Leah Penniman at the Farming While Black book release at The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy. Photo by Jamel Mosely – Mel eMedia.
After talking with The Collaborative on a brisk December morning at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, its co-founder, sustainable farmer and educator Leah Penniman, will hop on the phone with a sister farm in Vieques, Puerto Rico to go over how to create a land trust. As a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation and stewardship of a piece of land, a land trust can plan an essential role in revitalizing a community after disasters like Hurricane Maria, for example. Penniman will spend the rest of her morning translating the land trust workshop material Soul Fire uses to Spanish for reference. Even when the ground is frozen, her work here keeps her busy.
On top of it all, Penniman published her first book, Farming While Black, in October 2018 and will be heading out on the northeastern portion of her 35-stop book tour from New York City to Washington D.C. this February, followed by an 11-day (in 11 cities) midwest and southeastern stint in May.
The project is a culmination of her 20 years in the field, teaching and working with black and indigenous farmers, attending conferences around the country and working with Soul Fires’s international sister farms in Puerto Rico, Haiti, Ghana and Brazil. Organized as a practical guide to “liberation of the land,” the book not only serves as an informational how-to for sustainable farming but digs into analyzing food injustice, celebrating the black and indigenous community’s spiritual connection to the earth and reconnecting with those ancestral methods which have led agricultural development for thousands of years.
The Collaborative: What inspired you to write this book?
Leah Penniman: Well, the deeper answer to that question is that when I was a teen and started farming, I went to all the conferences, I apprenticed at many farms across the northeast and it was a very white-presenting community. The books that I read and the conference presenters were mostly white men so I had an existential crisis about my belonging in the sustainable farming movement. Of course, that’s not because there aren’t all of these incredible people of color who are farming. In fact, 85 percent of the people who are tilling the land are folks of color and historically most of the important contributions in terms of sustainable agriculture have come out of the black community and indigenous community, but that is a story that’s not often told.
In my 20 years of farming and being involved in this movement, teaching predominantly black and indigenous farmers, we’ve started to unearth a lot of those stories–like George Washington Carver’s contributions to regenerative agriculture and Cleopatra’s contributions to composting. All of these things I wanted to get in one book.
The immediate reason was that all of our programs had such a long waiting list and we don’t want to gatekeep this important information by saying you have to come to Soul Fire to learn these things. So, the book was a way of disseminating and decentralizing a lot of that knowledge.
COL: It’s interesting that so many people want to be here to learn from Soul Fire and are willing to wait. What is that like?
LP: I really believe that we are part of a returning generation of black egrarianists. Our grandparents were part of the great migration and fled the terrorism and racial violence in the south but I believe in doing so we left a little bit of ourselves behind in that soil and this generation is starting to yearn for that and ache for that. It’s not so much that we are creating a demand at Soul Fire, I think that we’re responding to this need that exists in the community, listening very carefully and creating something that is a good match for what people desire.
We have a week-long training program called Black Latinx Farmers Immersion (BLFI), we run six or seven sessions of our immersions in the summer so when I say waiting lists, this is what I’m referring to. The people who want to learn to farm, learn the business skills, the herbalism, all those things and don’t necessarily have access to those in their own communities. We provide it but we’ve also started doing a “train the trainer,” so we have an advanced program for people to come through who want to replicate something like that, so in the future you wouldn’t have to come from California to New York to learn these skills in a culturally relevant way. We’re honored, but we think of ourselves as the micilleum in the forest that connects all the different trees and shares sugars and minerals and information, supports each other. It’s not so much that we want to grow bigger, but we want to disseminate and support these other similar projects on the land.
COL: How long did you spend writing the book? Was there a research period beforehand or did you weave that in as you went along?
LP: In some ways, the book has been writing itself for many years because a lot of it is a reworking of our curriculum and my talks, things I teach. The actual book I wrote in 40 days, which was a super fast clip from the end of October until March on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I had an 8-hour block and I would just bust it out then. It was fast, but it kind of has to be that way in farmer life. Everything is so busy as soon as the ground thaws so I thought, “If I don’t finish this book by the end of March it will never get written.” That was the motivation.
COL: What was that day-to-day process like when you found those free hours?
LP: I had an annotated bibliography, a lot of the concept and notes. I would refer to that and try to pull out a narrative thread. I really like there to be some poetry, some poetic prose to what I’m doing, so I would think about, “What is the anecdote from the story of Soul Fire Farm or the story of this historic land that I can use to weave together these facts?” I tried to bust it out in one flow so it had an arc to it and I would leave blanks for information and go back and fill in. As you know, there’s a lot of editing that goes into it so I had content reviewers both on our farm and other farmers I respect around the country who looked over chapters for me, then Chelsea Green Publishing’s editing and proofreading team had several rounds.
COL: Are there certain points you wanted to make sure to communicate throughout Farming While Black?
LP: The book has three strands one is the practical–as this is “Soul Fire’s Practical Guide to Living on The Land.” The others go through how to acquire land tenure, how to get consent of the spirits of the land to be present there, your business plan and crop planning, soil remediation, seed keeping and running curriculum. It’s all the things we’ve done here and a farms similar to here packaged into a comprehensive and very specific how-to. That’s really important because I think that so many times in social justice work things get really heady, esoteric and theoretical. I believe that all of our projects should be rooted in the practical as well, so what are we actually doing to heal this physical piece of land? What are we doing to serve this specific community? The second strand is about the agrarian brilliance of the black community, starting 10,000 years ago up to the present. I think it’s really important for folks to realize that things like raised beds that we take for granted as ahistorical were actually from the Ovambo people from Namibia, that things like terraces with medicinal herbs come from Haiti. There are all of these sidebars telling about the technologies because it’s very important to give credit where it’s due and for black and brown farmers to feel part of this movement as, “Oh, I’m not starting something new, this is something my ancestors have been doing for thousands of years.” The third strand is the story of Soul Fire, and we share that to demystify the idea that there is some sort of “magic”–well there’s a little bit of magic–but it’s not exceptional it’s just a lot of hard work and a lot of grit. In some ways, anyone is capable of achieving their land-based dreams if they also apply ingenuity and research.
COL: Is this your first book?
LP: I’ve written some things before but not a full book. I did a chapter in a book called Land Justice, was a contributing author for the Cherry Bombe Cookbook with some of our recipes and I’ve written a bunch of articles in national media–mostly in Yes! Magazine. Chelsea Green Publishing actually invited me to write the book based on seeing those articles. And the Yes! Magazine articles came about just from me blogging about stuff.
I’ve also been a teacher since 2002, so I’ve written some articles based on education and I did one on climate change curriculum that was published in the National Science Teacher’s Association Journal. Rethinking Schools published one but I haven’t done a lot on that recently.
COL: In the first few months, Farming While Black was a top selling agriculture book on Amazon for a while. Were you expecting a reception like that so quickly?
LP: I’m a little skeptical of Amazon and those algorithms but I will say that when we released the book at the Black Farmers Conference in Durham, North Carolina at the end of October, it was a totally packed house. People were so excited about the book and we sold out every single copy and people were talking about how Soul Fire Farm had influenced them to farm or to connect with their grandparents who were farming or help them start a cooking program for young people. That meant so much for me, that folks I consider to be that returning generation were saying that Soul Fire and the things that we put out are inspiring them to rekindle a relationship with the land. That’s really deeply meaningful to me. It’s not so much to have a book to sell copies, but to recatalyze this relationship between the black community and the soil–and to encourage folks around the United States to support that reconciliation through reparations and policy change.
COL: You celebrated your book release in November at The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy. What was it like to see the community show up for Soul Fire in that way, around your finished product?
LP: Soul Fire Farm was born out of this community, it wasn’t just like Jonah and I just landed here like, “We’re gonna do this thing, everyone should come along!” We were living in the South End of Albany when we first got here in ‘05 and we were living in this food apartheid neighborhood where we couldn’t get access to fresh vegetables. There was always competition for the community garden plots. Folks were like, “You need to start a farm for the people!” Soul Fire has always been really integrated into the community and that’s really important to us. Every program we have: the youth programs, farmer training programs, reparations work, it all comes out of folks in our neighborhoods saying, “This is what we need you to do.” It’s super affirming that people would come out and be super excited about the book and really feel like it’s our book, not Leah’s book.