Agricultural Hero: Leah Penniman

Agricultural Hero: Leah Penniman

Each week One Earth is proud to feature an environmental activist and hero from around the globe who is working to create a world where humanity and nature can coexist in harmony.

Leah Penniman is a Black Kreyol farmer in South End Albany, New York and a co-founder of Soul Fire Farms which is committed to ending racism and injustice in our food system. She grew up close to nature and inherently loving farming, but as a Black woman she rarely saw people like her in the food and farm space. Fighting against an overpowering narrative that Black people don’t belong on the land because of the recent history of oppression and enslavement tied to that position, she is often heard to say that “some people mistake the scene of the crime with the crime itself.” Her work at Soul Fire farm is changing that narrative that kept pushing her away from the land, to one that connects with the ancestral knowledge of Black and Indigenous people as well as providing the tools for future activist farmers to be successful —emotionally and financially. 

Penninam shares stories with the public that have helped her to relearn history and encourage Black connection to the land. She explains that the origins of vermicomposting, composting using worms, lay with Cleopatra. The Egyptian ruler was so adamant about benefits of worms that  she reputedly ordered that any citizen who harmed a worm could be punished by death. This commitment paid off — a 1949 study by the USDA confirmed that the soil during Cleopatra reign was 10x more fertile than any time before or after her. 

She also highlights the origins of both the community-supported agriculture (CSA) and regenerative agriculture movements. These movements were both originated by Black men — Booker T Whatley and George Washington Carver — blending organic and regenerative food to social justice. One Earth covers CSA more in-depth here.

Image credit: Courtesy of Jamel Mosely

Her work to change the narrative and attract more BIPOC into farming is accompanied by tangible information to help battle tangible discrimination. It is not just a narrative that has pulled BIPOC away from the farm —for decades there have been policies in place that make access to healthy food and land ownership difficult. Redlining, the act of selecting neighborhoods based on the historic race and ethnic makeup of the communities and then systematically denying them public and private resources, has caused a divestment from communities of color. This makes loans for small businesses such as grocery stores or restaurants much harder to get, leading to less access to high quality, healthy food.

In the US over 80% of land labor is done by POC yet only 2% is owned and managed by them, down from a peak of 14%. USDA discrimination in the form of denying loans for land or creating complicated oversight for loans to BIPOC people has dissuaded generations of landowners to sell or stop trying to buy. Those that do have land continue to be given less resources and it’s been found that disaster relief is less likely to be given to BIPOC landowners. Discrimination in the USDA has been so well documented that in 1998 they were forced to admit to their past wrong doings in two class action lawsuits under Pigford v Glickman and Pigford that resulted in the largest civil rights settlement in history with over $2 billion in various payments. These coinciding factors lead Penninam to describe where she and many BIPOC folks live with the now popular term, food apartheid. The synonymous term is food desert, however, Penniman and other food activists state these circumstances are clearly man made — they are not natural, as would be implied by the word desert. 

Leah  Penninam discusses Farming While Black: Uprooting Racism and Seeding Sovereignty at the Bioneers 2020 Conference. 

Soul Fire Farm fights each of these problems through their CSA, their trainings, and by changing the narrative. Soul Fire provides fresh, healthy, and affordable food directly to their community.  They offer a space for culturally relevant, safe learning of farm management and have now had over 10k people go through their various training programs. Some of the farm business management tools and trainings they provide are on loan application, crop planning, and marketing. Leah’s platform through Soul Fire farm has allowed her to spread positive stories of Black and Indigenous connection to the land, reshaping a narrative that uplifts the immense knowledge of BIPOC farmers. Leah Penniman’s work to address the discrimination and show an empowered path forward is deeply inspiring and dramatically impacting the opportunities for BIPOC farmers. 

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