Farming’s badly needed ‘Blackstension agent’

Leah Penniman is black and Jewish, a teacher and a farmer, and the author of Farming While Black, a guide for the returning generation of black farmers

01 Jun 2020 | 10:52

You’re the founder and director of Soul Fire Farm outside Albany. Where did the name come from?

The name actually comes from a Lee “Scratch” Perry song called Soulfire. We were polling our community for name ideas, and no one had yet come up with anything that had captured the passion, and also the rootedness and spirit that we thought this project would embody, and while we were lamenting the lack of a name we were listening to this song, and it was clear that that was to be the name.

How did the farm come to be?

Like most things there are many beginnings. The farm officially opened in 2011, at first primarily focused on a farm share, which is a food delivery program by subscription, to predominantly low income people living under food apartheid. The property is 72 acres; we active manage about seven of those in a mixture of forest products, vegetables, fruits, chicken for meat and eggs. But the land, we actually purchased in 2006, and it was just a forest and overgrown field. We spent over four years putting in the driveway, septic, electric, building a home out of straw bale and timber frame, building up the soil which was very degraded, and repairing the forest which was heavily logged. So it was four years before that of working the land without having a public face.

Tell us about your parents.

My wonderful parents: Reverend doctor Adele Smith Penniman is a Haitian black American pastor and activist. My parents were split when I was little. I didn’t get to spend a ton of time with her, but when she was well enough I did, predominantly in the Boston area. I had some urban experiences in my life but I predominantly lived with my dad who is a quiet guitar-playing occasional speech writer, occasional librarian, also activist and lover of the land. He’s a white man, you know, twelfth generation in New England, very working class. We lived in a rural town in central Massachusetts in a working-poor community. I developed a strong relationship with nature as a young person, both because of my dad’s influence but even moreso being one of the only and sometimes the only brown family in that whole town, there was a lot of bullying and violence targeted toward my siblings and I, so in absence of peer connection we sort of turned to nature as our friend and solace growing up.

Why did you decide to call your book Farming While Black instead of, say, Farming While Jewish?

To me, I mean, I’m black. That is my central ethnic and racial identity. It’s completely compatible: I’m also a black Jew, I’m a black Haitian, I’m a black mixed person, I’m a black voodoo practitioner. But none of those things are antithetical to each other. Also, I think that this is the book I needed. When I was a young person going to the NOFA conference, going to these lectures, you know, there weren’t any books in the quote sustainable farming world written by and for black people. There was definitely stuff about being Jewish, about being earth-based, people appropriating indigenous tradition and calling it something else. There was all of that, but there was nothing for us. I think that there was a need in our community.

I like that Toni Morrison quote in your book: If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.

Oh when I found that quote I was already done writing the book and I was like we have to put this quote in!

Who do see as your reader?

Well I really wrote this book for us, meaning the returning generation of black farmers. So people whose grandparents maybe great-grandparents were on the land, the children of the great migration who’ve grown up on concrete and feel that something is missing and are ready to come home to the earth who’s been longing for our bare feet, you know. That’s really the core of the readership, but I tried to write it in such a way that even folks who have been farming for some time and are just interested in understanding black and indigenous agricultural practices and how that informs what maybe they’ve taken for granted as ahistoric, that those folks can read it too. And also committed activists and allies who really want to see equity in the food system, I think there’s something in there for them too. So kind of everyone who cares about the earth and justice, but definitely there’s a lot of “we” and “our” in there, and that’s designed to say, so far most of the books that even reference black farmers are written by white people about our demise, and they use “you” and “them.” This is an “us” book.

You started farming as a teenager?

I was spending the summer with my mom outside of Boston. A flier went up at church about the Food Project. I hadn’t really farmed, that wasn’t very much part of my experience, while being in the woods was; I didn’t cultivate. But I got the job. You know that very first day there was something about the elegant simplicity of the seed and the harvest and feeding my community that was just the antidote that I needed to the swirly confusion of adolescence where everything seemed complex: who am I and do I belong and what’s the meaning of life and all of this? Plant, you know, harvest, and share. I was hooked on gardening. I kept looking at farm jobs after that.

After getting multiple degrees and, along with your husband Jonah, having all this farming experience, you went through the experience of living in a food desert in Albany when your kids were little. Can you talk about the frustrations of not having access to the kind of food you know you want to feed your kids?

I really believed I was done with that. I mean I grew up between poor and working poor, so I was definitely no stranger to hunger and food scarcity, but with my college education and career as a teacher I really expected that that was going to be behind me, and I’d be able to provide my children with healthy, nourishing food. I was temporarily unemployed after my second child was born, so I was receiving WIC – Women, Infants and Children. I had an experience shortly after I moved to Albany of gathering the very restricted items you can get with WIC, like eggs and cereal and things, and having some of them rejected because they were not the right size or the right brand, which held up the line, and having people behind me in the line cursing at me and just be really abusive.

That was a significant experience, and then additionally when we looked around and tried to find a supermarket, farmers market, even a community garden plot, there just wasn’t anything available within our neighborhood. Without a car that meant that we eventually had to join this CSA and walk over two miles with kids in tow to go pick up the vegetables, and that was the only way to access fresh food in our neighborhood. And the cost of the food was almost the same as our rent. So we needless to say, it sort of catalyzed a sense of urgency around taking the skills that both Johan and I had been blessed to acquire as mentees at other people’s farms and put them to use creating a farm for our folks in the south end of Albany. That motivated us to finally start this farm that we had talked about.

You mention that fewer than 1 percent of farms are black-owned in the country. Do you have a sense of whether that number is moving or holding steady?

Well actually, it has gone up. In the most recent USDA census it had gone up a portion of a percentage point. And that’s the first time since that data’s been recorded that there’s been an uptick. It’s been a steady decline since 1910. There’s a lot of debate as to why. The optimist in me is saying all of our efforts, our grass roots efforts to support people of color who want to be farmers are kind of paying off. There are also valid points that are being made about sampling error. Maybe black farmers didn’t want to be registered with USDA, because of the really troublesome relationship that the USDA has had with black farmers, maybe some of that is shifting as the next generation takes the helm.

You taught yourself to slaughter chickens by watching YouTube videos. Can you talk about the process of learning as you go?

Yeah, so my friend was asking me the other day this really insightful question about what I appreciated about growing up working poor, and what was challenging. I think something I appreciated was the sense that I wasn’t entitled to anything, and through hard work anything is possible, so not to assume that because I didn’t know how to do something that I couldn’t then go ahead and do it. This rugged grit, you know. That’s the way we approached this whole project. I think if we waited ‘til we, quote, knew how to do something, nothing would ever have happened. Even building this house: Johan was like, oh I need to wire a house? I’m gonna go watch YouTube for a while and figure it out.

So you built your home with your own hands?

Everything here we built with our own hands. There is nothing here that is somebody else’s doing. I don’t know, I think it’s empowering, to be able to say I have this goal and I’m just going to figure it out, whatever it takes. Not saying it isn’t challenging, we’ve definitely had our moments when we made mistakes and we thought about quitting and going back to an easy life. But we’re too stubborn for that.

I like the advice in the book from civil rights leader Howard Thurman, who says your job is not to “ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” What part of your life makes you feel most alive?

This time of year when my introvert self is totally tired, when I have a chance to go down to jaden lakou [Haitian Creole for “home garden”] and weed and tend to my rue plants and Echinacea plants and apple trees, that makes me feel so, so, so alive. I feel like that’s not the right answer, I should say something about all the people... it’s true though.