Leah Penniman on her new book, ‘Farming While Black’

Leah Penniman is co-director and program manager of the 72-acre Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, which is dedicated to training a new generation of black, brown, and indigenous farmers while working to dismantle racism and injustice in the food system. Her new book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, is a first-of-its-kind guide for farmers of color.

Soul Fire provides healthy, affordable food to communities in nearby Albany, and also offers a range of programming, from regional gatherings to farmer training to workshops on uprooting racism. Penniman emphasizes that the book is a collective project, shaped as much by Soul Fire’s staff as by her vision. The book is a useful how-to manual, full of charts and pictures on everything from amending soil to slaughtering chickens. Woven throughout is the philosophy and spirituality of Soul Fire, from suggestions for ritual blessings to a detailed history of discrimination against farmers of color in the United States. Farming While Black is out Oct. 30.

Why did you write a practical how-to manual, as opposed to a memoir or some other type of book?

I had yet to encounter a farming book that was centering black and brown people using “we” and “I” language. So that was really important to me to fill that gap in the literature. It was certainly a book that I needed to read as a young person, and it didn’t exist.

I appreciate optimism that’s rooted in doing real things, rolling up our sleeves, providing food for our community. That stuff really resonates with me. I don’t have a lot of experience with or even patience for armchair activism. It’s one thing to talk on Twitter and another to go make the change you want to see.

You lived in collectives in Worcester and Albany before starting Soul Fire. Why are you drawn to collectivism, and what does it offer farmers?

For black folks, it’s always been a “we” thing. The European notions of enclosure and private property are really pretty new in terms of how they’ve impacted African heritage people. Our ancestral ways of being are rooted in cooperative economics, extended families living together, collective work parties. Take for example the kombits, Haitian work parties. We’ve taken that concept of kombit and we have collective work parties here on the farm, and we also lend our labor to sibling work projects.

We are in the process of transferring our land to a collective land trust, both so people can build equity and also so we can move away from the concept that land can be owned. We believe more in the idea of stewardship [of the land].

The farm has so much programming, from regional gatherings to national policy work to international partnerships. How do you choose new projects, or how do they choose you?

Our framework is that we really are accountable to our community and what our community is asking for and their stated needs. We try not to do five- or 10-year strategic plans just with our board of directors. That can become quite unresponsive. We’re always committed to working on three pillars: our farm, our education training programs — which center the needs of black and indigenous aspiring farmers — and our organizing work around reparations of land. We try to listen really carefully.

So, for example, at a recent gathering of the Northeast Farmers of Color network, time and again folks were saying [that they wanted] access to land and secure land ownership that wasn’t just private ownership. So we’re working to incubate a land trust for the black and brown farmer network in the Northeast.

What is the relationship between your farm and the broader movement for equity in the food system?

Something I love about Soul Fire is that we are grounded in the work on the land and in the community, and also pushing this national conversation forward. I believe doing both at the same time makes us more accountable and relevant. I think probably the main way that we are communicating between those two things is because we’re so rooted in the black farming community; when we participate in the HEAL Food Alliance or the National Black Food & Justice Alliance or Black Urban Growers, we’re able to say, no, actually, this is what our community is asking for.

It turns out to be pretty unique, like something we can’t keep up with. The whole funding community right now is asking us, can you do workshops? We’re trying to be an intermediary between these meta conversations and what’s happening on the ground.

The farm has several programs targeting young people. What are some of the challenges and opportunities created by bringing teens and younger people onto the farm?

We had folks who were members of our CSA who said it would be great if young people could get out to the farm. So we started our youth program with the idea of teaching basic farming skills, but really also [to give a] sense of agency related to their health and their futures. One of the pervasive things that happens to black and brown youth is the message they get that they’re not in control of their lives. You will end up in prison or be murdered, and your role is to consume media and education. One of the things that’s most important that happens on the farm is starting to shift that narrative. You see adults that look like you and it opens up a sense of what’s possible.

The challenges aren’t with the youth — the challenges are with the system. We don’t have the ability as a community organization to tell the criminal injustice system, “This is what’s going to happen with the youth.” It’s tricky to navigate that bureaucracy when there’s no incentive for them to put the work in to give these young people this option. [Soul Fire previously offered a restorative justice program as an alternative to incarceration for young people who had been convicted of crimes. The program recently ended.]  

In the book, you discuss going to farmer gatherings early in your career and seeing few, if any, people of color in leadership roles. Do you feel that the white-led food movement has begun to take diversity and equity issues more seriously in its work? What remains to be done?

It’s hard to generalize. I would say there’s definitely an increase in consciousness about the issues. For most white-led organizations, I would say they’re in a place of obliviousness or tokenization. Really shifting decision-making is pretty rare. We’re in a waking-up process, but we’re not yet in a transfer-of-power process.

When you really talk about transferring power, it means sacrifice. The people who often benefit most in these spaces are those who have the secure jobs, and a transfer of power means giving those jobs away. Usually people don’t relinquish that without being compelled in some way. [There are] a few conscious allies on the inside, for sure, but I also think it’s about black and brown farmers organizing to take back political power. And that’s happening.