’re feeding minerals, they’re giving warning messages not just to their children but to the children of other species. They’re collaborating. My personal belief, which departs somewhat from the science, is that when we are in contact with a tree, when our bare feet are on the ground over the top of the mycelial networks, we’re getting an information upload about how to behave right and how to heal and how to do things right. I know for myself personally that ever since I was a very small child, when I went into the forest my ancestors and the earth were whispering to me and giving me reminders of the original instructions, all those things that we’ve left behind, all that aching for something that we’ve lost, but we can’t even quite remember its name.

Q: How is Soul Fire prepping for climate change, both in practical terms—i.e., how will we work differently and raise our crops differently—and also in terms of our responsibilities as humans?

I’ll tell you this quick story. The increase in hurricanes, which puts more energy and more water in the atmosphere, is connected to climate change. Our area was hit really hard in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy. A lot of farms lost all their topsoil. I know that Dennison Farm, a sibling farm of ours, lost a lot of it, which washed right into the river. The night of the hurricane we could hear what sounded like a Mack truck coming through the forest. We went outside with headlamps, and it turned out that a flash flood was pouring down off the hillside. There hadn’t even been a stream there. So we woke up Neshima and Emet, put shovels in their hands, and started trenching the water so it wouldn’t wash away our sections one and two, which at the time was most of our farm. What’s amazing—besides looking back and thinking about the grit of our children, having been raised on the farm—is that because we were using an African technology of mounding, we didn’t lose nearly as much topsoil as other farmers because the way that mounding works is that you have these channels that slow down the water and encourage infiltration and percolation.

There are many technologies that we’re using like agro-forestry, terracing, semi-permanent raised beds, heavy mulches, and no till. All of these methods rely more on tubers than grains for most of our calories. These are the technologies that we’re teaching the farmers who come to us. They are old and well established climate-resilient technologies.

On the responsibility end of things, in a similar vein when you are increasing organic matter every year, you are sequestering carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that otherwise would be contributing to the incremental increase of energy in the earth’s system. I recently read a white paper, and although I don’t believe in absolutes, if all farmers adopted similar technologies on their farms, we could actually halt climate change, but this would never happen. The soil has an incredible capacity to be a reservoir. At the same time, to be totally honest with you, I don’t know if we’re going to win this fight. I don’t know what the future’s going to bring, but I do know that it’s imperative for me to do whatever I can within my realm of influence to act like we’re going to win. Right? At least we’ll still have a good life in the process.

Q: What is white people’s role now, especially those of us who want to be involved in farming and sustainable agriculture?

This is one of those oracle questions. I was joking because I’ve been at a slew of conferences at which folks came up to me and asked, “Should I buy land in Africa or Maryland?” Or “What do you think I should do with my life? Am I meant to be a farmer?” Oooh, I don’t know what you need to be doing. I know that there’s a whole lot of needs and that the intersection of what is needed by the community and what makes you come alive is the thing that you need to be doing. It’s important for you to find that intersection, which is your gift. We need to always be aware of our intersectional privileges and power, and I appreciate the differentiation between the two. You know, it doesn’t make sense for a white person to be holding the oars that row the boat and to decide on where it goes when it comes to dismantling racism in the food system. Of course not. It does, however, make sense to listen, it makes sense to follow someone’s lead, to ask questions. But foundational to listening is a relationship. You have to find out what’s going on and what’s needed. There is a place for sure for white folks organizing among white communities. I think if that happened more, we wouldn’t have the person in office that we have right now. We need white people talking, right? Talking to families, talking to neighbors, building bridges, trying to come to a common understanding, and bringing folks over to a place where they see that we have commonalities; after all, the divide-and-conquer strategy is really an old one.

You know, in upstate New York, where we live, there used to be a predominantly agricultural, dairy-cow economy, which has been replaced by a predominantly prison economy, in which prisons provide the major jobs in many of these rural communities. That’s why there are elected officials from rural areas pushing real hard for punitive legislation that’s going to increase sentencing and make harsher sentencing for mostly Black folks in New York City to be sent upstate so that there are more prison jobs in their rural community. And that was strategic, it wasn’t an accident to dismantle the price supports for the dairy economy and then build private prisons. It was all very intentional because it does seed divisions; it exacerbates imagined divisions between poor white folks and poor Black folks when we should be working together. We need to build relationships, listen, return resources, lend the skills and knowledge we have to the priorities that have been set. It’s not hard to figure out what kind of policy change we need, what kind of resource transfer we need. Just figure out where your passions, skills, and assets lie, and then commit them to the stated needs of the communities that are most impacted.

Final Remarks

I’m going to return to the personal for the last minute or two of what I want to share. I was really resonating with your remark, Baba Ed, about a young person saying: “What do you mean I’m nothing? I built that.” I was remembering when I first came to farming and was in a point of crisis as a young person. I grew up in a violently racist, rural, white New England town where I experienced outright assault and bullying. I didn’t have the analytic skill at that age to understand that it wasn’t my personal problem, that there wasn’t something wrong with me. I was trying to figure out if I deserved the air I was breathing. Not to oversimplify, but there’s a lot that goes into healing, and there’s a lot that goes into moving through trauma. I always went to the earth for solace, I always went to the land, which was my first friend and will be my last, I’m sure. My situation changed when I got a job on a farm, a social-justice-oriented farm outside of Boston called The Food Project, where I had the opportunity to plant carrots and cilantro and tomatoes, to hoe a row and harvest it. We sent that food to folks in soup kitchens, and we brought it to what they called at the time domestic-violence shelters. We ran a low-income farmers market, where people could use SNAP and all that. I remember at the end of that summer going back to school feeling that I could take it all on now because nobody could tell me I was nothing. I had made something and had fed some people with my hands. I think there’s so much we’re trying to do, but fundamentally it comes back to the fact that all of us want some dignity and all of us want to be able to produce something of value and to be something.


Publication By

Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman is an educator, farmer/peyizan, author, and food justice activist from Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NY. She co-founded Soul Fire Farm in 2011 with the mission to end racism in the food system and reclaim our ancestral connection to land. Penniman is part of a team that facilitates powerful food sovereignty programs – including farmer trainings … Continued

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